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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!