Enter to WIN: How to Pick and Prepare For Varying Competition Environments

Enter to WIN: How to Pick and Prepare for Competition Environments to Gain Confidence One Run at a Time

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One of the greatest benefits of traveling and competing a lot is that it gives you a TON of perspective. When you’ve “been there, done that,” you have plenty of different environments to compare, helping you to build a mental Rolo-dex of successes, mistakes, and “I won’t do that agains!” It’s ALL feedback that prepares us to make better decisions and do better next time.

Regardless of how many runs, miles and years you have under your belt, below I’ve shared some valuable tips for sizing up your options and making smart choices when it comes to when and where you decide to enter.

First, how far and often you head out the driveway is largely a financial decision. Let’s face it – in the sport of barrel racing, the chances of coming home with pockets fuller than when you left are not great. This article however was written to help you change those odds and tip them more in your favor!

I’m not going to dive too deep into this topic, because I already did in Budgeting for Barrel Racers – Plan Now, Celebrate Later, but I feel very strongly that a BIG part of our preparation for success on the barrel pattern means getting our financial ducks in a row. The first step toward determining how often we enter and far we travel means doing some bookkeeping and adding up ALL the related expenses.

If lots of long hauls and steep entry fees don’t pencil out right now, no worries! Tons of progress can be made at home or by hauling to local events until you have savings in place and a better head start in the financial department. Preparing yourself in this area helps ensure you won’t be spinning your wheels before you get started, or putting undue stress on yourself OR your horses.

Of course, the better your horse is working and clocking, the more you can venture out with more favorable odds for supporting continued and extended hauling. Until you have a 1D horse or rodeo winner, for most folks the expenses are just too great to travel cross country “just for fun.”

If your budget hasn’t already narrowed down the obvious options, then it’s time to consider the event-specific details. What are the entry fees, what’s the payback – would winning the 2D even pay for your fuel? Sometimes it won’t! Unless you’re going for the experience OR you have plenty of budget buffer, that might not be the best choice.

Next, think about the arena size, arena set-up (entry gate positions/first barrel angles, barrels close to the walls or far away, etc.) pattern size, whether it’s indoor, outdoor, whether it’s a loud, noisy or quiet environment, etc. Have you competed enough with your current horses, and been aware enough to already know what sort of environments they tend to excel in?

What about yourself – are you still “getting with” a new horse, or are you a barrel racing newbie? In either case, it might be a better option to enter a handful of small, low-key jackpots as a starting point, which are less stressful and more cost efficient.

While placing at the top anywhere these days can be considered an accomplishment, not entering over your head can be a big confidence builder. If you’re dead set on going “big time” and only enter races with several hundred entries, and while it never hurts to see how you clock next to the very best, only entering big races can also be a recipe for discouragement. Once you start mentally identifying with being a 4D rider on a 4D horse, it can be a tough rut to break out of mentally. It’s amazing what placing in the 1D at a small, less competitive jackpot can do for your mental game and confidence!

My husband used to put quite a feather in his hat when he’d kick tail at the local roping club, but he’s a talented and proven USTRC Reserve World Champion header. I had to remind him of that and encourage him to compete against guys who were at a higher level. I knew he could succeed against much tougher competition.

There’s a time to build confidence and there’s a time to up-level and test yourself. It’s a balancing act! Once you’re consistently at the top of the 2D at BIG barrel races, or 1D at smaller ones, it’s time to venture out, hit some amateur rodeos or even start thinking about buying a permit if that’s the direction you want to go! WPRA sanctioned events are a great way to start getting your feet wet while filling your permit.

If you’re in a position like me right now – venturing out in a new area and getting to know people and competition environments, don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions. Facebook is your friend in these cases, so call, email, message, and call some more. In fact, I think all states or regions outta have groups like Texas & Other Rodeo Barrel Racing Updates.

Navigating ground conditions is another balancing act to juggle. When they aren’t ideal, ask yourself (or someone else) – are the conditions poor (not uncommon) or are they actually dangerous? What is the value of you horse – not just financially but emotionally? Would the benefit of winning the rodeo be worth the degree of risk?

For more on making adjustments based on ground conditions – I’ve posted a thread in the Pro Members discussion forum, click here to check it out!

Next, let’s explore the process of analyzing your horse’s talents and how these understandings can help you choose and prepare for various competition environments.

The “Long (Extroverted) Horse” – This type of horse is a busy-body with their feet, which is a great thing on the barrels – they love to move and can, and want to do so easily. It can become a problem though when they’re not calm, connected and highly educated because their desire and need to move can certainly be overwhelming. They tend to have a lot of GO and be “free runners.”

This type of horse tends to excel in environments that don’t further encourage their “freedom.” Outdoor pens or those with walls a far behind the barrels or a long run to the first barrel might be challenging.

What to do: Homework and Pre-Run
Probably one of the worst things we can do with a busy-body horse is FORCE them to stand still. I have found it much more effective to move, move, move these horses (lots of small, correct circles) until their need to move has been more than met and it becomes their idea to slow down or stop. If they must move, I help them! But I do it in a direction, and at a certain speed that I determine.

To prepare a long horse for an environment that isn’t well suited to them, in the weeks, and days or hours and minutes preceding the run, really tune up that horse’s responsiveness and mental connection as well as willingness and ability to shift their weight back so they have more rating than running on their mind. Lots of small circles and transitions are beneficial.

The “Short (Introverted) Horse” – A horse that tends to swing toward this extreme is not necessarily short in stature but short more so in the distance and sometimes speed at which they want to move. They’re quite content to not exert too much energy, can sometimes be withdrawn, and although it doesn’t appear there’s a whole lot going on “upstairs” these horses are pretty intense mentally – the wheels ARE turning! Short horses are often described as “setty,” “ratey,” and sometimes lazy!

These horses can certainly put out the energy necessary for short bursts on the barrel pattern but because they’re already thinking about stopping, more enclosed, dark, indoor environments or those with walls close the barrels may encourage them to set and rate even more.

What to do: Homework and Pre-Run
I love freshening and lengthening my “short” horse by giving him mental puzzles to figure out. Having lots of variety in our day to day routine and getting out in wide open spaces as much as possible is important.

Especially if I was planning to compete in an environment that might emphasize his natural tendencies, I might set up a mock pattern and test that he’s connected to ME and not the barrel by asking him to going by them. I’d also keep a limit on small circles, ask for very free, forward, quality movement and be sure I kept my own body position very up (eyes) and open (shoulders).

The Confident Horse – This is a horse that might seem as though he was born in the middle of the rodeo arena and didn’t blink an eye. They don’t need a ton of seasoning because they handle everything so well it’s as if they’ve already “been there, done that!” This type of horse might even be a little pushy or come across as stubborn at times and might require special skill to create genuine motivation. A confident introverted (short) horse is laid back and an usually an excellent kids mount, a confident, extroverted (long) horse can be quite a firecracker!

The Insecure Horse – While the insecure horse may require more time and confidence building experiences, plus a lot more patience and understanding, because of their insecurity they send to really seek out connection with humans to feel good about the world. They depend on us to build their confidence. An extroverted (long) + insecure horse will seem to be very spooky and “over dramatic.” An introverted (short) insecure horse is quiet and sweet but might be very emotional under the surface (prone to ulcers).

The Quick Horse vs. The Fast Horse
I went much more in-depth on the difference between a horse that is quick vs. fast in The Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development (Click here to receive it FREE with “The Secrets”), but I wanted to remind you that it’s of huge value to consider whether you’re horse has innate, naturally quick, cattiness as an athlete or whether he’s fast – and builds up steam a little slower initially.

While it’s possible to be either quick or fast regardless of body type, it’s common to see FAST horses that are the bigger, racey, more Thoroughbred types with lots of long stride on their side. Quickness is mostly a genetic trait, and important one no doubt, but horses that lack quickness can and do make up for it in other ways.

Once you understand the difference and which side your horse tends toward, then you can go forward strengthening your horses weak area and of course further polish up his God-given assets as they apply on the barrel pattern!

By now there might be some lightbulbs going off, as in “OMG, that’s totally MY horse! No wonder he/she does this or that, or I can see why we struggle with this or that,” or “Yeah – he can’t do this or that, or he’s no good at this or that.”
If that’s the conversation you’re having with yourself, then SNAP out of it! 🙂 With this deep understanding of innate characteristics does NOT come a license to label, make excuses OR pigeon hole your horses!

This information, largely based on the horsenality model + my personal experiences, while valuable is only meant to serve as a helpful guide for deeper understanding to prepare us to take appropriate actions and help our horses be even more balanced, productive and successful members of equine society!

Again – it’s a window into deeper understanding to guide our action steps, NOT an excuse!

Now to avoid potential confusion, I want to review the common characteristics I see on the pattern that may be subtly related to innate characteristics in horses, but actually have a lot more to do with what WE are doing (or not doing) to properly prepare them.

The Mentally Disconnected Horse
This horse might seem to lack rate or be labeled as pushy, and very well could be categorized as having a “big motor” (long) or be anxious/nervous (insecure). What I want to point out, contrary to how we all spend hours training our horses, is that repetition on the pattern is NOT what actually teaches a horse the pattern.

We have to repeatedly TEST their knowledge and understanding of where and how to hold THEMSELVES – that means without us holding them. If we don’t let loose, stop micromanaging and instead subtly guide with our only focus and body language, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our horses go through the motions “perfectly” in slow work, but totally blow it when they are tested at speed.

It doesn’t matter how amazing their form is when it’s dependent upon US holding it together. A horse can go through the motions in slow work, but the flashing arrows show up in competition – in the form of horses that “need” to be uncomfortably and artificially held together by mechanical means or are being pulled on yet still sailing past the barrels.

Remember, it’s OUR responsibility to train and develop our horses bodies AND their minds. Just because a horse can quietly, obediently and correctly position their body, doesn’t mean their mind is in the same ZIP code. The symptoms I’ve described above have more to do with how the horse has been developed vs. their inborn qualities.

Pay very close attention to your horses ears and what they are telling you about where his mind is, then study up on How to Give Up Micromanaging and GAIN a Horse that LOVES Barrel Racing to learn how to help your horse own the pattern (he’ll be so much easier and FUN to ride, too!)

The Unresponsive Horse
Have you ever offered a horse a little help in the approach to a turn and received a “spongy” feel in return, or were maybe disregarded all together (we’ve ALL been there, and it’s not fun!). If your horse isn’t connected to YOU, AND responsible for his job, the quick responsiveness won’t be there. But at the same time we must ask ourselves – has the horse truly been educated (and tested) to understand what’s expected?

I often emphasize how critical it is to have the same rules and expectations on the pattern and off. Applying the appropriate degree of pressure/discomfort and release/comfort with excellent timing is critical. In the initial stages we allow a horse to search for a find the answer, once we’re confident he knows, we expect a higher quality response sooner.

In competition we can’t have a horse blatantly push through pressure in the approach to the first barrel and expect to clock, so I DO NOT allow my horses to push or pull on me at any other time. As I’m handling my horses it’s rare for their lead ropes to even come tight because they are always following a feel (possible even with slack in the line). At the slow/low key levels especially, actual steady contact/pressure isn’t even necessary.

This is a big part of how we preserve the MEANING of steady pressure and contact in a high speed/high pressure run. If my horse ever has an oopsy moment and pushes through my hands, instantly, and I mean INSTANTLY life gets difficult until they yield and soften. What is allowed is what will continue – so have high standards for responsiveness at ALL times and you’re more likely to have it when you need it (in a run).

The Emotionally Unstable Horse
If my horse can’t walk, trot and lope the pattern calmly without me using the reins for control purposes, then those reins are going to again have limited meaning for communication. Emotional balance has to be a priority with horses because they can’t be anxious, tense and nervous while also in a thinking, responding, learning frame of mind. A horse that is impulsive, with head high and a short choppy stride is also a soundness and health disaster waiting to happen.

I encourage folks to have high standards in this area also, regardless of what comes across as normal or acceptable in the barrel racing world. I really feel as though we can have it all. While some horses certainly need more time and maintenance in this area than others, and while timed speed events have a way of making this a ongoing challenge, developing emotional fitness is something we are also responsible for instilling.

It’s one thing for a horse to be excited and have their adrenaline pumping, that’s expected in our event, but what many folks thing of as excited is really assumption making, negative association, tension, anxiety, fear, etc. and none of these characteristics will contribute to consistent, solid performances in the long run. To learn more about building strong emotional fitness in your equine partners, search for “relaxation,” “quality movement,” or “Dot Com” in the upper right corner for numerous helpful posts on this topic.

The Uncomfortable Horse
The last couple years of my horse life has been filled with lots of equine therapy, rehabilitation and recovery. Between the process of helping my gelding overcome a serious injury combined with managing some middle-aged performance horse wear and tear my “eyes to see” soundness and health issues has certainly been honed.

I’ve also achieved some personal, advanced horsemanship goals outside of barrel racing which required my horses to be at their best physically. There were times I know now looking back that they weren’t always performing at their optimum because I didn’t always have the ability to recognize subtle physical issues like I do now.

These days I continue to travel the never-ending learning curve, I’ve invested in some valuable tools to help keep my horses running strong, and I invest a lot more time in their pre and post-ride care. This is one more area that brings about a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings when it comes to judging a horse’s ability and talent. Rather than allow “poor vision” to mistake a physical problem as something else, intentionally develop your skills in this area as well so you can scout out these issues early on!

It takes awareness, purposeful learning + time & experience to develop an eye for noticing subtle problems, as well as learning how to resolve them. Don’t make excuses for holes in a horse’s education, but also don’t overlook or write off symptoms like tension, anxiety, pinned ears, swishing tails, gaping mouths, stomping feet, poor quality movement, resistance, behavior problems, etc. Our horses are always communicating with us – but the information is only valuable (and we can only help them), IF we listen!

While horses certainly have individual characteristics that give them aptitude (or not) for barrel racing and make them more or less suitable for varying competition environments, and part of being a winner is learning to analyze our horse’s gifts and talents and choosing conditions they are likely to succeed in – it’s critical that we also take personal responsibility for diving deeply into the process of developing an all-around awesome competitor who’s success isn’t overly dependent on the environment.

It all comes down to sizing up our options, considering the our individual horses, the details of the competition environments, making good choices, then specifically preparing them in advance all the way through the pre-run moments in the warm up pen to when we actually blast down the alley.

I hope the new window of understanding this article has provided, combined with the common misconceptions of these characteristics, PLUS tips for how we can be PRO-active in developing a solid and dependable horses will help set you up to create WINNING RUNS on purpose!

I feel as though setting ourselves up for success, means working toward developing our ability to analyze ground, know our horses very well & what type they excel in + how we might need to ride them differently depending on the ground AND when to make the call to just not enter based on poor conditions.

This is an art and science of its own, worthy of an entire article if not BOOK, so rather than reinvent the wheel I wanted to point to a couple of great resources and insights on understanding ground and making adjustments based on it.

One of them is this Feet On the Ground BHN Article

Another is this FB note on Ground Conditions or Pilot Error from NFR Barrel Racer, Christy Loflin

Here’s an exerpt I resonated with:

Many will tell you it’s way more important and the true champions, true winners get there by learning how to ride the ground. That means YOU have to know what your horse prefers and take advantage of it when you can AND when you hit those arenas that have less than desired or preferred ground you learn to ride your horse and “help” them to work that ground.

For example, on harder ground you might need to “sit in your saddle” longer and keep your horse collected …. Basically give your horse some help otherwise they may end up floundering on the ground. On the other hand, deeper softer ground might require that you stay up and ride more aggressive; sit as you’re coming into the barrel and drive harder out. Deeper, heavier ground might require that your horse use more power/speed to work, thus you need to stay up off them. Again, it depends on your respective horse and how they work and what they prefer. It is up to YOU to know that and it is up to YOU to know what is needed in each situation.

In my opinion, those who complain about ground, convince themselves its bad, or blame their loss or bad run on ground conditions are absolutely limiting their ability to succeed with excuses!! You will never get ahead if you find reasons to block your own success! Your horse will never get ahead if they run or can only succeed on limited, preferred ground conditions.

Becoming “ground savvy” is certainly something that comes with time and experience in many different environments, but these days we can certainly do our homework with the help of articles like those I’ve shared above with insights from “ground gurus.”

As I prepare to start competing in a region I’m not familiar with you can bet I’ll be asking a lot of questions, watching closely, feeling things out, both under saddle and under foot, and crumbling a few clods myself!

Please share your challenges, experiences or questions for discussion in relation to today’s post or on the topic of GROUND CONDITIONS!

4 replies
  1. Peppers5
    Peppers5 says:

    Hi Heather ~ GREAT article as I have once of each (short vs long), I can read, and re-read this to really “get it” for my horses. You pegged them in our Power Hour session awhile back. They’re both stars, but very different to ride, maintain, enter up on. It can be very challenging and really tests my mettle at times. Thank you for the thought that went into writing this article. Very beneficial for me.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Happy to share Kim! We have two extremes here as well and it makes for interesting comparisons and challenges to be and do everything they need to bring out the best in them. 🙂

  2. Brigitte
    Brigitte says:


    I have a 9yo which I want to enter her very first Barrel Racing Jackpot. There are 3 events that I need to choose from Equitana festival qualifier, Maturity 7yo, 8yo and 9yo or Open Division. Which would be most suitable?


    Brigitte 🙂

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Brigitte,
      Congrats on entering your mare in her first jackpot! If your horse qualifies for the maturity, that might be a good option to compete against horses similar in age. However, your choice may also depend on how the race pays out (if it’s divisional?). The most important choice I think to set a horse up for success in those first few competition experiences is to choose events that are going to be the most low stress for your horse.


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