Help or Hindrance
Barrel horse trainer Dena Kirkpatrick says staying as centered as possible on a horse, whether loping circles or running a pattern, helps that horse perform to its optimum level.
Imagine running a marathon or jumping hurdles with a 50-pound sack of potatoes strapped to your back. The shifting weight would likely hamper your performance and might even cause injury as you tried to compensate for the burden. Yet many riders ask their horses to turn a barrel, work a cow or lope a circle with little regard for their own position in the saddle. It may be done unknowingly or stem from bad habits, but focusing on riding centered in the saddle makes a difference in every discipline.
With her own horses and in the clinics she teaches, barrel horse trainer Dena Kirkpatrick stresses the importance of the rider’s body position.
“Your core and the horse’s core is where all of our strength comes from,” Kirkpatrick says. “If you’re sitting centered, you have your core in the right place and you’re in a balanced position.”
That position helps a horse perform to its best ability, whether it’s a barrel horse, a reiner or a cow horse, she says.
“If you’re leaning too far forward, your body weight is on the front half of the horse,”
Kirkpatrick explains. “If you sit straight and centered, you’re riding the back half of the horse, where the horse’s drive comes from. The more centered and balanced you are, the less chance of error you have, the less compensating the horse has to do and the smoother everything will happen.”
The Post, Texas, trainer says her stressful days in the practice pen have decreased since she learned to help a horse use its body most effectively.
“I know that if you make it easy for the horse, he’s going to do well,” she says. “That’s what good horsemanship does, and our body position would be in that category. It is either going to benefit the horse’s movement or hinder the horse’s movement.”
Here, Kirkpatrick explains the secrets of proper riding position, and how a rider’s posture and seat affect the way a horse moves.
While a rider’s posture may change depending on the speed of the horse or the maneuver it is performing, starting out with a centered seat is ideal, Kirkpatrick says.
“Running barrels, I have to get forward to accelerate, but when I’m training I never ride a horse’s front end,” she explains. “If you’re riding on a horse’s front end around a barrel, all your weight and all his weight is on his front end, which locks his shoulders. If you lock the horse’s shoulders, his front end is not free to move, his balance is not on his back end, and therefore he can’t get that inside pivot leg under him. Even if he did, he can’t use that leg effectively because all his weight is on his front end. The rider’s body in that position makes it really difficult for the horse to rock his weight onto his back end to make a fast, smooth, one-motion turn.
“Any horse that’s preparing to turn around 180 or 360 degrees should shift his weight to the back end so the front end is free to come around. That’s why your body should be centered and your weight should be balanced on his back end. Then he’ll be able to drive his hind end and his front end will have the freedom to move, and you’ll have a horse that’s free and balanced.”
Kirkpatrick talks about riding with Australian horseman Ian Francis, who has won both the Australian cutting and reining futuries several times. Francis explained that those who ride reined cow horses and reining horses also need to think about staying in the middle of the horse, with their weight focused on the hind end.
“Those guys [riding cow horses] sit centered and deep in their saddles, because if they didn’t their horses couldn’t do their job at all,” she says.
The rider’s position also has a marked effect on how a horse stops, she adds. Getting the horse’s hind end underneath it positions it properly for the stop.
“I’ll talk to people who will say, ‘I don’t know how to teach a horse to stop,’ ” says Kirkpatrick. “It’s usually because they’re riding the front end of the horse, which pushes the horse forward. When the rider pulls back on the reins, the horse’s head is going up and, if he does stop, his front end is going to peg [into the ground]. But if you sit on your pelvis correctly, you can ride that horse’s back end up under him, then take the slack out of the reins. That horse is now properly positioned to stop. Down the road, I’ll use that same position to help the horse turn.”
A rider who sits centered but leans back with his or her shoulders has an unwanted effect on the horse, she points out.
“Moving your shoulders behind your pelvis is not the same as putting your pelvis deep in the saddle and riding your horse up under himself,” Kirkpatrick explains. “If your shoulders get back, you’re behind. Because of gravity, especially at a high speed, you should go with him or you’re going to be a drag on his forward momentum.”
She also notes that seat position affects how much, or how little, a rider does with his or her hands.
“In any discipline, the deeper your seat, the better you sit on the back of your horse and the less your hands have to do,” Kirkpatrick says. “And the less your hands have to do, the less distracted your horse is going to be. There’s less motion from the rider, less stress on the horse, and his movement comes more naturally.”
The centered seat comes from the position of the rider’s pelvis, she says, adding that women have a tendency to tip forward on their pelvis.
“You’re either riding the front end or the back end of the horse; there’s really no middle,” she says. “And you don’t want to get in your horse’s way.”
Leaning to one side, squeezing with your thighs (which tends to push your feet back and your body forward) or dropping your shoulder will directly affect how the horse moves, Kirkpatrick says.
“Our horses mirror us,” she says. “As a clinician, I became very aware of this. Now if I see someone in a clinic cock their head just a little bit, I’m on that like stink on a bug! Because that starts a chain of events in the rider’s spine that makes their horse unbalanced.”
From shoulders to elbows to legs and feet, the rider needs to be aware of how body movement and position affect the horse, she says. For example, if the rider drops his or her shoulder, so will the horse; if the rider’s toes are pointed down, that tends to push the weight forward.
“If your toes are down, you’re probably riding with the front of your pelvis, squeezing with your knees and don’t have good weight in the stirrups,” Kirkpatrick says. “If you get a little forward and squeeze with your thighs, it makes a horse uptight. Then, when you’re trying to stop him, you’re giving him two cues. You’re forward, your feet are a little behind you and you’re gripping with your thighs. You’ve locked the horse’s shoulders, but you’re squeezing, and then he wants to move away from that. Your body position and tension in your legs is causing the horse to be nervous, and then you get into a tug-of-war with your hands.”
Elbow position also affects the horse, she says.
“Your elbows determine what your wrists are doing,”
Kirkpatrick explains. “If your elbows are close to your body, you’re going to be able to keep your horse collected better. With your elbows in, it helps keep your rib cage and your horse’s rib cage in the correct position.”
When running barrels, that rib position, along with shoulder position, affects how a horse turns.
For instance, if a barrel racer is turning left around a barrel, there’s a tendency for the rider to drop his or her left shoulder, causing the horse to do the same. That pushes the horse’s rib cage slightly to the left, and his head slightly to the outside, or right side.
“That’s not conducive to a smooth, perfectly executed turn. A lot of times the horse will have to take an extra stride to get in the correct position.”
Many horsemen who astutely and consistently watch events—from cutting to roping—see similarities from horse to horse with specific trainers. Kirkpatrick says that is a direct result of muscle memory. Whether you teach a horse correctly or incorrectly, it will develop that muscle memory based on its training.
“Often, I can watch a barrel horse’s body and tell you who trained him, because those trainers develop the same muscles in all the horses they ride,” she says. “People used to say that all my horses look alike, and it’s because not only am I attracted to the same type of horse, but I ride them in a way that develops their muscles to make them travel like that. How you ride them is how you develop their muscles in your daily exercise.”
Riding incorrectly—leaning, dropping your shoulders or hindering your horse in other ways—causes a horse to move incorrectly or try to compensate for your errors.
“When you do things repetitiously, if you do them wrong you’re building the wrong kind of muscle memory,” Kirkpatrick says. “If you teach your horse proper muscle memory by using the proper body position, even when you add speed that [muscle memory] will help your horse make fewer mistakes. That’s why body positioning is so important, whether it’s a speed event or not.”
The trainer stresses “perfect practice” at slow speeds to develop proper muscle memory.
“You cannot think of every muscle movement at a high rate of speed and get it right,” she points out. “That’s why slow practice is important. At any speed, my body is going to dictate how the horse’s body is shaped. Even at a walk, a horse can’t go around and around in a perfect circle if he drops his shoulder or steps out with his hip. You have to do everything slowly, keep your horse relaxed, keep your body position correct, and then you can help your horse get his body in the right place.”
About Dena Kirkpatrick
Growing up on a dairy farm in New Mexico, where her grandfather also raised racehorses and her father was a self-taught roper, Dena Kirkpatrick was more familiar with Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses than stock horses. When she married Cliff Kirkpatrick and moved to Post, Texas, 31 years ago, she was exposed to life on a large ranch. Always in search of a better way to train, Kirkpatrick meshed her love of running-bred horses with the ranching lifestyle and began developing barrel horses in and outside of the arena.
Kirkpatrick has won major professional barrel racing titles. She is known as a leading futurity horse trainer, and rode Willy Nick Bar to win all three rounds of the 1997 Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity, a record that still stands. She also has trained multiple National Finals Rodeo horses, including Frosty Feeling, Shesa Shawnee Bug and Sugar Moon Express.
Kirkpatrick teaches clinics throughout the year in the United States, Canada, Australia and Brazil. For information, visit denakirkpatrick.com.
SUSAN MORRISON is managing editor of Western Horseman. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.