STOP Enabling Your HOT Barrel Horse and START Empowering – Part II

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After I had turned a corner and made a lot of progress with Dot Com, it was still easy to fall into the rut of micromanaging him.

In certain high pressure environments, if I didn’t use the reins to cause him find relaxation and better posture, if left to his own devices, his emotions would ramp up and it wasn’t always a pretty picture if I didn’t subtly step in. If I had given him a completely and consistently loose rein when he was emotional, it seemed like in a matter of seconds we’d be the next county – that’s how impulsive he can be, and this impulsiveness is especially triggered in certain environments.

Winding down into a small, energetic circle.
Winding down into a small, energetic circle.

How’d he get this way?  Again, it’s a combination of his innate characteristics and his learned behavior.   But again, that doesn’t matter so much to me at this point. What DOES is what I’m doing in the moment to resolve that.  I’ve made it my mission to no longer “help” him, and instead empower him. IF your horse struggles to lope a calm, connected circle on a loose rein under any circumstances, then the exercise I describe below may just impact you as positively as it has Dot Com and I.

Most times, when we keep competing and training in smaller arenas, we don’t realize how impulsive our horses are until we get into a really large arena or a wide open field.  In one such especially large arena lately, Dot Com felt like a bottle rocket with the fuse lit.  I’d ask him to lope off on a loose rein (and was trying hard NOT to micromanage), I could feel him gaining speed, and getting more emotional and impulsive as we went along.

In the past at times I have felt as though I HAD to use the reins consistently to keep his big motor rated down. This is a very common situation for barrel racers to be in, but don’t let common become “normal” or “good.” The problem comes in the lack of awareness for how much we’re micromanaging AND what we’re allowing to continue with our horses.

Super sensitive horses like Dot Com are also especially easy to “enable” because they DO honor the limits we set for them – whenever I would “check” him, or encourage a more athletic position, he would respond, and it would help, albeit temporarily.  He’s very respectful of the “box” I set for him (my reins and/or legs), so by most people’s definition he’s not a “runaway” or “out of control,” because he doesn’t blatantly push against pressure.

It's Dot Com's responsibility to manage his emotions.
It’s Dot Com’s responsibility to manage his emotions.

But the truth is, without the support of my physical “box” he was completely unraveling from an emotional standpoint.  It’s easy to skim over the surface of this issue because of his sensitivity and obedience – physically he stayed with me and responsive but mentally and especially emotionally he was a goner.

The effect his emotional imbalance has on the way he uses his body most definitely negatively impacts his athleticism – so empowering him to manage his own emotions was something I KNEW would contribute to his success when he returns to roping (and when I finish him on the barrels!).

The solution for his impulsive lope started with winding him down into a very small circle, while expecting him to stay in a lope. I used the energy in my body to communicate what I wanted.  Without concern for “how” he was moving physically, I made no effort to ask him shape his body. I used the reins as little as possible and only for guiding him in the circle (of course don’t hesitate to use them if you get in a bind!). I did NOT drive with my legs but DID get really animated in my whole body to match his energy and then some.

When he realized he wasn’t so interested in keeping up with all that hard work, he relaxed and slowed down a bit.  I then gradually broadened the circle.  He stayed in a nice relaxed lope until the circle got really big and the impulsiveness was baaack!  No prob, we just wound down to a small circle again until he changed his MIND and I felt a definite shift on the impulsiveness scale. (Small circles also great for shortening “long” horses with plenty of go, as straight lines are great for lengthening “short” horses who lack motivation.)

After doing this back and forth a few times, it was becoming Dot Com’s decision more and more to choose a relaxed lope.  I was making the right thing easy, and the wrong thing difficult.  I was taking his excess energy and channeling it in a way caused him to make a different choice – but it was still his choice. His consequence was loping a very small, energetic circle (hard work), and his reward was the option to lope relaxed in a bigger circle. Allowing horses to learn like this makes for lessons that really stick.

Again I was careful not to DRIVE him with my legs and instead used very animated energy in my body to keep him loping. Although it’s ideal to maintain gait, a couple times I accepted his idea to transition down to a trot, because he was relaxing as he did.

As I performed this exercise, my timing was important to make it clear where the consequence and the reward was.  Establish in your mind where the “impulsiveness” line is, be specific about the quality of lope you expect and don’t allow your horse to become racey and disconnected later or tomorrow or next month – be consistent.

When the emotions go up, the circle gets smaller again.
When the emotions go up, the circle gets smaller again.

At this point, again, I wasn’t obsessed with his lateral and longitudinal shape, because that will come later, AND come much more easily when his emotions are balanced.  In fact, much of the physical part will fall right together naturally the more he starts to OWN relaxation as it becomes his new “default” way of being.

Of course, don’t forget how important it is to be aware of what you’re doing in your own body. If you’re constantly “buzzing,” your horse will find it difficult to ever really relax. On the other hand, some horses have learned to disconnect from their rider to such a degree, or are so extremely emotionally troubled, that our own relaxation doesn’t impact them as it should – which is a perfect time and place to apply these concepts.

This exercise is so powerful, because instead of using our hands or reins to micromanage our horses to slow down, instead of saying, ”Don’t speed up, don’t speed up, don’t speed up,” or “Calm down, calm down, calm down,” with our hands or body, we’re showing them a better way of feeling and moving that they get to #1. CHOOSE, #2. MAINTAIN ON THEIR OWN and #3. GET REWARDED FOR.

Therein lies the difference.  Remember that just because a symptom disappears for a while, doesn’t mean the problem still isn’t there.  Whether we’re overusing our hands, or going out of our way to “help” these horses, in many cases it either only gives them a calm LOOK and disguises the issue, or only provides relief from the symptom – which is not a permanent solution.

It WILL take some patience and persistence for Dot Com to completely reroute his habits because they have become ingrained very deeply over many years. Enabling a horse to continue being an emotional mess is an easy rut to fall into, especially with sensitive horses like Dot Com, especially for speed event competitors, AND especially perfectionists such as myself!

Balanced emotions must come before perfect shape and form.
Balanced emotions must come before perfect shape and form.

When something isn’t happening fast enough, or something doesn’t FEEL perfect, or LOOK perfect, we tend to want to MAKE it that way ASAP.  As humans, we also tend to want to use our HANDS to do so because we are a very hand oriented species.  Often we find that when we do, the change doesn’t last, and the lesson doesn’t sink in through the whole horse from the mind to the feet (like it does when we allow them to CHOOSE vs. MAKE), and we end up creating only a superficial change instead. 

Of course, there’s always a time and place that we must do whatever it takes to restore calmness or control in our horses. The big picture however, is that if Dot Com’s emotions weren’t truly brought into balance, if he only had the “look” of a horse that had it all together emotionally, or if the relaxation I created was only temporary, then his athletic potential would always be limited. Not only that, but moving with tension is very physically damaging to horses as well.

Here at, I’m all about offering lasting solutions using horse psychology that are based on principles vs. techniques.  If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is!

Here’s to holding our horses accountable, for treating them with dignity and respect and empowering them to make their own good choices, and to having high expectations for them to honor their responsibilities. May we ALL gain the awareness and open mindedness it requires to bust out of OUR OWN ruts, so that we may reveal the true potential of the equine athletes under us, who have been patiently waiting there all along.

In case you missed it, Click Here for Part I to learn why empowering vs. enabling our barrel horses is so important.

Encouraging a horse to manage their OWN emotions may be a completely new concept to many barrel racers.

What do YOU think about the ideas presented in Part I of this article?

Let’s hear it in the comments below!

If you’re ready for more intriguing Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, Click Here to get the #1 best-selling book containing many more.

Don’t Go Bye-Bye! Crank the First Barrel Consistently

Don't Go Bye-Bye!  Crank the First Barrel Consistently

In barrel racing circles “rate” can be described as the transfer of weight to the hindquarters, which puts a horse in a more athletic position to round a barrel. With just the right amount of rate, combined with proper body shape on behalf of the horse and rider, as well as timing – a quick, efficient turn is almost inevitable!

Establishing rate may seem as simple as teaching the horse to utilize his hindquarters, or at least utilize them better in order to transfer weight from the forward reaching gallop to a more collected position – both in general AND especially in that specific spot where it’s required on the pattern.

A great stop doesn't necessarily create great rate!
A great stop doesn’t necessarily create great rate!

But what if your horse buries his keister like a pro in dry work, and at every other opportunity, EXCEPT in an actual run?

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why your horse seems to rate and use himself so well otherwise, yet STILL struggles with going by barrels in competition, the video below just might illuminate a path to resolving this issue for good. Read more

Create Soft, Round Movement for Sharp Turns and Fast Runs

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Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #56 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
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If there’s one thing that barrel racers find themselves battling, it’s the tendency for our barrel horses to become tense, bracey, stiff, inverted and heavy on the front end.  Often their bodies become rigid, resistant and concave rather than softly round over the topline, with a gentle lateral arc that follows the shape of the barrel, circle, or direction of travel.

I’d venture to say however, that it’s not just our fast paced sport that contributes to this tendency, but that many riders and trainers tend to lack the understanding and skill necessary to truly develop and then maintain quality movement from the get go.

Of course there’s a mental/emotional connection here as well – a horse that is “stuck” mentally will also be physically, and vice versa.  Rather than get into a discussion on “which came first,” this month I’ll be sharing some extremely effective exercises for reversing these tendencies to create posture and movement that is round, soft, snappy and sure to lead to smoother, faster and more correct movement through the cloverleaf pattern.

Heather & Dot Com
Dot Com – Content, relaxed and ready for action.

In the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to help a special rope horse (Dot Com) become familiar with a completely new degree of relaxation I’m certain he hadn’t experienced in many years, if ever.  Although achieving relaxation has been a huge help in changing the way he moved, years of poor movement patterns had left very ingrained habits in how he carried himself.

By dissolving his mental and emotional barriers, I have developed a more solid foundation from which to create new habits that will serve Dot Com better in the performance arena.  Like many of the well bred timed speed event horses out there, Dot Com was a high achieving athlete even when he did perform with extreme tension and poor movement patterns.  However, thanks to exercises like the ones that follow, I’m confident there is plenty I can do to reveal a level of athletic potential unlike anything we have seen yet. Read more

Help for a “Hot to Trot” Barrel Horse!

There’s something critically missing in the steps many barrel racers take to rehabilitate a “burnt out” barrel horse.

Being that barrel racing is a sport that includes high pressure, high speed, and high stakes, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of these horses around.

Your Horse Depends on You

But barrel horses don’t HAVE to be crazy. Barrel horses WILL be excited, a bit on the muscle, and generally pumped up in those seconds before blasting off to the first barrel.

However, tension, nervousness, over-anticipation, and lack of control crosses the line – it negatively impacts runs, and it’s fully within our power to change (and prevent) this from happening.

It’s up to US realize the effect we have on our horses and take personal responsibility for how we influence them – there IS hope for those talented horses who have gone far off the mental & emotional deep end. Read more

Don’t Get Strung Out! Three Exercises for Hind End Engagement

Don’t Get Strung Out!  Three Exercises for Hind End Engagement

I very strongly believe that the problems that show up in a run are often problems that are showing up everywhere else, but they are just more subtle – so they go unnoticed.

Typically a horse that loses engagement in the hind end, will be a horse that doesn’t exactly have a habit of traveling with great quality in general.

Remember that speed and the pressure of competition emphasizes everything! A problem that is barely noticeable will becoming glaringly obvious in a run. This is why it’s so critical for barrel racers to understand what quality movement really is, and how to develop it.

Doing so would solve so many issues on the pattern, which is why I dedicated an entire chapter to the subject of Quality Movement in “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success.”

Let’s say, however, that you have very skillfully developed the quality of your horse’s movement and were absolutely positive they were using themselves correctly on a regular basis with impulsion, collection, flexion and all the other aspects that make up quality movement – and your horse STILL was not engaging his hindquarters on the barrel pattern. Read more

Start and Finish Your Turns Tight & Right

Start and Finish Your Turns Tight & Right

Having an overly-analytical mind can be both a blessing and a curse. Just ask my husband – an overwhelming desire to constantly improve things (everything), can be exhausting!

It means I’m always on the lookout for how things can be made better. It also means I have a keen eye for what’s wrong, which sometimes overshadows what’s right, and CAN act as a barrier to seeing the glass as half full.

So although I have to be aware and train myself to be content and enjoy the present moment, and to feel more and think less, my tendency to improve everything I see and experience translates into a desire to help other barrel racers do the same.

Speaking of that – are your turns as fast as they could be?

In the video below I’ve described what actually happens to cause a horse to fade or pop out of a turn, AND what to do about it!

In fact, you might be surprised to learn most barrel racer’s initial reaction for resolving this issue is actually contradictory to what I recommend.

After all, fading out of the turn is a not really a problem, but a symptom of something else going on – which may require a completely different mindset, as well as specific problem solving techniques that you might not expect. Read more

How to Build Your Barrel Horse’s Confidence and Respect with Leadership

How to Build Your Barrel Horse's Confidence and Respect with Leadership

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #43 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

In this final part of a three part series of Q&A videos, I’ll be sharing what it really means to provide proper leadership, and how doing so can create not only happier, but more competitive barrel horses.

The definition of leadership, thanks to Wikipedia, goes something like this…

“Organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal.” A leader is “somebody whom people follow: somebody who guides or directs others.”

I also love this definition of leadership in the quote below from Dwight B. Isenhower

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Now there are a few signs that may be showing up if your horse is in need of more and/or better leadership from you…

  • Gets distracted, can’t focus, can’t stand still
  • Is spooky, tense, high headed, hesitant, worried
  • Is resistant, unresponsive, unwilling, or dominant
  • Is “naughty” or dangerous – kicks, bucks, runs off, invades your space

You might automatically think “Oh, MY horse isn’t that way!”

“Naughty?” Or lack of education and leadership?
“Naughty?” Or lack of education and leadership?

But really, if you become very aware and look closely – does he ever volunteer to walk off before you ask?  Or is there ever even a split second of hesitation present when you ask him to go? 

If so, regardless of whether the symptoms are very subtle, lack of leadership can be holding you back in competition.

In every herd of horses, there is a leader, usually a boss mare that leads the other herd members.  When you are with your horse, YOU are the leader, even if your herd consists of only you and your horse. 

It’s up to US to watch out for danger, protect our horse and help them feel OK about their surroundings so they can be calm, connected to us, and responsive.
Read more

Three Exercises for Relaxation on the Move

Three Exercises for Relaxation on the MoveExcessive tension will slow you down.

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #33 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

If you receive the weekly email tips, then you may already know a little bit about the “rope horse rehab” journey I’ve been on with my husband’s gelding.

In a recent Q&A video titled Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement, I went in depth to explain the steps I was taking with Dot Com to get him calm, connected and responsive, instead of being a tense, high-headed, runaway waiting to happen.

As someone who is committed to never-ending self-development, I’ve been continuously refining my techniques, learning lessons and as a result – experiencing even more positive changes. In this article, I’d like to share three more exercises for “Relaxation on the Move,” including tips that will make it likely that you and your horses will benefit (and not make some of the mistakes I did).

First off, I’ll say that in the barrel racing world, it seems somewhat acceptable for horses to be “on the muscle,” and not just in that moment when they are mentally and physically gathering to fire to the first barrel, but in general. I think this way of being becomes acceptable because it’s so common, yet a lack of understanding exists when it comes to accepting this as a “typical behavior trait” of barrel horses.

Like I mentioned in the past Q&A, many horses that barrel racers think are “excited” are actually insecure, tense, anxious, fearful, etc. It’s NOT a fun way to feel, and that kind of consistent mental/emotional roller coaster can take a lot out of a horse (or human).

At the same time, it’s important to remember that a quiet horse is not necessarily a happy horse. Fortunately there is plenty we can do (or not do) to help our horses find some middle ground.
Read more