Free Your Barrel Horse from Emotions that Hold Back Athletic Potential

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

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They say when you take the bridle off your horse, you’re left with one thing – THE TRUTH.

In the second of a three part “TRUTH” series, today I’m sharing some powerful lessons that came to me during the first few bridleless rides with my husband’s gelding Dot Com a while back.

You may already be familiar with Dot Com and the steps I’ve taken to guide him through “rope horse rehab.”

One chilly day the winter before last, my husband was filming Dot Com and I for a project at a local indoor barn. I was riding him in mecate reins and his elevated stride kept bouncing the reins and causing the mecate to slip out of my belt loop.

To say it was distracting and annoying would have been an understatement.

So I did what anyone would do (just kidding, don’t try this at home without plenty of prior, proper, preparation) – I took the bridle off and tossed it to the ground.

My husband’s jaw dropped…

Now mind you, I’d been doing a little prep for this, but not to the point where I felt completely confident. My annoyance with my equipment that day was just enough to through caution to the wind.

Everything went surprisingly well, for a while. Until of course, it happened. It wasn’t “the worst,” but it certainly wasn’t ideal – Dot Com ran away.

Fortunately we’d been doing an exercise to create a “sweet spot” in the corners of the arena (don’t you hate it when a horse leans into a circle or cuts off a corner?), and so although things got fast and furious for a moment, it wasn’t very dramatic – he ran straight to the corner and stopped.

All this REALLY got me thinking. I realized that if left to his own devices, Dot Com would really like to just run away.

The most powerful lesson though, that actually took a while to sink in – was realizing that no matter how advanced a horse’s education is, no matter how soft and supple his response is to bit pressure, if he’s not truly emotionally balanced, he’ll always be a “runaway waiting to happen,” even if it never happens physically.

Of course Dot Com had already been making great progress at the time, and certainly had the “look” of a well-adjusted horse. But taking off the bridle revealed the truth.

Dot Com came to us having already experienced a fair amount of pressure (and success). When he didn’t handle pressure well, I can only assume that the appropriate steps were not taken to address it. Everything was OK that day until I started asking for more. I admittedly missed the signs.

Bridleless barrel racing.

It wasn’t until months later that I really connected the dots to understand that Dot Com had the habit of disconnecting from me mentally by a huge margin, without ever disconnecting physically (which tends to make the problem even more difficult to diagnose). He doesn’t push against pressure, he never really feels out of control.

At the time, Dot Com wasn’t so different from what most timed event competitors (like myself) would have shrugged off and thought “Oh, he’s FINE!”

Although there IS a time and a place to just COWBOY UP, this wasn’t it – and Dot Com was not “fine.” Fully understanding that was like opening a huge door that had always been in the way of his greatest potential (and mine).

When our horse loses mental connection, due to unbalanced emotions, their physical athleticism is compromised as well. As much as I’ve stressed quality movement, you probably already know that an extremely tense, anxious horse won’t be able to perform with the utmost of quickness and power.

The day Dot Com lost it and sprinted across the arena, I had to “go with the flow” and remain as calm as possible. But with no physical means to work as a barrier or even as a tool to help him through his meltdown, I fully felt the unraveling terror in his body loud and clear – and it really opened my eyes.

You see, there’s a fine line between high level responsiveness and reactivity… a fine line between excitement and anxiety… a fine line between riding the edge, and going over it.

What I learned was that I could be a lot better at paying attention to the little signs – how he’s holding his head, whether he’s working his mouth, the position of his ears, the suppleness or tension in his neck and body, even his breathing – they all show us signs of our horse’s mental status.

Had I paid better attention to what “happened before what happened, happened,” what happened might have never happened! Although I learned a lot that day, risking life and limb in the name of learning isn’t really the best way to go about it. Of course, I was very motivated to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Truth be told, the exact same things that led up to Dot Com’s unfortunate reaction (simply asking for a lope departure for example) had been occurring all along – I just didn’t see it. The whole experience caused me to become aware of how much I had fidgeted with the reins over the years to make subtle corrections, or had “checked” a nervous horse with too much “GO.”

Our horse’s headgear CAN be a tool used to calm them, build trust and confidence through refined communication, but more often than not it’s just a physical barrier, a cover up, a mask, something that (whether we realize it or not) is preventing the truth from being exposed – allowing a mindless cycle of micromanagement to continue, all while allowing our horse’s emotions to continue to spin out of control behind the illusion created by the respect they have for it.

A horse really can learn to manage his own emotions, but not if we enable him to continue being a basket case.

We don’t often realize that we’re constantly micromanaging, especially these horses whose gas pedals are so stuck to the floor. Just because a horse honors the limits we set for them, doesn’t mean they aren’t “running away” mentally, over and over and over again, despite what it looks like on the outside.

What’s even more common is for riders to not understand that the reason their physical wheels are spinning out of control, is because their emotional wheels started spinning first.

Now, I’m NOT suggesting that every barrel racer should go out and ride bridleless today (again, doing so safely does require plenty of specific prior, proper, preparation), and I’m not saying it’s absolutely necessary to be a successful barrel racer, but doing so with my own horses has opened up a whole new world of awareness.

As I explained last week, my verrrry laid back, baggage-free gelding struggled to maintain direction. Dot Com, a complete opposite in every sense, struggled with maintaining gait because he was feeling impulsive, but in both cases it has everything to do with emotional balance.

It’s not that either horse didn’t have the education in place to know what to do (although this can also be an issue), it’s that they didn’t feel like doing it. Again, there will come times when we must call upon our horses to move or perform despite how they are feeling, but if their emotions aren’t rebalanced, and if it’s interfering with our performance, we have to first be aware enough to notice, and then care enough, to become skilled enough to do something about it.

Bridleless barrel racing.

Riding bridleless has showed me the TRUTH about how my horses FEEL and how much I have overlooked their emotions and micromanaged them. It’s helped me to break my own bad habits, as well as test and refine their educational and emotional foundations. It’s made the not so obvious problems that certainly DO show up on the pattern, glaringly obvious.

We have to be honest with ourselves if we want to support our horse’s well-being, as well as give ourselves the greatest chance of success in the arena. Dot Com is pretty athletic even when he’s fearful, but I don’t want to compete on those terms.

Contrary to what most would think, he didn’t spend most of his life as a “runaway waiting to happen” because he just innately has a lot of go (although he does have a lot of go), or just because he’s sensitive (although he is also sensitive), or because he’s just “excited,” to run (although some degree of anticipation is always expected in the timed speed event horse). He was running scared, and there is a difference, although it may not be obvious to the untrained eye.

Even if we’re inclined to pay more attention to how our horse performs than how they feel, it’s important to remember that the two are directly connected. Developing the skills it takes to develop an emotionally fit barrel horse won’t just benefit us in competition, it also allows us to offer our horses the very best in terms of their over-all health.

That’s important to me. I want to do everything I possibly can to make it a WIN-WIN.

Reaching the highest levels of competition means challenging ourselves in unique ways that open our eyes to what’s REALLY missing. It requires us to dive into our own development deep enough to experience things that create a whole new level of awareness.

Riding bridleless isn’t exactly part of the average barrel racers program, but who knows WHEN or IF I’d had ever experienced these powerful lessons, had I not chosen to veer of the well-traveled path.

After all, my goal is not to be average!

It wasn’t until I started taking the “do more with less” concept to a higher level (with a challenging horse no less), that I opened the door of opportunity for these powerful realizations to come about.

Now days, when I DO have reins, I try to ride as if I don’t. I even lead my horse with the halter as if it wasn’t there. I’m so much more aware. I’m more present, and pay closer attention to my horse’s emotional needs, and I’ve developed an even greater ability to meet them as we go.

When Dot Com returns to pro level competition, I want it to be with a new foundation of calm confidence. So much confidence and contentment, that IF left to his own devices, he would not choose to run away and hide his head in the sand (or in a corner).

I want his TRUTH brought to light, for it to be pleasant vs. scary. I want him to run and rate with connection to his rider and his emotions in check, not just because tack is preventing him from having options.

Growth is humbling, uncomfortable, and sometimes even a little scary. I want Dot Com to have ALL the elements it takes to reach the highest level of success, and for me that means having a willingness to look at my own, and my horse’s “dark spots.”

Dot Com showed me the TRUTH, and although it wasn’t initially a very pretty picture, I am grateful for the opportunity to improve it, and improve myself at the same time.

I really think it IS possible to have it ALL, and soooo worth the commitment it takes to get there.

With new found awareness as inspiration, if YOU are motivated to learn the concepts and develop the specific skills to develop barrel horses with an unshakable emotional foundation, you’ll benefit from my #1 best-selling book, “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success,” and “The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion,” both which feature steps for developing the emotional balance necessary for high level barrel racing achievement.

Some of the best, most profound, influential and life-changing lessons are found in unexpected places, and I’m passionate about sharing the sometimes unconventional ways in which I’ve been becoming a better horseman, and a better barrel racer.

Click here to order your copy of “The Secrets,” and receive “The Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development” as your gift from me.

Here’s hoping that my experiences, and the content I share will inspire new journeys into the depths of your own horsemanship AND your horse’s truth, as well.

Have YOU ever been exposed to “the truth” in a way that you’ll never forget?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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15 replies
  1. donna
    donna says:

    You are great at inspiring people to higher learning. One absolute truth about horses–there is ALWAYS something more to learn…Waiting for your next book–when will it be out? thx for all the tips. Donna

  2. sandra
    sandra says:

    I already new the truth, but I wanted to see how far we’d come on Friday. In a snaffle we did the play day events…we came to the barrels and my finished 2D horse went from 1st to 3rd. Now we haven’t even seen a barrel in 6 months, but still…What did make me happy is that I do not ride him in a twisted wire dog bone with long shanks and a thin wire tie down.
    I was proud of him for trying and we are making progress. We got in the gate all 6 times with some fuss but not near what it was in the beginning and I listen to him, I don’t get angry because he’s having a meltdown, I know he has mental issues with the gate which as you said are a product of a much larger picture and just show up at the gate.
    I want to thank you for this weekly help and for the book. These 2 have made a tremendous difference in my thinking, riding, life and relationship with my horses.
    I truly want to get started on liberty work with him, how did you get started?

  3. Rose
    Rose says:

    My young horse hasn’t yet been introduced to the pattern, we are working on getting consistent circles. I feel she needs to do more of the work on her own, I have noticed when I correct a dropped shoulder to the inside of the circle, or a fading shoulder to the outside, if I cue her first with my leg she only speeds up. I then have to take hold of the reins, also if I give her rein slack, she is speeding around the circle and no longer moving in a correct frame. What can I do to help her so that my leg cues don’t send her rushing, but keep her collected while correcting her frame? I feel like my hands have to do a lot of holding her to keep her in frame.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Rose, good question. I’ll be posting a tip to answer this on Facebook this week, so be watching for it! To start you can walk along an arena wall/fence and use your leg to disengage her hips away so her nose is at the fence (where she can’t go anywhere). Use the reins as necessary but as little as possible. Don’t worry to much about perfection or shape at first, just really reward any sign that she’s trying to understand the new meaning of leg pressure without making assumptions. Start small and build from there!

  4. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    My horse swishes his tail a lot while riding. It doesn’t really matter what we’re working on, he’ll do it. I’m just wondering if you could specifically tell me why he would do that. Is it just an attitude thing? Or does he dislike his job?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Dot Com had started swishing his tail lately and it turned out his hocks were sore… it’s usually a sign of discomfort. If it’s an attitude thing, keep in mind that it’s up to US to change our horse’s attitude into a positive, accepting one – we have SO MUCH control over that. 🙂
      There are some horses that don’t have a high athletic aptitude for barrel racing, or might not especially enjoy a lot of repetitive work, but if we’re doing our part we can set things up in a way that make barrel racing appealing and enjoyable for any horse. It’s less about the horse and more about the WAY in which we’re presenting things to them.

  5. shawn
    shawn says:

    I purchase “The Secrets,” and was to receive “The Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development” (I think this was it it was a speed one for the horse) approximately a month ago. I cannot seem to locate where my computer has dropped it. Can you look it up my CC and possibly send me another? I never got the chance to read it and my computer was down but now I cannot locate stuff on it.
    Thank you so much
    Shawn Smith

  6. kayla
    kayla says:

    I have a horse with the exact same problem, I’d say they are the same horse. I can’t figure out how to get her to just relax for once without having to pull on her every second she speends up, or have her emotions and anxiety spiral out of control when at a barrel race. I can’t even warm her up. I’m hoping to try bridles with her or even a halter because I currently ride her in a very soft snaffle o-ring and she still can’t relax. I just want to get her back to running without her lunging off because I can’t keep her anxiety levels down. This entry you made has given me hope that I may actually be able to fix her.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Kayla, Keep in mind that bridleless riding should only be done with a lot of proper, prior, preparation! I did it as a test and it happened to reveal to me the greater depth of Dot Com’s emotional state. It’s definitely NOT a the way to FIX anything, only test and reveal when you’re at a more advanced stage, otherwise it could be very dangerous. You can search for “Dot Com” in the upper right corner here for lots more articles featuring him with helpful tips for creating relaxation. 🙂 My book “The First 51” shares some great insights as well!

  7. Sami A
    Sami A says:

    i still compete on my little mare which happens to be the first horse I ever barrel raced on. Surprisingly I trained her myself at 13 with no experience. I can ride her all over the place bareback and just a lead rope around her neck with no halter but she gets hot headed as soon as she realizes were at a rodeo. She’s to the point where she’ll clock a 1D/2D time IF I can get her to go around the third barrel. Usually this just happens in the practice pen when we go full speed. Do you think her being so anxious to run is why she’s refusing the last barrel?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Sami, chances are the problem at the third barrel is related to more than just her anxiety, but it’s quite possibly part of the problem. Mental/physical pre-run tension and emotional issues can become learned behaviors over time and so we have to basically start over to TEACH relaxation. It’s also important that we learn to become the kind of horsemen that prevent this from getting to extreme to begin with. There are plenty of resources here on that subject and you might also check out Six Tips for a Tight Third Barrel. 🙂

  8. BJ
    BJ says:

    Hi! I recently started competing again and bought a 15 year old mare and started training a 2 year old. The 15 yo is very anxious to the point that she will paw at the ground instead of standing still and needs to constantly move if in an arena to compete. I’m not sure if the 2 yo is learning that behavior from her as well. She hasn’t been to a rodeo but when being saddled she will paw at the ground and get worked up as well. She will also not stand tied with out pawing at the ground. What do you suggest?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I do a lot of tying “practice” with young horses in all kinds of environments, but you’re right in that it’s possible that the colt could be picking up anxiety and even habits from the older horse. The real solution in cases like this has more to do with who we are than what we do – but taking the right actions is a place to start… there’s a difference between a confident, pushy (rude) horse that “won’t” stand still, and one that is so emotional that he “can’t” stand still. A lot of times the steps are similar to help them but I’ll go about it slightly differently based on where they are truly coming from. In each case I would move their feet A LOT (being a little softer in a fearful horse), even more than they want to and really get their focus on me and keep their minds busy, at the first sign of relaxation they get a rest break with the complete release of pressure. It’s got to be uncomfortable for them to paw and be anxious and easy for them to “chill.” But we have to be consistent and jump in and do something when they start the behavior (even before, prevention is better) or else they just get more “practice” at doing what we don’t want.


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