Softening Exercise for Your Speed Horse

Sherry Cervi offers this simple exercise to help you teach your barrel-racing or speed-event horse to yield to the bit.

In the October 2006 issue of Horse & Rider, I talked about a progression of bits for barrel and speed-event horses. If your barrel-racing horse is bracing against the bit or trying to run through it, try this simple lope/stop/back-up exercise. It’ll teach him to yield softly to bit pressure, rather than resist it, by encouraging him to flex at the poll, lift his shoulders and rock his weight over his hindquarters when he feels your rein cues, just as he’ll have to do to make winning turns.

Tip: Use this exercise everyday to test–and reinforce–your horse’s responsiveness. You can practice it at a walk, trot and lope. (At slower speeds, you can use a snaffle or draw bit.) With time and repetition, he’ll learn that when you sit down and rock your weight back, that’s his cue to lift his shoulders and sit down, too. Such practice will pay off at the barrel pattern.


1. Establish a right-lead lope. Guide your horse down the straight side of your work area. Take a feel of his mouth and gauge his response. Does he instantly soften in your hands, lift his shoulders and rock his weight to his hindquarters? If so, reverse directions and test his response on the left lead.

If, however, he reacts as my horse is here, by raising his head and bracing against your hand (you’ll feel increased pressure against the reins)…


2. …stop him, using the same cue you’d use to rate at a barrel: Sit down, lean your shoulders slightly back, and lightly pull on both reins. When you do, you want your horse to compress his body against the bit pressure like a Slinky toy, elevating his shoulders as he rounds his back and sinks over his hocks–the opposite of what my horse is doing here.

He’s continuing to resist the bit (and me), by flinging his head up, bracing his jaw and hollowing his back. A negative reaction like this is a sure sign of how he’ll respond going into a barrel with speed and should be corrected before going to the pattern. If your horse does this…
3. …immediately see-saw your rein pressure and squeeze lightly with your feet to ask him to back up. The see-saw pressure will help melt the resistance in his jaw, by not giving him a solid bit-barrier to brace against. Your foot aids will encourage him to lift his shoulders and soften.

Compare my horse’s body configuration to that in the previous photo. Even though his head is still in the air, he’s beginning to soften his jaw in response to my light see-saw pressure. And look at how his shoulders are lifting!

4. His resistance continues to melt, as indicated by the lowering of his head and neck and by the release of pressure against my hands. To reward his response, I soften my cues, easing my rein pressure…

5. …and he responds by softening his face even more. I’ll back another five to eight steps, then test him in the opposite direction. This level of responsiveness is your end goal, and this exercise will help you get it.

Team Horse & Rider member Sherry Cervi joined the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1986 at the age of 12. Since then, she’s raced to two world champion titles, in 1995 and 1999, and has qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo 10 times.

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