March 3, 2017
By Frank J. Buchman
While from the bleachers, barrel racing is a patterned horse race, fastest time wins.
In reality, barrel racing is a horsemanship class all of its own with similarities with reining, Western riding and equitation.
According to Paul Humphrey, "Barrel racing is not a tug-of-war event or changing bits every time you enter the arena. It's about working and teaching the horse how to use its body correctly around the barrel.”
The world-renowned barrel racing champion and trainer elaborated on horsemanship techniques as the barrel racing clinician during the EquiFest of Kansas at the Expocentre in Topeka, Feb. 24-26.
"Turning a horse around a barrel involves the face, shoulders, ribs, hip, hind legs, front legs and the rider's hands, feet, seat and an understanding of how to work the horse's body," Humphrey said.
Known for helping riders and horses overcome problems with the first barrel, Humphrey got his start training reining horses, but his love for speed took him to the barrels.
A 10-time European barrel racing champion, Humphrey presents clinics all over America and the world. He is instrumental in exporting and running top horses in Italy.
Running barrels for four decades, Humphrey got started barrel racing with his mother, Sue, when he was 10 years old.
While training in Italy, Humphrey won every major barrel racing event the country had to offer.
A barrel horse's shoulders strongly affect the completion of the turns, according to Humphrey.
Known for creating barrel horses that are soft and easy to ride, Humphrey attributes much of that to having control over the horse's entire body.
"Many horses don't know how to move their front end," Humphrey said. “The typical barrel racer thinks that moving the front end means moving the horse over.
“What I want is that if I ask the horse to bring its nose, then I want everything to follow,” Humphrey explained. “I want the shoulders to follow and the back end to plant like it’s supposed to. If they don't know how to move the front end, then the back end will move around. If you get the front end to work, then it's easy to get their back end to work."
Humphrey started building the Breaking the Mold program over 10 years ago to bring horsemanship back to the barrel racing sport.
He teaches riders about body control and shows them how a horse that is taught to use their body correctly will be easier to train, be more consistent, and will have fewer issues.
“It’s not about a stronger bit or a stronger hand. It's not about gimmicks and quick fixes,” Humphrey emphasized. “It's about teaching your horse how to give to your hand and leg pressure, move shoulder, ribs and forward motion, all while staying collected. Once you've accomplished this, then you will take those movements to the barrel pattern.
“When your horse understands how to use their body correctly, it makes the training process so much easier,” Humphrey continued. “In order to keep the horse collected and using their body, the rider must understand how to keep the horse going in the right direction, to become soft and consistent and collected.”
With Humphrey's drills, a horse never learns how to drop his shoulder, cheat the barrels, go by the barrel, or any other issues that will cost time and troubles in a run.
These drills were designed to teach the horse to use their body correctly and to never allow them to know any different than the correct way to work the pattern.
“It’s all about true horsemanship and communication. It requires a team,” Humphrey said. “The horse needs to understand their job, and the rider must understand how to prepare for the barrel run.”
Exercises get the horse wanting to work each barrel, and help stop problems such as fading into the first barrel, running by barrels, not collecting before the turn, stepping off, stepping in, not completing the barrel turn, shouldering in and other issues.
“This program is not about fixing problems, it’s about getting rid of them altogether. It will change your thoughts about barrel racing and will make the sport fun for you and your horse. You can ride your horse to their potential without issues,” Humphrey said.
Buchman is a rancher and writer located in the Flint Hills.
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