A vital tool for all equestrian instructors is the unpretentious barrel or practice horse. Today the American Vaulting Association has a standardized barrel that is designed for all recognized vaulting events. But the many known benefits of barrel work are far from new, and have never been limited to any single standard or shape.
The barrel is a multi-purpose apparatus for all levels of vaulting and riding instruction and should be an integral part of every vaulting program. The barrel may be the first "horse" on which students are trained. Besides being effective in teaching correct technique and form, barrels are fun! Students often name their mock horses and put tails and other decorations on this essential piece of training equipment. Fun and practicality aside, the invaluable old school barrel continues to serve many purposes in every well-run riding or vaulting program.
There is very little in vaulting that cannot be done first on a barrel. Once moves are mastered on a barrel, they will almost always transfer to a moving horse. Compulsories, freestyle, games and repetitions of drills can be practiced for hours with great results. The total benefit of barrel work is immeasurable at every level of vaulting!
The practice barrel is perfect for every level of vaulting. How you use yours or how many you use will be up to you. The opportunity for fun and productive lessons is infinite. Along with your barrel, trampolines are frequently used at vaulting barrel practice with great results. A stopwatch for timed drills is also very effective during a barrel practice. Vaults on to the barrel can be practiced from both sides, front and back, in order to develop the vaulters' athletic and coordination skills equally. And, of course, musical routines can be taught for enhanced movement and choreography. Barrels are an ideal way to learn and play!
The first documented practice horse was used by Alexander the Great to train his mounted army. Over the centuries many varieties of simulated horses were designed by equestrians to serve as a stationary tool for schooling riders. Our modern vaulting barrel is a close cousin to the gymnastic vaulting horse and pommel horse, developed from the same cavalry need, and then modified over centuries to serve today's contemporary disciplines. The barrel even shares its roots with the beloved rocking horse that was frequently used to introduce riding to the very young.
Throughout history, cavalries worldwide trained on many types of stationary horses. Some models were not even stationary but instead had rockers, wheels or pulleys to simulate the movement of a live horse. Today many military police and cavalry continue to include some form of vaulting training and its related barrel work in their curriculum, while riding clubs the world over also continue the traditional use of wooden horses in their programs. From a western roping horse dummy, to polo pony cages where riders sit on a stationary horse to practice swinging their mallet, the imitation horse remains a valuable tool for equestrians everywhere. The cowboys' mechanical bull even shares the same purpose as our vaulting barrel! Yee Haw!
The list of exercises that can be practiced and performed on a barrel is too long for this article. For riders, leg aids, balanced seat, posture, mounts, dismounts and proper methods of reining and cuing the horse can all be first mastered on the practice horse. For vaulters all compulsory exercises, team and individual freestyle moves can and should be practiced and perfected first on the barrel.
Beyond that, limitless drills and conditioning exercises are a must for every well-rounded vaulting program. The barrel allows vaulters the chance to be creative without risk to the horse as they master and invent new exercises. Barrels in fact inspire creativity, and will be the source of many new ideas that your students will hone for the horse.
Barrel work always enhances the safety of a vaulting or riding program. Barrels should be used during all stages of instruction to ensure proper mechanics and mastery of the correct seat, position of legs, alignment and any new exercises or skill being introduced. When barrels are used, the program will not only be safer but the students will learn faster and more efficiently. Why?
- Barrels make it easy to "spot" and position students during initial stages of training.
- Barrels can be set up with mirrors, providing visual feedback for greater awareness and more effective results.
- Barrels help ensure that students understand the "goal" of each exercise before adding the distraction of the horse.
- Barrels build strength, flexibility, focus, confidence, understanding and more.
- Barrels remove the "motion and emotion factor" that students must adapt to when on the horse, and allow them to focus only on their own body. This makes initial mastery of skills less demanding.
Barrels can be low, (at or near ground level--"pony barrels") AVA standard, tall, or adjustable. Every height has different advantages, so select one that fits the space available and the level of vaulters or riders that you will be training. The AVA standard is a good average for everyday lessons, and it is the size that you will always find at recognized AVA barrel competitions.
Barrels can be narrow or wide. Again this will be determined by the size and physical ability of the students. Small children and some disabled students are better facilitated when using a narrow practice horse, as they may lack the flexibility to stretch around the standard barrel circumference.
Barrels can be stationary or portable. Many trainers prefer to have both. If you plan on using a barrel in your daily lessons, a single permanent barrel will be very handy. They are most often made of wood, plastic, or 55 gallon metal drums. They can be bare (without a cover) for use with saddle or surcingle and appropriate pad, or padded with foam, and covered with a variety of materials such as carpet or canvas.
Whatever the covering, the outside surface material will provide more or less friction. Friction can be adjusted by the choice of the cover materials. Too much friction such as a plush carpet will reduce flight, and too little like a tightly woven canvas can cause slipping. Know your vaulter levels and be alert to the part cover friction will play in their safety and success. As with horse vaulting many instructors also use sticky spray to help reduce slipperiness.
Once you have your barrel or barrels, how do you go about using them most successfully?
- First make certain that the barrel is on perfectly level ground.
- When possible secure it with anchors to ensure that it cannot be tipped. (You can tip waiters and cows, but it's not a good idea to tip a barrel.)
- Surround the barrel with either fluffy footing (sand/shavings) or gymnastic mats, being certain that the footing is soft enough to absorb both planned and unplanned dismounts.
- Place the barrel in an area with adequate clearance from ceilings, rafters, railings and walls. Tall triples or freestyle transitions can take up a lot of space above and around. Dismounts can carry up to ten feet from a barrel, so place the barrel in a clear area at least 20 feet square whenever possible. This allows for freestyles, and fast paced fun drills to be done without danger. It also allows for running approaches up to and over the barrel.
- Place the barrel in an area that will not become a distraction, nuisance or hazard to other riders.
- Pad the barrel and grips with enough foam or carpet to protect the vaulters from impact. Grips are often made of steel, so athletic tape or automobile steering wheel covers provide good protection.
- Whenever possible have mirrors in the barrel area.
Barrels can be designed with grips or without. Though in vaulting permanent grips are the most often seen, both styles have noteworthy benefits. Gripless barrels have the advantage of being able to either have a saddle or surcingle placed on them for schooling students. This personalized approach is ideal for riders and advanced vaulters who are accustomed to a particular style of saddle, grips or Cossack placement.
When using a surcingle or saddle on a barrel, secure it squarely in the center of the barrel by cinching it as tight as possible. D rings attached to your gripless barrel can further anchor your tack. Remember accidents that may result in injury are most commonly associated with equipment shifting. So a stable, level barrel with centered secure equipment helps to guarantee the students progress and welfare.
Practice barrels with permanent grips are always ready for use, requiring no tack. If you have large numbers of students, fixed grips on the barrel reduce wear and tear on your surcingle, by letting the welded permanent grips take the workout rather than costly high maintenance leather.
From ground level pony barrels to models that stand 16 hands high, barrel variety allows instructors and students of all levels many options for their individual needs.
- Barrels can be used when a horse is not available.
- Barrels can be portable or stationary.
- Barrels can be used both indoors and out. (Some vaulting teams even put barrels on flatbeds during parades and use them to show off their vaulting when a horse may not be feasible.)
- Barrels can be padded to meet the specific requirements and environment of the club.
- Barrels can be a variety of heights and widths depending on the students and the facility.
- Barrels can be student owned, allowing practice sessions 24/7. (Yes Mom, it will look good next to your living room sofa!)
- Barrels are perfect for demonstrations and clinics when horses may not be available.
- Barrel use saves the horse from overuse.
- Barrels can be used in any weather.
- Barrels never go sour, bite, kick, buck or colic! Yea! And you don't have to feed or pick up after them either!
Barrels are super for practice and demonstrations, and like horse vaulting, the AVA promotes barrel competitions at all levels, providing opportunities for vaulters to share in the thrill of competition year-round at recognized and unrecognized events. One such class is Two Phase, where vaulters are scored on both horse compulsories to the right and a freestyle barrel routine.
No matter whether you are schooling riders or training international-level vaulters you will find, as centuries of equestrians have before, that a down-to-earth barrel becomes an invaluable piece of equipment at every level for teaching the fundamentals to the fine points of equestrian sport.