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Five Keys to Consistency – Create Dependable Focus, Responsiveness and RESULTS!

Five Keys to Consistency – How to Create Dependable Focus, Responsiveness and RESULTS!

The epidemic of micromanagement in the horse world is something I’ve touched on a few times here at BarrelRacingTips.com.

But there’s another dangerous destroyer of barrel racing dreams lurking in the timed speed event world.

It’s the crazy-making cycle that occurs between responsiveness and reactivity that we all too common get stuck in.

For many years, everything in the way I’d been developing my horses looked great, way above average you could say.

But on the inside I was frustrated and on the outside, I wasn’t clocking as consistently as I would have liked.

After a few consecutive light bulb moments, I discovered a missing link.

But it’s not just MY missing link. It’s very likely yours too.

This is what it looks like…

You do your part to instill a solid education in your horse, and he KNOWS his job.

But sometimes, he’s a little late (or even early) in responding. Basically, you’re not in sync.

This might be demonstrated in the form of blowing past the first barrel, pushing into pressure at the gate, dropping into the second barrel, or being distracted and emotional in the warm up pen, etc.

You feel these things happening and they distance you from the wins you’re after. They distract you from the task at hand, often requiring a correction, only to create a temporary improvement. When you do correct the problem, you sometimes even over-correct, OR create another issue entirely.

Weeks later the same cycle repeats itself. You wonder – WHY can’t your horse just learn something and retain it? Why do you feel like a broken record? WHY do you repeatedly have to do more, while your horse does less (OR too much)?

There are a few reasons for this crazy-making cycle, which I’ve explained below.

For each of the causes I’ve explained is also a solution, shared to help you become more aware and especially – break out of this barrel racing rut for good!

Teach your horse that there is meaning behind the release of pressure.
One of the main ways to stop chasing your tail is to stop chasing your horse!

In most cases when we apply pressure to our horses, with our leg for example, the objective is for them to yield away from that pressure. Even if you’ve developed your horse to understand that there can be a variety of meanings behind different applications of leg pressure (go sideways, turn, bend, etc.), it’s probably not unusual (whether on the ground or in the saddle) for you to use subtle pressure to yield your horse’s body away and when you stop the pressure, he keeps going.

It would be accurate to say that most timed speed event horses are “running away” from pressure – even at a walk. It’s important that we use pressure, and especially the release of it to have genuine two way conversations, instead of just “yee haw!” and the horse gets gone.

Remember that the release of pressure must have meaning also.

If we ask our horse to go and use our energy and then leg to do that, but they don’t mentally check in or come back to us when we take that leg off or lower the life in our body, our horse is a runaway – no matter how fast we’re going. When your horse can respond quickly, even at speed and still stay mentally connected with you – THAT is when he’s going to be able to switch gears in an instant to crank a barrel, stop on a dime, or shape his body just right when it counts!

For more on this topic, you’ll enjoy How to Use Body Language for Whoa and Go.

Learn how to inspire a response instead of a reaction.
There are three basic reasons for a horse to be unresponsive – either they don’t have the desire (they “won’t” respond), or they’re so insecure and unsure that they’re locked up mentally and “can’t” respond, and lastly they simply have not been properly educated to respond appropriately. The first two reasons are emotional problems – the unresponsiveness is related to how your horse FEELS, the third cause is related to what your horse KNOWS (or doesn’t know,) but ALL THREE are our responsibility to understand, recognize and address.

In barrel racing and many other events our horses quite simply HAVE TO RESPOND – NOW. So we often get in the habit of making it happen. And if whatever we want doesn’t happen in good time, we deliver a little “extra motivation” – sometimes more than necessary out of necessity or frustration, causing even innately confident and laid back horses to get emotional and reactive.

A responsive horse has a dialogue with you, they respond just right and in good time, while a reactive horse squirts off mindlessly, does too much or doesn’t mentally come back to you. The key to correcting this issue is to do less sooner instead of more later. We have to intentionally take advantage of every single opportunity in “get to” (training) situations in order to prepare our horses to respond well in “got to” (competitive) environments.

If your horse is more reactive than responsive, check out Your Arena-Side Guide to Developing a Winning Barrel Horse.

Recognize and reward true connection.
Another epidemic of mass proportions in the horse world is the “robotic trick horse” – one that’s been trained physically to go through the motions obediently and without objection. They may seem on the surface to do everything right. But when you’re ready to shave that last ½ second off your times, you’re likely to start an intense search for that missing link, and true connection is quite possibly IT!

I’m finding that mental connection in horses is easier to recognize on the ground because you can more easily see your horse’s eyes. They are the window to his soul after all, and have a lot to tell you about where his mind is! The way a horse carries his body when performing ground work tells me a lot as well. For example, if I’m lunging my horse and his head is tipped slightly to the outside of the circle, or if he tends to cross fire at a lope, his body is most not likely flexed toward me because his mind is somewhere else.

The better I develop REAL connection on the ground, the better it enables me to develop, find and feel it under saddle. Let me tell you, true, consistent connection is rare but when you understand, recognize and reward it – it will transform you and your horse’s life exponentially.

In some cases, it’s very obvious when a horse is not mentally connected to us, but just remember, we’re ALL guilty of being “robot trainers” at one time or another, and it’s quite possible that your horse can do his job relatively well without being connected – but he will always do it even better when he is!

It’s certainly a worthwhile state of mind to pursue. To learn more about how to recognize and establish TRUE connection, you’ll enjoy The Naked Truth – Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)Man.

Develop rock solid emotional fitness under ALL circumstances.
Let’s say your horse didn’t respond in the right way at the right time and you’re NOT happy! I get it. We put so much time, effort and expense into competing and when our horse doesn’t hold up their end of the deal, it’s insanely frustrating!

But wait a minute – who’s really responsible when our horse “fails us” in certain ways, big or small? Horses come in all different levels of innate athletic talent and ability no doubt, but when it comes to consistency and responsiveness there’s only one individual at fault – the one who’s been sitting in the saddle. It’s OUR responsibility to teach horses theirs.

We have to give our horse’s motivation to stay connected to us mentally and respond physically in the right ways at the right time. Sometimes that motivation comes in some form of discomfort. We need to make the desirable thing the “warm fuzzy” comfort zone and the wrong thing the less appealing option.

However, a sharp jerk on the reins or an extra hard roll of a spur delivered with emotion doesn’t generate responsiveness. You’ll get a result no doubt, but is more likely to be a reaction instead of a response – and behind that reactivity will be fear or resentment.

Essentially, when you haven’t done YOUR part to prepare your horse and when you’re not fair in delivering consequences for your horses inappropriate choices, you cause your horse to lose the desire to connect with you, please you and search for the right answer, and instead create a desire in them to avoid you, AND doing what you ask all together.

There’s no doubt a time and place to be firm. If you have to be firm a lot, you’re not being effective. In any and all circumstances though, firmness must be delivered with fairness in phases of increasing pressure (fast OR slow depending on what stage of learning your horse is at) – and absolutely NO emotion attached!

Click here for a one-of-a-kind resource for becoming a more emotionally fit competitor.

Hold yourself accountable for being more consistent.
For years now I’ve had an inkling that if I were just more even keeled and consistent that my horse would be also. But then I’d wrestle with this concept, thinking to myself “Well I AM pretty darn consistent!”

When we face a challenge, it’s always nice to think that MAYBE we’re not really to blame, but we always contribute in some way, shape or form. I’ve realized in the last year or so that one of the biggest obstacles in the way of my own consistency has been my life outside of the arena.

When you’re always in a hurry, you overlook things. Your horse might push a little here, pull a little there, and you may respond with emotion (see above), or just ignore certain incidents (that really should be dealt with) and move on, after all – you’re probably in a hurry, right?

The more I simplify my personal life, the more present I’m able to BE with my horses. I have more patience and am able to spend more time on the little seemingly insignificant things that really DO translate to the barrel pen.

For example, Pistol LOVES his food. He’s had a physically demanding summer, so I’ve been using ice boots and red lighting him daily to keep him feeling great. Because I usually find myself short on time, I had been just entering his pen and making a bee line to his legs to put on his boots. Most times he stands still, but in other instances he just disregards me and walks over to his hay. Not that he walks over me, but he just blows me off while I’m putting his ice boots on. He’s not totally rude about it, but he’s certainly not being respectful either!

These little interactions matter. How can I expect Pistol to be with me and ready to rock and roll sometimes, but let him give me the equine equivalent of the middle finger at others? Horses thrive on consistency and it’s our job to set guidelines for their behavior and how we expect them to respond. Not just sometimes or under some circumstances, but always.

I’m starting to take the time to teach him to stand completely still and respectfully away from his food when I’m doctoring him – halter or no halter, and I know that defining and strengthening these guidelines will generate greater respect and responsiveness from him across the board.

If you want to BE the kind of person that brings out the very best in your horses, you may be ready for even more barrel racing breakthroughs!

In addition to these five keys for greater consistency, it’s critical that we retrace our steps to connect the dots and consider the steps we took that led to our results, good or bad.

When we get our magnifying glass out and take personal responsibility, we often find that the little things really do add up and translate to our success in competition. The seemingly insignificant details that are so easy to overlook have everything to do with our final results.

We get our of our horses what we put in to them. Everything about them is a reflection of us.

If we humble ourselves and commit to learning and improving ourselves, in time we can create an even more beautiful (and FAST) picture.

In a world full of ups, downs and unknowns, you really can develop your horses to be solid, dependable and trustworthy without question, and that’s a great thing to have when you head down the alley.

Here’s wishing you solid and consistently FAST runs!

In the comments below, tell me YOUR experiences (challenges OR success) on the subject of consistency!

STOP the Drop – STAND UP for Powerful Positioning and Efficient Turns!

STOP the Drop - STAND UP for Powerful Positioning and Efficient Turns!

If you’ve been following the action at BarrelRacingTips.com for a while, you know that I often stress the importance of instilling an education in horses that allows us to move their body anywhere, at any time.

We must have a high degree of understanding, communication and responsiveness to have influence over our horse’s body position at speed especially.

Although some barrel racers don’t want their horses too bendy and “gumby-like,” what’s most likely happening in these cases is that the horse is not taking responsibility for staying perfectly on track – causing a need for the rider to micromanage the horse through the turns.

Take a stand against dropped shoulders!
Take a stand against dropped shoulders!

A horse can only over-bend when there’s something to bend against – a pull from the riders hands, which is necessary when a horse’s MIND isn’t committed to the correct path, or the horse isn’t taking responsibility for correct posture.

A flexible, supple horse is a actually a great thing to have at speed, but only if they are “independent” on the pattern and educated to understand how to respond appropriately to any subtle guidance we may need to offer.

When it comes to the subject of flexion through the body, all the importance we place on bend and time we spend on over-exaggerating it is done in an effort to counteract the tendency for barrel horses to “drop in,” get stiff, resistant and/or “inside out” (shaped with their body in the opposite curve of the barrel).

MOST horses (Martha being an exception) don’t curl around a barrel like a snake. In fact for most horses, that extreme style of turning isn’t just awkward – it’s darn near impossible.

Truth be told, even after ALL the focus spent on getting shape and bend, in a run most horses bodies are relatively straight with the hind quarters actually a hair to the outside in a turn.

Even though this is our end reality, if we don’t teach, instill and emphasize bend, shape, flexion and suppleness through the body we can risk losing the hindquarters too far to the outside, among other problems.

One reason I stress quality movement in general is that getting a horse forward and collected helps keep them “under themselves” and less likely to drop a shoulder, tip a barrel, fall down, or fling out a hip in a run.

Do you have balance, even in challenging circumstances?
Do you have balance, even in challenging circumstances?

A horse that is truly balanced and forward is NOT leaning to one side OR on the forehand. His weight is balanced squarely over his feet.

But hust as important as moving with a proper forward, subtle arc – is teaching our horses to move perfectly STRAIGHT.

Seems simple enough, but how straight IS YOUR straight?

This is where we have to amp up our awareness, pay close attention, and ask – is our horse drifting off the path we’re asking them to go?

Are their shoulders, rib cage or hips leading, leaning, bulging, bumping and/or falling out – even subtly?

Next time you saddle up, test yourself with the “Point to Point” exercise I explained in Help for a Horse that Fights the First Barrel.

My challenge for you is to REALLY FEEL just how straight and forward your horse is, and how well he maintains these qualities (even on a circle).

Straight should be like our horse’s “neutral” and balanced impulsion (quality FORWARD movement) plays a BIG part in determining how straight you’ll be.

Remember that teaching your horse to travel straight is every bit as important as teaching them to travel with and maintain bend, and is a critical part of putting a stop to the “dropped shoulder” for good!

Essentially, straightness is what centers the hindquarters under our horses, giving their athletic maneuvers (and turns) POWER and SPEED.

Is your horse responsible for quality movement?
Is your horse responsible for quality movement?

Keep in mind that it’s our horse’s responsibility to maintain direction and maintain gait.

If our horses aren’t upholding these foundational responsibilities, being particular about how they shape their bodies and balance their weight is a futile effort.

Even with all the focus we place on quality circles, if we trot across the arena with our focus on an end point, it’s critical that the horse maintain that straight movement with rhythm until we ask for something else – AND maintain subtle flexion and gait on a circle without micromanagement as long as our body language suggests they do so.

For example, I might use my FOCUS, energy, eyes and torso to turn slightly in the direction I want to go, with a subtle leg suggestion, and if my horse doesn’t, only then will I bring in the reins. I don’t use them to direct my horse, I use them if my horse doesn’t follow the initial subtle instructions from my body language.

Once this becomes habit it all happens in a split second, and when we train ourselves in this way our horses will be able to respond even more quickly and smoothly.

Once I’m headed where I want to go – say on a circle for example, rather than HOLD my horse on that circle with the reins, I’ll just maintain my focus and body position which communicates to my horse “stay on this circle.”

If a horse leans into that circle, instead of picking them up with a rein over the neck or counter arcing, instantly “stand up” your horse up instead by hustling them off in a straight line in the opposite direction they are falling in.

Stop the drop!
Stop the drop!

Essentially, you’ll be making a stop sign shape if your horse wants to fall in the circle or drop their shoulder repeatedly. It should be more work to drop in and hustle away repeatedly then it is to just maintain balance on the circle. The degree of the angle you hustle off in is based on how extremely the horse is leaning in (your circle might not look anything like a stop sign at first).

This is effective because horses feet (and therefore their bodies) go where they are thinking about going.

If a horse is thinking about anticipating the circle getting smaller, if they are thinking about doing as little as possible – it’s inevitable that their body will follow by dropping and and/or getting heavy on the forehand.

We can do the work of “picking up the shoulder” for them, but then they tend to fall right back in. We can get even more firm, but this often only makes horses defensive, resentful or even fearful, anxious and tense.

The key is in getting the horse to stop THINKING about dropping in.

By using the “stop sign” exercise the split second they lean, we’re changing the subject and changing where their feet are falling. We’re taking away that over anticipation so that our horses won’t be thinking quite so much about digging into that circle.

Another tip for creating balanced posture on a circle is to experiment with shifting how much weight you put in each stirrup. Typically a horse will step under the side that is more weighted, making it logical to weight the outside stirrup more on a horse that leans in.

Use your weight to communicate.
Use your weight to communicate.

Some folks prefer to discourage leaning by leaning even more to the inside to motivate the horse to “stand up” – play with it and see what YOU feel! As you do, also be sure that you’re staying relaxed in your body and not tensing up when your horse leans.

It can be helpful as well to just let the simple act of loping A LOT of circles do the work for you. The longer your horse lopes, the more he’ll realize the importance of carrying himself well. A horse can’t maintain imbalanced posture for long periods and they’ll often find more balance on their own if motivated to do so with enough time spent loping circles (a rest reward is in order when they finally do!).

This way of going about it makes it the easy choice for the horse. It’s another way of using psychology to get the horse to choose to do what we have in mind.

I also have a couple tricks up my sleeve for using a little rein contact to create even more advanced, round, collected movement on a circle – but I’ll save those for another time (or another book, or a video coaching session)!

If you’re looking for even more effective strategies for resolving this issue, you’ll also get a lot out of the exercises in Your Arena-side Guide for Developing a Winning Barrel Horse

The bottom line is that of you can get into your horses brain, you’ll have the keys to getting their body to do whatever you want, when, and how you want to do it.

No amount of drilling, micromanaging, or correcting can create what a solid education established with psychology can. When you add this to the mix, you can stop babysitting because you’ll have opened a door to solving problems permanently (AND you’ll have a much more happy, enthusiastic horse!).

Where the mind goes, the feet will follow.
Where the mind goes, the feet will follow.

All of this requires a perspective shift, but I encourage you to ride smart, so you and your horse can create better results without having to WORK so hard!

In the process, when you make “balanced” the new default, you’ll find that you won’t be required to continuously chase body parts around and make constant positioning corrections.

I hope these insights will help YOU “take a stand” and put an end to leaning and shouldering in the turns for good.

Now, I’d love to hear your experiences, success and challenges with “stopping the drop” in the comments below!

Also enjoy these additional resources…

How to Create Quicker PHYSICAL Responsiveness through Deeper MENTAL Connection

How to Create Quicker PHYSICAL Responsiveness through Deeper MENTAL ConnectionPhotos by Sarah Brummer

There’s an problem of epidemic proportions in the timed speed event world.

All because of this little thing called “connection.”

It’s what winning runs are made of.

Connection (lack of it, specifically) is so often what stands between shaving that last half second off… or NOT clocking, yet again.

It’s no surprise that an understanding of true connection, and HOW to create it goes under the radar.

Two years ago, in “Get Connected to Shave Time Off the Clock,” I started sharing insight on this subject, as well as three exercises for getting on the same page with your horse.

Like the layers of an onion, true dedication to never ending self-development means that I’ve taken my understandings in this area even deeper since then.

First, let’s consider that in the timed speed event world especially, we’re all on a strict, unforgiving timeline.

From the beginning of our young horse’s development, we’re already thinking about how to get things done – FAST.

With the end in mind, we either don’t know, or simply forget to use our energy and focus – to offer a horse a FEEL, to set it up and wait.

When we fail to do this, we fall into a rut of drilling instead of teaching.

In the process we end up training our horse’s bodies without really training their minds.


Beware the illusion of connection.

As a result, horses learn to go through the motions, to be obedient, to stay within the boundaries we set for them, to have the “look” of a high caliber performance horse… but eventually, when when we keep missing the mark even after doing so many things “right,” we start a desperate search for what’s missing.

If you’re anything like me, you look to yourself first.

After many wrong turns and false hopes, what I’ve discovered is that that in many cases, what’s really missing is that we neglect to train and condition our horses mentally.

To further clarity, I’d like to describe the difference between a concept I’ve been introduced to called “get to” and “got to.” When you’re training at home and can take your sweet time, you’re in a “get to” situation. When you need to safely maneuver through a tight alleyway at a rodeo where there are horses crammed like sardines, you’re in a “got to” situation – there’s no question your horse HAS to respond appropriately and quickly.

What happens on the road and in the timed speed event world is that just about everything we do with our horses seems to turn into a “got to” situation, whether it REALLY is or not. In so many instances, our horses have to DO IT NOW, so we naturally become very autocratic in our communication with them.

When we don’t allow a horse time to really think through what we present, and learn it for himself, he essentially becomes a very finely tuned robot. We end up having one way conversations – monologues instead of dialogues. The horse may be responding in the correct way, but mentally he’s checked out.

The difference is so subtle that it’s barely noticeable but it can be the difference that makes the difference on the barrel pattern.

Essentially, a lack of connection will slow you down, even if ever so slightly.

It’s important to realize that many horses have been trained in a way that they respond almost perfectly even with very little mental engagement. If a rider doesn’t understand the value of mental connection, and how to recognize and reward it, then its even less likely to exist consistently.

The reason I feel I can write with such great understanding on this subject, is like many timed speed event competitors, I had spent over a quarter of a century being an excellent “robot trainer.”

But I want to be the very best, so it’s opened me up to considering what’s necessary to close the gap at the highest levels of competition.

To better understand the very subtle symptoms of a lack of connection and how to restore it, first consider these three ingredients…

Our horses must be CALM, CONNECTED and RESPONSIVE.

Now, as an example, let’s consider my husband’s innately insecure rope horse, Dot Com. It’s difficult for him to be in a connected, positive learning frame of mind until he’s calm – that’s the first priority.


Body language is universal.

Once calmness is established and he can think, two way communication flows and he is responsive rather than reactive.

On the other extreme is my innately confident, laid back barrel horse gelding, Pistol. He’s already calm and so to achieve true connection, I must have responsiveness. But again, this isn’t necessarily a matter of barking orders at him.

To “feel together” with my horse I must feel OF and FOR him. This means that before I get firm to create responsiveness that I must do my part which is to always first make a request with my intention, energy and focus.

Even if only a split second passes between the intention and the firm reinforcement, if I fail to first ask softly and help him “prepare the position for the transition” then I have not been fair to him.

If I were to skip this step, I would tend to create resentment and even less desire for connection in laid back horses like Pistol, and fear, reactivity and impulsiveness in more sensitive and insecure horses like Dot Com.

Without authentic, real-time mental connection, we loose quality, quickness and power. And we all know we can’t afford to lose any of that in a run!

The symptoms of lack of connection in Pistol specifically show up as microscopic delays in responsiveness in our every day riding. If I park him next to other horses for a few minutes, and am really aware – I’ll notice that he’s sluggish to walk off when I raise my energy.

He also tends to get “the drothers,” (he’d rather be over here, or he’d rather be over there) meaning he has his own mental agenda but is very subtle and sneaky about demonstrating it, which he does by veering off track ever so slightly when I ask him to travel straight from point A to point B.

But I refuse to micromanage him any longer and I refuse to use a lot of leg when he has the potential to be so much more tuned in and responsive.

Horses are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, but they won’t deliver until we play our own cards right.

It’s not so much about HIM as it is ME.

I’ve realized that he had developed a habit of “escaping” through holes in my FOCUS.

How many of US are truly connected with our horses – how often are WE riding like robots, just going through the motions – physically present while our mind is elsewhere?

We can’t expect our horses to connect with us if we drop the connection with them first.

In some instances, signs of this disconnection are obvious, for example when a horse is very distracted and unresponsive. But it takes a very keen eye to see and feel where a horse is truly at mentally, especially when they are obedient and doing everything correctly with their body.

The first place I refer to is the horses eyes and ears. On the ground, a horse might tip their head to the outside of the round pen or circle. If they are looking somewhere else, you can bet they are thinking about being somewhere else as well.

But a horse can even have their nose tipped in, one ear on you and STILL not be connected. I’ve noticed sometimes that only the inside eye will be looking elsewhere while the body gives the illusion of connection.

Sometimes it’s so subtle. Dot Com for example can be in another mental place entirely without ever putting tension in the rope or rein.

Lately for Pistol, I’ve realized that I need to take an even greater “quality over quantity” approach, meaning that if it’s hard for ME to stay completely mentally engaged for a long period, then I need to commit to strengthening my own ability to stay mentally engaged,then I shouldn’t be riding for a long period.

B
Reward a positive state of mind.

I’m also conscious to give Pistol comfort and relief when he’s done well (because we BOTH need a mental break!). This also means that I no longer only reward him for performing a task well, but for the way he performed it – if it was in a positive, connected, responsive mental state, I’ll reward that, even if the task itself wasn’t perfect yet – it’s a great way to preserve his try and motivate him to stay connected.

Just last week I had an opportunity to “connect” with cattle in a cutting environment. The goal wasn’t to ram and jam the horses around, but to simply walk through the herd and have them make initial contact with a cow. I didn’t just march Pistol’s body into the vicinity of a cow, but I actually rewarded his mental connection with one, which was obvious when he reached forward for a sniff. A horse’s eyes and ears always tell you a lot about where their mind is.

Do you see the difference?

I could make his body move a cow around, or I could offer him relief for mentally connecting with a cow and allow time for him to really understand that it’s a positive place to be. We have so much control over how our horse’s feel about their job, but it’s not likely to be good if we just go out and bang body parts around.

The same idea applies to the barrel pattern. Without holding them on track, you can make it uncomfortable to veer off the pattern, and offer comfort ON the pattern, while still requiring that they remain 51% connected to you and 49% connected to the pattern – which ensures they’ll allow you to help them with positioning in a run if needed.

Bringing out the best in barrel horses physically means that we must meet them at their level and become more intense mentally ourselves. It requires strong focus and will power to make our requests clear, concise and consistent.

There’s no more grey area for Pistol and I – no more half hearted, semi-slow responses from him, and no more micromanaging from me.

As a laid back kind of guy, he’s typically looking for an opportunity to do less. This doesn’t rule Pistol out as a performance horse, but it does make it necessary for me to employ strategies that go much deeper than just wailing on him to make him go.

While he does have to GO, he’ll do so with even more quickness, speed and power IF it’s for the right reasons.

I’ll be honest – making horses do things is easy.

We ALL have plenty of experience with that, and we can achieve some level of success with it. It’s what the majority of timed speed event folks do.

But I want more, and I hope you do to.

I want more achievements in the barrel pen, and I want even higher level understanding and communication with my horses.

Remember that without calmness and responsiveness you won’t have connection, and without connection you won’t have calmness and responsiveness.

Connection is about awareness, being present in the moment, and riding and operating with FEEL and fairness.

It’s quite simply the key to explosive speed and empowered, happy horses – and who doesn’t want that?

I hope what I’ve shared today about why connection is so rare, why it’s so important, how to recognize it, and restore it, will be helpful in your quest for barrel racing excellence!

In the comments below, I’d love to hear your two cents OR questions on the subject of connected barrel horses!

In addition, enjoy the resources below for further deepening you and your horse’s mental connection.

Six Reasons Why Natural Hoof Care (AND Shoeing) Doesn’t Work

Six Reasons Why Natural Hoof Care (AND Shoeing) Doesn't Work

In today’s article, I’ll be sharing my two cents on what has become somewhat of a controversial issue in the barrel horse and performance world. Before I begin, I’ll say that it’s not my goal to specifically determine what’s best for you and your horses but to share what I’ve learned as licensed Vet. Tech., a long time barrel racer, and a natural trimmer for over eight years.

My education in this area began at a young age. Barefoot horses suited my needs as a youngster, and with corrective trimming even my foundered rescue pony was brought back to complete health.

Taking matters into my own hands
Taking matters into my own hands

Many years later when my horses were shod (mainly for protection from rocky trails in the Big Horn Mountains), soundness issues started coming up. This also happened to be when the natural hoof care movement was gaining steam. After quite a bit of research backed by my already existing education, I decided to be my horse’s advocate, and took matters (and a rasp) into my own hands.

I restored my horses to soundness and continued to learn, trim and compete barefoot for many years with great success. I appreciated how effective natural hoof care was for completely eliminating cracks, chips, flares, and for supporting and maintaining truly healthy feet from the inside out.

After all, even most farriers will say that one of the most damaging things you can do to a foot is nail a shoe to it. It makes sense – the lack of circulation, limited weight bearing surface, the ridged metal that restricts expansion (which can contribute to wear and tear throughout the rest of the body), the potential for contracted heels, etc.

Cadaver leg
Exploring internal structures by dissecting a cadaver
leg at a trimming clinic (edited due to graphic content)

Going “natural” just made sense to me, and if you love your horses, and want to do what’s best for their overall health, AND if you REALLY research and understand the anatomy and function of the equine foot and how the health of the whole horse depends on the health of the feet, you’re likely to agree with many of the philosophies surrounding natural hoof care as well.

On the other hand, there are certain reasons natural trimming doesn’t work for some people. I say people, because for the most part, that’s where much of the problem lies.

One reason “barefoot” doesn’t work, is that some folks going au natural aren’t necessarily naturally trimming their horses, or they aren’t being trimmed properly. “Barefoot” and natural hoof care aren’t one in the same, and not all trimmers/farriers are created equally. On top of that, even within the world of natural hoof care there are different techniques and methods that exist.

Just like any tool or method can be used for good, if it’s not used properly, it can have negative effects. It’s not so much whether someone holds a rasp or a shoe in their hand, but what they DO with it that matters most. When something isn’t working, it’s not always that the technique is bad, but the way it’s being applied.

Grazing on pasture
Moving, grazing, being healthy

A second reason natural hoof care doesn’t seem to work has a lot to do with management, which is the human’s choice and responsibility.

If your horse is being properly naturally trimmed at regular intervals, but is kept in a stall most of the time, fed high amounts of sugary feed, and is rarely if ever given the opportunity to build healthy internal structures of the foot, including callused soul (through plenty of movement and some on rocky ground), a horse is likely to continue to be ouchy on hard surfaces or have intermittent sore feet.

Sometimes the time and management practices that come along with making natural hoof care a success are more involved than most PEOPLE are willing to commit to, even if they do positively impact their horse’s well-being.

Unfortunately, human convenience often trumps horse health.

Because healthy feet and healthy horses are a top priority at our place, my husband and I have a couple inches of pea gravel under the overhang of our barn where the horses come in for shade and water. Our horses live primarily on pasture at home – during the afternoons, and especially during the times of year when sugar content is high in the grass, instead of being penned up, the horses are turned out on a paddock paradise (track system) so they can keep foraging in limited amounts while also being naturally encouraged to move.

Paddock paradise
Dot Com lounging in the paddock paradise

When it comes to tender feet, it’s important to realize that a horse who is only sound on soft ground is NOT a sound horse. A horse that gets “ouchy” on and off or is gimpy only when crossing gravel parking lots is also NOT a sound horse.

This doesn’t mean they’re not ridable necessarily, but it’s certainly reason to pay attention, take note, and start learning and working toward building healthier feet.

Where there is inflammation and pain, you can bet that something on the inside is compromised. Obvious or not, where there is inflammation, bony changes are likely to follow. With good hoof care and good management, inflammation and pain can be brought under control and in many cases, internal damage can often be healed.

Sometimes a horse’s feet can benefit greatly simply from more use – just like exercise builds strong muscles, a horse that doesn’t move very much will tend to have poor circulation and therefore atrophied and unhealthy internal structures of the foot. Adequate movement can really help build stronger, more resilient, healthy feet (and is also great for a horse’s mental health).

However, if your horse is very tender with bare feet and you’re entered in a big race in two weeks, although it’s a good idea to make management choices that will help build a healthier foot in the long run, you may need to protect that foot or get existing inflammation under control ASAP, that’s where shoeing, supportive therapies and your Vet’s recommendations come in.

Depending on what’s going on, sometimes more movement, or ANY movement on hard surfaces creates even more pain and inflammation. In these cases, it’s helpful to get a clearer picture of exactly what is happening inside the foot – possible through an MRI.

Equine MRI
Pistol anesthetized and in the magnet suite

While complete healing and soundness restoration may not always be possible, it’s important that we do all we can to understand what’s really going on with these chronic cases. Diet is a huge factor and bone density formulas like Equi-bone and CalDensity are bring horses back to the arena, even after all hope has been lost.

As mentioned, there ARE are basic management practices that will generally help support healthy feet in all horses, but when there has been a specific injury or pathology for example, it may require a more involved and very specific treatment plan to address it.

Unless we get a view of what’s truly going on inside the foot, which is limited through x-ray, this process can become an expensive and experimental, time-consuming crap shoot.

A third reason certain hoof care practices don’t work is that it’s common to fall into a rut of treating symptoms vs. getting to the source of the problem. Even if the symptoms need to be treated, and are relieved, the damage will ultimately continue if we don’t also work to discover and resolve the root cause of the problem.

Again, this often goes back to diet and management. Not only must the trimming OR shoeing be correct and supportive, but we have to consider and possibly change how the horse is ridden among other possible problem areas, such as mineral imbalances, saddle fit, restrictions in the horse’s body, poor riding habits, etc.

Giving your horse time off can be a great thing too of course, but if the hoof care, the management practices, or the way the horse is ridden and used, that contributes to the problem aren’t changed or if the inflammation isn’t addressed and truly brought under control, you’re likely to continue running into more and even greater problems as time goes on.

Next, let’s consider a few basic reasons horses are shod:

1. Protection from the environment
2. Improve the stride/flight of the feet
3. Correct and support healthy posture
4. Relieve discomfort caused by pathology

Conformation vs. posture
Conformation cannot be changed, but posture CAN

The thing is, we can protect a horse’s feet from harsh environments with hoof boots (great for trail riding, not so great for competing), and to a great degree, trimming can also improve a horse’s movement, encourage good posture, correct imbalances and even help relieve discomfort, but only if it’s done properly.

Despite the draw backs that DO come along with shoes, they can allow us to make corrections and offer adjustments to horses in a way that can be faster and more effective than trimming. Often in the performance horse world, it’s a convenience and time factor.

Many natural trimmers tend to primarily concern themselves with what’s happening below the coronary band. A great farrier OR trimmer will take the entire horse into consideration.

Pathologies, such as soft tissue damage and bony changes are major consideration as well, especially for performance horses. I’d venture to say that there are many more foot pathologies existing than there are those that are actually known and properly diagnosed.

Truth be told, even after some intense healing therapies, time and slow and careful reconditioning, my gelding Pistol is really not the same as he was before he damaged the collateral ligaments in his feet in 2012. As the Vets. expected, he would make a recovery as a performance horse but would likely need special maintenance, which brought me to the situation I found myself last weekend.

Moving and feeling better than ever!
Moving and feeling better than ever!

I was fortunate to be in the presence of horse shoeing master who uses his art (and science) to correct posture imbalances, improve stride, and restore soundness in high level performance horses of all kinds. Pistol wasn’t holding up so well to the stress and demands of the road.

Because his FEET had changed, my MIND changed in order to do what I felt was best for him under the circumstances, and I don’t remember a time when he traveled better, more athletically and comfortably.

This doesn’t mean he’ll ALWAYS be in shoes, or that I can’t apply much of what I’ve learned to my future trimming.

The most important thing is that ultimately, the feedback Pistol is offering me is positive. It’s not so much the shoes that “fixed” him – it was the expert eyes that analyzed him – his gait, stride, posture, muscular balance, conformation, etc. and then the hands that applied them.

I still believe there are drawbacks to shoes, just as there are drawbacks to natural hoof care. I also believe they both have positive things to offer, but only IF we are open-minded, and if the concepts and techniques are applied in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time.

Whether you prefer shoes or going au natural, keep these tips in mind:

1. A horse that is only sore sometimes or on some surfaces is NOT a sound horse – consider getting a clear diagnosis of any chronic or lingering foot issues with an MRI.
2. No matter what trimming or shoeing technique is used, they won’t improve or support the health and soundness of your horse if they aren’t applied properly.
3. There is a difference between going “barefoot” and natural trimming, do your home work (see links below).
4. Natural hoof care (or shoeing) is less likely to “work” if you’re not also committed to general management practices that support healthy feet.
5. If you are easing symptoms with anti-inflammatories or corrective shoeing/trimming, ensure you are also working toward healing the foot (if possible) and genuinely resolving the actual cause of the problem at it’s source.
6. Performance horses and horses with previous injuries or pathologies can be healed and/or brought back to soundness, but some may also (or always) require special, additional considerations and care.

In the comments below, I’d love to hear YOUR experiences with shoeing OR natural hoof care?

This can become a heated issue, so while I invite you to share your opinion, remember this is positive, supportive place where barrel racers unite to learn, share and grow.

Enjoy these additional resources to further support you in providing the very best hoof care for YOUR barrel horses!

Five Powerful Tips for Turning a Setback into a Comeback!

Five Powerful Tips to Turn a Setback into a Comeback!

A few weeks ago I scheduled a Vet. check for my gelding in preparation to hit the road this summer and get his travel paperwork updated.

Because it was my first time going to a new clinic, I quickly mapped out the best (quickest) route for the 1 1/2 hour trip.

I left that morning with plenty of time to spare, but it turns out that the fastest path between two points is NOT always a straight line.

No, sometimes the fastest path is a major highway – something I’d wished I’d stuck to that day when I came upon a downed bridge on a narrow road with a 32 foot trailer.

After getting out of the truck, and venturing down to the river bottom only to discover that the bridge workers didn’t speak a word of English, I got back behind the wheel with no other choice but to back up over a mile until I came to an approach wide enough and a field dry and flat enough to get turned around.

Once I was moving forward however, something felt dramatically wrong. Either I had a flat tire or my truck (trick) driving and off-roading had caused some damage.

I turned off in (what I thought was) a convenient pull-over area next to repair shop – only to realize it was indeed NOT a repair shop AND the exit path out of the small pull-over area was gaited shut.

After calling the clinic to inform them I’d be late and confirming all systems were “go” (it was just mud in the undercarriage), I again slowly started maneuvering my way back out onto the road, and eventually forward toward my destination.

When I arrived at the clinic, my morning continued to unravel in much the same way when I pulled into the parking lot where there were already more than a dozen trailers crammed like sardines and one very frantic horse not so successfully attempting to be loaded.

At this point, late or not, I couldn’t pass a stressed horse and a frustrated owner without helping them. A half hour and a more than a little sweat later, Pistol and I were finally waiting in the breeze way for a trot.

Everything went really well on the way back home, until I realized I had completely forgotten to get blood drawn for a coggins, or have a health certificate written up – one of the primary reasons for the trip!

Ughhhh….. Read more… »

Small Saddle, BIG Lessons – What I Learned about Barrel Racing from Riding English

Small Saddle, BIG Lessons – What I Learned about Barrel Racing from Riding English

When I was 12 years old, I connected with a neighbor who turned out to be a very influential friend and mentor and. I was fortunate to have this amazing horse(wo)man help me sort out countless problems with my first “real horse.”

Gypsy was a 14 hand step-up from my pony, and at 10 years old was “green broke” and had more issues than you could shake a stick at.

I didn’t have a set of wheels back then (a truck and trailer) but with my mentor’s help, I was able to prepare my mare to show at the county fair, AND hitch a ride to get there.

I didn’t just enter the speed events – she encouraged me to learn about, AND enter every single class.

Even though I didn’t LOVE the idea of showing at halter especially, because I trusted her (and just plain LOVED horses), I did it ALL – and learned a ton. Read more… »

The “Lazy” Barrel Horse – How to Build a FIRE in Their Feet!

The

What is your default response is when faced with a challenge?

I’ve personally found that changing my perspective to be highly effective for problem solving (in any area of life)!

Take my verrry laid back gelding, Pistol, for example…

On one hand, I appreciate his easy going tendencies. He’s confident, comfortable and content in nearly all situations, and I can haul all over the country without becoming overly stressed or losing weight. He handles the pressure of speed event competition like a champ.

Of course, I’d like to take a little credit for him being so solid, however I have to admit it has a lot to do with how he’s wired by nature.

Pistol as a youngster, relaxing with friends.
Pistol as a youngster, relaxing with friends.

It’s probably accurate to say that the majority of barrel racers don’t have a problem with “lazy” horses, but yet perhaps you’ve had moments when you’ve needed more electric energy and quickness from your horse. There’s no doubt having a burst of energy available in the split second you need it most can dramatically affect your success!

Truth be told, it took me quite a while to effectively and authentically motivate Pistol.

You see, he’s not really “lazy.”

He was just unmotivated.

In other words – I was too boring.

How’s that for a change in perspective?
Read more… »

Four Tips for Acheiving Life Balance + Big Time Barrel Racing Success

Three Tips for Achieving Life Balance + Big Time Barrel Racing Success

Do you ever get frustrated because you can’t seem to carve out enough time to FULLY apply yourself to your barrel racing?

Ever feel like you’re short on funds, but you have to WORK to make money – which takes up TIME, AND takes you away from your horses? Not to mention ALL the other life responsibilities you have outside of work and riding?

Here’s the honest truth – it requires a significant amount of TIME, FOCUS and FINANCES to climb high on the ladder of barrel racing success.

But don’t let that discourage you, let it MOTIVATE you.

First though, a reality check is in order.

Barrel racing itself IS a FULL-TIME JOB. Becoming and being a high-achieving professional at anything is a “full-time job.”

So is owning and maintaining a horse property, so is being a student, a wife, and a mother. So is just caring for horses and other critters.

They are ALL full-time jobs in and of themselves.

So it’s NO WONDER we’re overwhelmed and struggle to balance it all. We’re trying to do TOO MUCH – the impossible, really!

To start the journey toward creating more barrel racing/life balance, the first step is to Read more… »