Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing

Teach Your Barrel Horse to Maintain Body Shape for Better (Faster) Barrel Racing

Although riding with bit contact and learning to do so well IS not only an important part of our development as riders/trainers, AND our performance horse’s education, unfortunately it’s all too common for our horse’s athletic abilities to be DEPENDENT on that contact.

I had some first hand experience with this recently as I set out to master BRIDLELESS flying lead changes with my barrel horse.

Although I’d had quick and easy success with flying lead changes with other horses in the past, performing them with him initially had been a challenge for us both.

Eventually we mastered flying changes, and he’s been going beautifully bridleless, so I didn’t quite expect that combining the two would be so difficult.

BUT, where there is challenge, there is change, and I was committed to persevering through what it would take to achieve my goal, having faith that there would be some valuable lessons on the other side.

What I realized right off the bat, was that when I didn’t gather Pistol up with the reins and support his collected frame with my hands, his body “fell flat,” and all hopes of performing bridleless flying changes fell with it. Read more

How to Give Up Micromanaging and GAIN a Horse that LOVES Barrel Racing!

How to Give Up Micromanaging and GAIN a Horse that Loves Barrel Racing!

One of the biggest problems we face when it comes to micromanaging horses, is that we don’t often know we’re doing it.

When that’s the case, we also don’t know that the reason we’re doing it is because our horse isn’t taking responsibility, and down the line even further – we may not realize that it’s OUR responsibility to teach the horse theirs.

So I’ll begin by not-so-anonymously stating that my name is Heather Smith, and I’m a “recovering micromanager.” My gelding Pistol is one of my four-legged partners, AND enablers.

If you’re also a micromanager, and would like to start on the road to recovery – welcome to the club! You’re in good company. VERY good company.

One of the first steps is admitting there is a problem. The primary symptom of the problem may be that you’re not clocking in competition as you would like to. The next step is a willingness and desire for change.

The best way I have found to truly test yourself and test your horse, not to see whether you are micromanaging – but HOW BAD (because we ALL tend to do it to some degree), is to remove what’s in the way of making it obvious. Read more

Quality is No Accident! How to Reveal Your Horse’s Greatest Athleticism

Since achieving my goals with Dot Com at liberty last fall, he’s been enjoying a well-deserved vacation.

Lately, I’ve been back on the little grey powerhouse in preparation for him to be featured in my new book, Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

It’s been a great time to start applying many of the techniques I’d learned last summer, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to put into action yet. In only a handful of rides, his progress has been amazing!

If you’ve been following BarrelRacingTips.com, you’re already familiar with Dot Com – an extremely talented horse who came to us in need of a more solid emotional foundation.

Like many timed event horses, over the years he’d developed a habit of hollowing out his back, raising his head, inverting his neck and carrying tension throughout his body. Despite being built like a bulldog, Dot Com is actually quite flexible. However, his sensitive nature combined with his previous experiences, had resulted in mental blocks that got in the way of his flexibility and contributed to stiffness. Read more

Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

If there’s one thing that has both bewildered and fascinated me over the years, it’s collection.

Most of us realize that there is much more to it than our horse’s headset.

However, for a long time (like most barrel racers), I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Lethargic, short strided movement with
Lethargic, short strided movement with “headset” is NOT collection.

Unfortunately, even those competitors who are quite accomplished are leaving money at the entry office by neglecting to fully understand, focus on and create true quality movement.

I’m fortunate that I got a taste of the difference it can make on the barrel pattern early on.

This has motivated me to continue studying, learning, practicing and experimenting – ALL with a desire to create movement that was more balanced and powerful, and therefore FASTER.

Even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning how to create authentic collection, I feel like I floundered around quite a bit before things started really coming together.

I know I’m not the only one, so below I’ve shared some theory to clarify this murky, and often misunderstood concept, as well as some tips for creating it for yourself, which I’m confident will benefit your runs – in more ways than one!
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Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)man, Part II

The Naked Truth - Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)man

In 2013 I turned my barrel horse gelding out, and turned my husband’s rope horse “loose.”

In Part II of my three-part Becoming a Horse(wo)man Series below, I’ve shared what that meant, and what it continues to mean in my own life and that of every horse I touch!

When I say I “turned him loose,” I mean that I focused on developing him at liberty.

Now before you go scratching your head, know that what may appear to have nothing to do with barrel racing, just might have EVERYTHING to do with barrel racing, and anything we could possibly dream of doing with horses.

To be “at liberty,” essentially means that the horse is at liberty to leave at any time – with no reins, lines or tack to stop them. As it turned out, this was a challenging area for both of us. In fact, I was having serious doubts just before one major breakthrough resulted in finally mastering flying lead changes – the epitome of my goals for us.

I will say that working at liberty and even riding bridleless had always intrigued me. I’ve always felt as though doing so really spoke for the horse/rider relationship.

Having enjoyed working colts free in the round pen, I was naturally drawn to learning more (and admittedly a little over-confident). Accomplishing my goals with Dot Com at liberty ended up being one of the most challenging (and rewarding) things he OR I could ever do.

“Every positive change–every jump to a higher level of energy and awareness–involves a rite of passage. Each time to ascend to a higher rung on the ladder of personal evolution, we must go through a period of discomfort, of initiation. I have never found an exception.” – Dan Millman

As a finished pro-level head horse, Dot Com came to us in need of some mental/emotional balancing. Even as a reserve world champion team roper with very quiet hands and great concern for his equine partners, my husband struggled with him in the box. However, our intention was not to just “get by,” but really acknowledge his issues for what they were – and completely work through them.

If you’ve been following BarrelRacingTips.com for a while, you may already be familiar with Dot Com’s impulsion and anxiety issues, as they have been the subject of several articles on creating relaxation and quality movement.

In this article, I’m excited to share more about what’s involved with working at liberty, why it’s beneficial to both horse and rider, as well as details about my humbling mistakes, our victories, and what we learned along the way.

Understanding the benefits and purpose of working at liberty starts with understanding that horses very naturally seek connection. In nature, their survival depends on it. A herd of horses behave similarly to a school of fish – there is comfort and safety in groups. To mirror the feelings and actions of their herd members is part of how horses are wired. When they aren’t feeling threatened, it’s very natural for them to show interest in connecting with humans.

Heather and Dot Com at Liberty

Horses communicate with each other through body language – we can learn to read them and communicate better with them (even in the saddle) by paying close attention to how they position their bodies, right down to the intricacies of their facial expressions. The better we learn to “speak horse,” the better we’ll be able to do EVERYTHING with horses – including (and especially) barrel racing!

One of the most natural ways to “speak their language” and communicate with them is on the ground – just as another horse would. It’s a great place to build and refine the foundation that carries over under saddle.

My intention for developing Dot Com at liberty was not only to deepen my own horsemanship skills. I also figured that if I could create calm connection and responsiveness without any lines, ropes, reins or tack in a wide open pasture, then perhaps it would help him in becoming more mentally centered in general – especially when we did have the support of such tools. In addition, I firmly believe that any type of cross training is beneficial to the speed event horse, but especially one like Dot Com.

Before I go much further, in order to bust any potential misconceptions, I’ll say that when it comes to liberty (or anything we do with our horses), that there is a difference between operating with feel and having your horse just respond to a cue. In all reality, we really need both. Without feel, you have a trick horse – a horse that may be able to do some neat looking, fancy stuff, however without a true connection there will always be something lacking.

For example, there is likely to be a slight delay in response at times, or a horse might start offering what he’s been trained to do, whether he’s really been asked for that or not – in other words, take over. If you have feel, but no education, a horse won’t really build up the movement patterns and physical and mental conditioning to perform certain maneuvers with complete confidence, power, ease and athleticism.

One reason why I’m not automatically impressed with any ol’ demonstration of bridleless riding or liberty is that a lot of it portrays an illusion of feel. It’s possible to have a “circus horse” operate and respond with FEEL, and a highly developed western performance “trick horse” that doesn’t.

It’s easier and more common than you might expect, even for barrel racers, to fall toward the “trick horse” extreme. When we do this, we’re barking orders at our horses more so than having a two way conversation. There is so much more to horse training, than “horse training!” It’s not so much WHAT we’re doing with our horse, but HOW.

When playing at liberty with feel for example, it’s possible for me to draw my horse to me, or drive my horse away from me quickly and smoothly in a split second just by changing the energy in my body and leaning my torso forward or back – which is not a trick, but a horse that’s been developed to respond to me via feel. (I want my horse’s to respond when I raise or lower the life in my body while in the saddle also.)

It can all look very similar, and there can be a fine line between the two at times, but with feel, you have a horse that is connected to you and willing and able to move anywhere you ask, at any time because you’re engaging in a real-time two conversation, you’ve built a language rather than having a mechanically “trained” horse waiting for a certain cue. With feel, there is greater opportunity for harmony and unity, with harmony and unity there is greater opportunity for precision at speed.

In a sense, horses are born knowing how to communicate like this but unfortunately, a lot of people inadvertently teach a horse NOT to “Feel of, feel for, and feel together.” – Ray Hunt

To learn more about my journey with Dot Com toward higher level horsemanship visit:

Would you like to build more connection with your barrel horse?

If so, you’ll enjoy the articles below:

Principles for Performance – Horsemanship and Barrel Racing without Limits!

Principles for Performance – Horsemanship and Barrel Racing without Limits!

In my mind, there isn’t a group of equestrian disciplines that the principles of natural horsemanship apply to better, than those of timed-speed events. They are THE ultimate test of horse and rider!

When a person really dives into, studies and understands these principles, deciding to put the ideas into practice becomes a no brainer. While nothing we do with horses is technically ‘natural,’ it just makes sense to work with their instincts vs. against them if we want to train and compete with these animals as harmoniously as possible.

What natural horsemanship offers, is an opportunity to learn and develop ourselves – both what we must understand in a mental sense, and the habits we must acquire physically, so we can really understand, and then optimize our horses.

When we’re able to bring out their best potential in this way, we’re essentially putting the odds more in our favor to be successful in competition!

Matthew Bohman.

We must do our part to inspire the horse to stay with us mentally and physically, take responsibility for moving with quality without being micromanaged, and even responsibility for managing their own emotions (at high speeds and under the stress of hauling and competition, no less).

Sound too good to be true? It’s not!

Horsemanship instructor and clinician, Matthew Bohman helped a handful of students and I do just that. Although I stepped in as a part-time teacher at the Principles for Performance clinic, my dedication to never-ending self-development had me also playing the role of student.

In this article, I’ll be sharing five of my personal takeaways from the event, in hopes that you might learn or benefit from the insights, until YOU have an opportunity to ride with Matthew and/or I yourself! Read more

It’s All About the Ribs – Flex and Elevate Them for Ultimate Athleticism & Power!

It’s All About the Ribs - Flex and Elevate Them for Ultimate Athleticism & Power!

Before I dive into an effective exercise for flexing and elevating our horse’s ribs, it’s critical to understand the reasons WHY achieving this roundness through a horse’s midsection – both latitudinally and longitudinally, is so important.

To start with, a horse that is dropped or concave down its topline will tend to be elevated and strung out at the front and back ends, meaning higher head positions and hind legs that trail out behind rather than reaching powerfully under the body.

Circling with flexion and minimal guidance.
Circling with flexion and minimal guidance.

A horse that drops their midsection laterally to the inside of a circle is not in an athletic position either. It’s not uncommon to see horses with this positioning habit tip barrels, prepare for the turn too soon, and even fall down. This unbalanced and off center “inside out” shape makes any athletic maneuver more difficult, awkward and therefore, SLOW.

When a horse truly lifts their back and rounds their body, space is created for the hind legs to more easily reach under, which more effectively supports a horse’s bodyweight for ultimate propulsion. At the same time, as the ribs both elevate upward and flex to the outside of a circle, a horse will tend to naturally bring their head set lower, tip their nose to the inside and really engage that inside hind leg. Read more

How to Use More Leg and Less Hands for Higher Education & Higher Performance

Use More Leg and Less Hands for Higher Education & Higher Performance

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #63 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
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For decades now horse trainers and clinicians, even barrel racers have been saying “use less hands and more leg” to guide horses. But how many of us, barrel racers especially, REALLY DO THIS?

We may develop our horses to a level where we can ask for and receive beautiful lateral movements, or we may be able to influence each part of our horse’s body (shoulder, ribs, hips) in just about any circumstance, BUT chances are that those lateral movements still require you to hold light rein contact to impede excess forward movement.

Chances are even greater that the body control that seems so “high level” wouldn’t REALLY hold up under any circumstance, and certainly not if we weren’t also supporting our horse with the reins.

When we started riding as kids, we may have been told to kick or squeeze to go, pull to stop, and neck rein to turn. Although I believe in the value of keeping things simple for youngsters, this is a time when bad habits develop – especially “overriding the front end” of a horse and PULLING them around to turn. It’s a bad habit in us, that creates even worse habits in horses – especially the tendency for them to stiffen and lean to the inside of a turn or circle.

Instead, what if we could PUSH the front end over with our leg for a square turn (like a pivot) and our weight slightly to the outside, rather than leaning into the turn and pulling? OR, what if we utilized our inside leg to teach and ask our horse to shape around it for a round turn?

Read more