What does it mean to be collected? In my mind, being collected means the horse is balanced, using his hind end, forehand and ribs to propel himself forward, backward or in a turn. I also like to see them break over at the poll. In order to achieve collection one must be able to control the ribs, hip, shoulder and face/head. I see a lot of barrel horses that have zero idea of how to move collected. I don’t want to focus on this topic. What I want to focus on is how to achieve collection and why it is important for a barrel horse to be able to move collected before they ever begin their career as a barrel horse.
The horse in the photo is my horse “Zbar Lynx To Cash”. Lynx is 15.3 hands tall. He weighs around 1380# and is long necked and long bodied. However, when this horse makes a run, he turns so tight that we can rim a barrel and leave it standing. He turns like a cutter! Some would say that this horse needs more pocket due to his size. Not true. He can turn on a dime! Why? Because he is collected! When we ride at home, we always ride collected. I do this using a smooth snaffle and draw reins. Some may be appalled that I use draw reins on my horse but it is a trainer’s gadget that I love! I also have been known to use a German martingale or a training fork. The idea is to have a downward pull on the reins that asks the horse to lower his head and break over at the poll. We DO NOT run in these devices or a tie down. You see, once they learn collection, it’s all muscle memory in a run (same for the rider, but that is another post). When I am riding Lynx at home, we work on getting full extension at the trot but without having our nose stuck up or out. What happens when their nose is up or out? Well, they hollow out in their back. This allows them to bypass the whole strengthening of the top line muscles. So I will start with the head. This horse is super light in his face. You can use two fingers on the rein and he will roll up. Once he breaks over at the poll, then we can focus on moving forward. As a rider, you should be able to control the shoulder, hip and rib cage while in the saddle.
Why do I want to be able to control the shoulder? Well, have you ever seen a barrel horse that drops his shoulder in a turn? 9 out of 10 times, the “shoulder drop” will cause a knocked down barrel or will cause them to go past the barrel. They can’t physically bend their body when their shoulder is dropped. So by riding correctly at home and working on keeping the shoulder up will help your horse to bend and flex around the barrel. I do a lot of counter arches to help my horse achieve this goal. Counter arches are literally the lifting of the shoulder and asking the horse to travel at an angle. Collected. You cannot properly achieve a counter arch without being collected. You must also be able to lift the ribs and move their hip to counter arch. If I were to counter arch my horse, at a lope, to the right, I would start by loping a circle counter clockwise. I would make sure he is collected, broken at the poll, lifting his shoulder, hip and ribs and be flexed around my left foot. Then I would raise my left hand up applying pressure to the left side of the big while adding leg pressure to the left side just behind the girth. This would tell him to move to the right. It is easier for me to show than to write. By. Teaching my horse this simple movement, I obtain control of his body while moving forward. Say you are going into the second barrel and you notice you don’t have enough pocket. Instead of pulling on the outside rein, thus causing the horse to drop his shoulder into the turn, I would simply pick up the inside rein and counter arch him away from the barrel while maintaining his up right shoulder and keeping his nose flexed into the turn. You don’t want to pull on the outside because it will throw off the balance of the turn.
Next time you are at a barrel race, watch the horses. Watch the riders that pull on the outside rein. See how the horse reacts. If you keep watching, you will notice that 9/10 will drop their shoulder, loose forward momentum and might hit the barrel even though the rider was attempting to move them away from the barrel. For me, I feel it is much more productive to counter arch away from the barrel. The shoulder will stay up. The body will still be rounded out for the turn. You will not loose your forward momentum.
This is a long post and one that I have so much more to add too, however, I feel that I need to do this is sections! So I will end today’s post with this….go try to counter arch. Put some barrels up and see how it feels to counter arch away from the barrel vs pulling on the outside rein. Watch the races. Pay attention to how the rider reacts and how the horse responds. You can never learn too much!