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“Experiencing true unity when racing through the pattern, without delays or hesitation, is the stuff winning runs are made of.” – pg. 34 of Secrets to Barrel Racing Success.
It’s not uncommon for riders to get a taste of true connection with horses, and then turn their desire for developing it further into a lifelong pursuit.
Many riders, even trainers and competitors are not physically and mentally connected with their horses. Even worse, is that they lack the awareness of their disconnection. Often times this sense of “being on the same page” comes and goes – it’s there sometimes, but not others. One thing for certain, “getting connected” more consistently will always improve your barrel racing!
I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that if you aren’t “one” with your horse, that you won’t achieve some level of success with horses, because miraculously, you can.
It’s possible through using repetition, patterns, etc. to train your horse to develop habits and respond to cues. Like a perfect robotic “trick horse” your equine partner might make assumptions and obediently respond with enough consistency that it leaves you feeling like quite an accomplished team.
However this mechanical, trained responsiveness, although an important part of the equation for successful barrel racing, will only get you so far. Without being truly connected, the communication with your horse is, well – artificial.
Unless you develop true connection, you horse might not be there for you mentally, when you ride away from his buddies, for example. There are exceptions to his willingness to work together and he may not be there for you physically to lift his shoulder when you ask in that split second when it counts. He’ll have his own ideas that contradict yours, maybe in certain environments or contexts, and you might even feel at times like there’s not much you can do about it.
Sometimes symptoms of a loss of connection are obvious and frustrating, but sometimes they are so subtle that they’re hard to even notice. Sometimes it all goes under the radar until you find yourself in high pressure situations that really have a way of testing your connection – and revealing the truth.
When a separation occurs between horse and rider, it slows everything down – which is good reason for any barrel racer to become more aware of when it’s lost, why, and what do to about it. When barrel races are won by tiny fractions of a second, it’s important to do everything possible to eliminate unnecessary delays.
There is SO much involved in developing a real connection with horses, and understanding why separations occur. One article on the subject barely scratches the surface, but that’s why I wrote Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, which was to deliver the lesser known but critical pieces of the puzzle to barrel racers who want to take their competition to the next level.
To further help you get on the same page with your equine partner, below I’ve shared three simple, but transformational exercises for improving connection.
On the Ground – Do You See a Horse?
If your horse isn’t mentally connected to you and honoring your requests to follow your feel and move his feet in a specific way on the ground, chances are not so good that it will come together under saddle. Even if you feel like “all is well” when you’re on your horse’s back, proper groundwork will always cause what is good – to become even better!
The first exercise I’ll describe is one you’ll want to execute with your horse outfitted in a halter and lead rope. (I prefer quality rope halters and leads at least 10 ft. long for groundwork – the narrower material creates more specific pressure when you need it, and quality ropes transfer more “feel” through the line to effectively communicate with your horse.)
Standing with your horse a few feet away, turn toward him and pick a landmark of some sort off behind him in the distance. Consider it a place you want to go, and your horse is now in the way. Bring up your life and start walking with a purpose to that spot. If your horse hasn’t already moved out of the way, swing the end of your lead rope to notify him that you’re on a mission. If he still has chosen not to move, allow the swinging lead rope to come in contact with his body. As you do, you’re asking your horse to respect your own bubble of space as you travel toward the point you’re focusing on, and it then becomes your horse’s choice when and how to get out the way!
Once you’ve walked forward a few steps, turn and choose another point in the distance between you and your horse, and repeat. Soon your horse will be more focused on you and paying attention. He’ll start to see you as someone who has a plan, someone who can move his feet at any time, someone to listen too for further instructions.
He might even turn and look at you with ears up as if you’re the most fascinating human he ever laid eyes on! Although you’re causing some discomfort for your horse if he remains in your way, you’re not making him do anything. You’re displaying strong leadership, and being someone that your horse is willing to follow – in more ways than one!
If your horse has no concept of yielding to pressure or respecting your space on the ground, you’ll be more patient and persistent at first, but just keep twirling and moving forward while increasing the intensity until your horse moves out of your way (if you think you might be in danger of being kicked use a stick & string as an extension of your arm, which will keep your body out of harms way) and then stop to reward him to signify that moving out of the way is what you wanted.
To develop the ultimate level of responsiveness and feel, you’ll walk toward your point of focus pretty quickly, and expect your horse to remove himself from your path in a hurry and then follow the feel of your lead rope and follow you as you walk. If your horse becomes unconfident and pulls away after you do this, take a break and swing the lead rope over his back and all over his body to remind him that he should respond to your tools (when they are used with a specific intention), but not be afraid of them.
There’s a difference between meaningful and meaningless activity, swinging a rope can be either, what differentiates it is the energy and focus we put behind that activity!
Follow my Focus
In a recent weekly winning tips email, I shared the insights I gained from a horsemanship/cow working clinic in which my gelding hooked onto an energetic Corriente and followed him without missing a beat – until the steer joined another steer, and when I glanced at the other one – boom, my horse’s weight shifted under me and he was locked onto the other steer. Proof that my gelding was locked onto the steer and also following my focus!
This is so similar to how we want our horses to operate on the barrel pattern. We want them to be confident and know that they should follow the pattern without fail, but that they should also respond to their rider in a moment’s notice if we need to offer a specific correction.
Not very many of us experience this high level connection on a regular basis, but continuously striving to develop it will always benefit us. It will help prevent our horses from over anticipating and making assumptions (taking off in the alley, shouldering a barrel), it will allow us to help them in less than ideal circumstances (like bad ground), it’ll make it more likely that they’ll go where we ask without resistance (in the gate, tight around the turns), it will keep them with us mentally under distracting circumstances (like high energy, loud environments), etc.
Whether you have access to some cattle to trail around or not, the same principles apply for this exercise whether you choose a stationary point to focus on while you’re riding or a moving one. To start with saddle up and ride on a loose rein with the goal to keep your hand set on your horse’s withers. When you’re carrying your reins it’s just too darn easy to inadvertently help or baby sit your horse and make corrections. Keeping your reins “glued” to the withers will really reveal whether you’re horse is responsible for maintaining direction or if you’re micromanaging!
Again, choose a point in the distance to focus on, pick up your reins slightly to start (without making contact), bring up the life in your body, squeeze lightly with your legs, and the instant your horse transitions to the gait you want, release and move your hands back to your horse’s withers. If your horse doesn’t step into a walk or trot then use the end of your split rein, an over & under, etc. to tap him. This teaches your horse to respond to the slightest signals from you to increase gait.
Your goal is to travel in a straight line to the point you’re focusing on. If your horse gets off track, run your hand down and firmly but gently guide him back with a direct rein. Give this some time and if you find yourself having to make numerous connections, you can either try stopping your horse once he’s got off track, back him a few steps as you realign with your focal point, then start toward it again, OR you can also turn him in a fast circle or two in the direction he wants to go, to teach him that the path of least resistance is to stay on the path you’re focusing on. (Use your judgment on this, for example, you would not want to turn your horse into a barrel if he had a habit of drifting toward it too much).
Keep repeating this by choosing new points to focus on. Experiment with turning your horse just by changing your focus (your body changes slightly when you turn your head – your horse CAN feel this – it’s our job to let them know it has meaning!) and try this same exercise on a circle, can your horse maintain the shape of the circle without constant guidance from you!? If your horse starts to go faster than you want, pick up on rein and bend to a stop for a major offence or stop and back up, and be more subtle about your energy and how you ask your horse to accelerate next time.
In both cases you’re just making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. If your horse is especially drawn to a gate or other horses, etc. you might go to that point, and really put their feet to work, so they realize that being in these places does not always mean rest and relaxation! Often times we sit and visit at the gate and/or with other people on horseback, so it’s no wonder horses are magnetized toward them!
Remember, when your idea and your horses idea are not the same idea – you are not connected! Turning the tables requires you to be proactive, to make a change in the pattern, and make it easier and more peaceful for them to go with the flow!
Transitions, and Then Some
One of the best ways to get your horse on the same page with you is transitions – lots of them of all different types! When I speak of transitions, I definitely recommend you focus on changes of gait but also changes of every other type you can imagine. The awesome thing about making any kind of change is that it helps a horse get connected to you regardless of the reason WHY they are not connected (which is usually a fear/respect issue).
For example, let’s say you have an insecure, fearful horse – if you’re making numerous requests to change the speed and direction of their feet, then you’re stepping up and BEING the kind of rider they will feel more secure with and willing to follow.
If your horse is confident and wants to run the show, then making numerous requests to change the speed and direction of their feet serves as a reminder that you indeed are the leader in this herd of two, and that the game plan can change at any moment, so be ready and don’t assume! When you and your horse are totally connected, he will respond to your request to transition up or down in gait in an instant.
In the exercise above I described the steps I use to transition upward in gait. To transition downward, I lift my rein a little without making contact (this just lets my horse know a change is coming), then I lower my energy and exhale, then sit deep in the saddle and only then make contact with my reins if necessary.
If you have to take it that far (making contact with the reins), then back up twice as far as it took for your horse to stop. If you’re consistent in the way you ask your horse to “go” and “whoa,” soon they’ll respond to the slightest subtle suggestions and you’ll be on your way to building a better connection.
Practice this at any time, anywhere – in the arena on the rail, across the middle, in a straight line or a circle, out in the field, etc. Make sure you sandwich other maneuvers in the middle of your transitions, otherwise your horse might (like mine) start to assume, “Oh we’re doing transitions now, so I better pay attention.” Ask for these transitions after long trotting a ½ mile, for example, or any other time when your horse least expects it.
The goal is for your horse to respond any time, not just when you’re “working on these exercises!” Repetition is especially important for teaching anything new, but when you’re careful not to “compartmentalize” your training sessions too much, your horse is more likely to stay focused and less likely to sink into “robot mode.”
To take this to the barrel pattern, if your horse has an issue with anticipating the turns, try going up to the barrel and lope off the other way (turn away from the barrel), lope around the pattern all one direction or all another, keep them guessing, do the opposite!
This is especially useful for those confident horses that know their job and tend to take over and ignore their rider. Because change = stress to horses, those that are more on the insecure side tend to have a lesser need for variety and appreciate more repetition.
As you’re implementing transitions, not only include transitions in gait, and direction of travel, but also body shape, etc. Instead of spending 10 minutes working on three separate exercises you might lope the pattern all to the left, do some “follow your focus,” then lope all rights, etc. Variety keeps your horse guessing, it keeps your horse interested, and it helps prevent your horse from making assumptions and calling the shots. It keeps your horse from turning into a “trained trick horse.” It gets your horse thinking “Gee, what’s next!?” It helps get and keep your horse CONNECTED!
It’s critical that we become aware of when our physical or mental connection is lost with our horse, and what caused it. Usually, although it may seem like it’s “our horse’s fault,” at the core there’s really some way that we are dropping the ball and not providing what our horse needs (and being a rider that our horse wants to connect with)!
When you do sense the connection being lost, be proactive! Take action right away, which usually means a change or request of some sort Sometimes, even if you’re not sure what to do, just doing something – anything will help! Most importantly, don’t allow your horse to be “too wrong or too long.” When the symptoms of disconnect occur repeatedly, a horse is just getting even more practiced at being disconnected!
In addition, be sure that you’re consistent in the ways you ask your horse to be “with” you. If you require this connection sometimes, but not others, your horse will never really know what’s expected of him and the consistency you look for in competition is not as likely to be there when it really matters.
When used correctly, the exercises mentioned above can be so valuable for improving connection, and that is the stuff winning runs are made of!
What about you? When have you felt disconnected, and how did you get back on the “same page?”
Let me know in the comments below!