How Pistol Got His Groove Back – (Re)Building Confidence and Focus in the Barrel Horse

Building Confidence and Focus in the Barrel Horse

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As I’ve been riding my superstar gelding Pistol again this spring after a LONG year and a half of being sidelined due to an injury, I’ve noticed that he wasn’t the same horse I left off with.

But things had started to change even before he got hurt.

You see, a few years ago I had started learning more about what true leadership REALLY IS (which wasn’t what I thought).

I’d started learning about the difference between a horse that is quiet and calm vs. quiet and withdrawn

A horse that performs based on desire vs. avoidance.

A horse that responds vs. reacts.

A horse that yields to pressure (and can even come toward pressure when asked) vs. run away from it.

The vast majority of timed speed event horses are withdrawing, avoiding, reacting, and running away.

And the vast majority of timed speed event horses could perform even better and faster IF they were operating from a foundation of calm, connected, responsive desire.

When I set out to create a relationship on new terms with my gelding a couple years ago, in my experimentation, I inadvertently swung the pendulum too far the other way and in the process lost leadership points AND my horse’s confidence – leaving my once “Steady Eddy” with insecurities as an aged horse, he never even had as a youngster.

Having an arena here at our new place in Texas means I’ve been doing a lot of riding at home, but I KNEW that his insecurities wouldn’t be solved by simply getting him out and about more – they was deeper than that.

Steady Eddy was now Nervous Ned.
“Steady Eddy” was now “Nervous Ned.”

When I was invited to “make a big circle” on a friend’s ranch a few weeks ago, I was expecting a leisurely, fun ride but Pistol felt like a fire cracker. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but ugh!

Something had to change… and it had to start with ME.

While I believe that preparing horses for new or stressful environments does require actually hauling and putting them in those environments, working through their tension, anxiety and insecurity in ANY moment or environment where it comes up (even a little bit) will greatly help resolve it in ALL circumstances.

I noticed that Pistol would get a little nervous about potential “bogey men” in the trees down the road near our home, so because my time has been really limited and there haven’t been a TON of challenging or high pressure environments to put him that are close by, I elected to ride down the road and get a head start on dissolving his anxiety so that I wouldn’t run into it during our summer travels.

The FIRST KEY toward dissolving any reactivity, impulsiveness, anxiety, distraction or tension is to acknowledge it. A lot of people notice it, but either aren’t sure how to address it (so they do nothing), OR they write off this way of being, feeling and moving as “normal.”

I know just how easy it is for timed speed event competitors especially to get conditioned to thinking it’s “the norm,” but I encourage you to become even more aware when you’re horse shows signs that all is NOT well in his world.

When your horse is distressed, notice & take action!
When your horse is distressed, notice & take action!

The next step is to TAKE ACTION. When you feel the subtlest form of reactivity, impulsiveness, anxiety, distraction, fear or tension, it’s absolutely imperative that you DO something about it.

What you do exactly will vary depending on your conditions and the space you have available, but most important is that you don’t ignore, overlook, or pretend/wish it’s not happening.

For example, if your horse shows small signs of emotional distress in moderately pressured circumstances, chances are he’ll have a full-out meltdown under even greater pressure.

Notice the little things at home and in practice and deal with them there, and you won’t be so surprised by a major behavior changes under more challenging circumstances.

The NEXT very IMPORTANT STEP comes in WHAT to do. There are a couple basic maneuvers that can be performed in a variety of ways that are very effective for regaining your horse’s focus and instilling relaxation. One is any kind of movement that involves the legs crossing over each other such as lateral movements or hindquarter disengagement. The other is full-body bend, making sure the ribs are actually yielding and supple (not just an over-bent neck).

In The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion I’ve gone into even greater depth about exactly WHY these movements work so well. If you’re looking to build your skill in applying them, click here to learn more!

To work toward getting “the old Pistol” back, I did some of the things that “the old Heather” used to do, but in a different way, and ultimately achieved different, and better results.

First I headed west out the driveway and went for a stroll down “Bogey Man Road” and just waited for Pistol to show signs of insecurity – which seems to start with his head and ears coming up combined with a subtle inconsistency in his stride. The moment he hesitated to look at something he wasn’t sure about, I did one of TWO things…

First, I asked him to walk a figure eight as wide as the gravel road would allow, while being very particular about the even pace of his walk and the complete bend through his ribs and body. I used primarily my legs to accomplish this while using as little rein as possible.

Instead of getting frustrated or emotional myself, I was patient and persistent but effective – if he didn’t yield to my leg or if he wanted to cut off his nice round, forward circle (which tends to happen at the point you turn toward home), I’d bump, Bump, BUMP with my leg until the quality improved.

Around that time he also tended to relax, lower his head and lick his lips – then we stopped for a rest, always facing the direction of whatever “Bogey Man” he was concerned about.

Building Confidence and Focus in the Barrel Horse
I rewarded Pistol’s quality response with his all-time favorite activity – doing nothing!

As we continued down the road, if he got nervous or insecure, I’d again put his feet, body and mind to work and instead of always doing small circles, I also asked for an even, quality sidepass.

Building Confidence and Focus in the Barrel Horse
Of course he initially didn’t respond as nicely as he usually does – that’s the point. Asking him to yield his body in this way and really pay attention and listen to what I was asking required him to use his BRAIN to connect to me, and think instead of react. Asking him to yield his ribs and cross his feet encouraged connection and relaxation.

Most important was the TIMING in which I started and stopped the figure eights or side passing. You can use these techniques all day long, but if you don’t start doing them at the proper time and release at the proper time, you’re not likely to make much progress and your horse might even learn to just move his body around on auto pilot without really connecting to you mentally and relaxing.

If you want to get to a horse’s MIND, be particular about how he’s using his feet – test this out and see if quality responses and attention is there under ALL circumstances. If there are exceptions to when or where your horse will yield his body and give his focus to you, then these mental/emotional foundational elements could stand some firming up.

Keep in mind also, that you DO need to have a firm educational foundation already established. If your horse’s basic understanding of yielding to pressure and moving his feet is limited, the effectiveness of these techniques will be also. Focus on instilling these elements really well at home first before venturing out and expecting more.

Basically, when we don’t have effective influence of our horses in challenging circumstances (at the barrel race) it’s a sign that it needs to be even better under less challenging circumstances (at home).

While going through the process, sometimes you have to hang in there for quite a while before you notice a subtle positive change. Basically, I released on ONE of two things – either he improved the quality of what I was asking (a perfect, even sidepass or a soft, forward circle with full-body bend) OR he showed some sign of relaxation. Usually they would occur around the same time. Once they did, he received even more reward for the effort.

Reward relaxation with even more relaxation.
Reward relaxation with even more relaxation.


Pistol was reminded that there is peace and comfort to be found by connecting to me, that I’m the source of his relaxation. The “sweet spot,” even in moments of uncertainty is to check in with me mentally, and soften and yield to me physically – not to worry, tense up and think about escape.

After just one ride there was a significant, positive all-around change in Pistol. As we continue to get things reestablished, the more calm, connected, responsive and confident he’ll become.

So what’s so different between how I went about this now vs. a few years ago?

Instead of getting frustrated and emotional myself when a horse gets worried (after all, it’s SO annoying!), barking orders at them or REALLY hustling their feet in quick succession automatically (which didn’t build authentic confidence but only contributed to them hiding their emotions by becoming withdrawn – it actually made Dot Com even more insecure!), this time I stayed more neutral in my body and mind – I didn’t let his emotions affect my own.

So rather than instantly launching into an intense frenzy and essentially communicating “I’ll give you something to be scared of – so you better start behaving or else!” I just matched my own energy level to his. Horses have no concept of good or bad, they’re just doing what they have learned, or what they think they need to do to survive. When we attach negative or anxious emotions to their behavior, things tend to get ugly.

The difference in how I would go about this for a very innately sensitive horse (such as Dot Com, for example), is that I’m a little softer and more passively persistent – I might “bump… bump… bump…” with my leg where as with Pistol I’d “bump, Bump, BUMP!”

By taking these steps, I’ve made a huge stride in reestablishing leadership by bringing Pistol’s focus back to me, then rewarding him when he made a positive change, even a subtle one to start with. By actually NOTICING and DOING SOMETHING to help a horse when they’re the slightest bit worried, it changes how your horse sees you through his eyes.

Calm, connected & responsive.
Calm, connected & responsive.

When we become our horse’s hero, they become more confident in themselves, and this bleeds over into other environments. How you go about relating to your horse when just riding down the road can completely change how he relates to you in the alley, in a run and the world in general – YES, even in moments when you’re not in the picture.

Although I’ve been doing my best to ALSO haul Pistol and get him out and about in preparation for our summer travels, picking out an environment that Pistol was insecure in, and working through it as it came up has truly brought the calm old Pistol back, but on different, more positive terms.

This is all a lot like “sports psychology for horses,” and let’s face it – as much as we enjoy focusing on the physical aspect of training horses, while important, we could all benefit from a lot more attention on the mental aspect of competition for horses AND humans. It’s not so much their behavior that’s the problem, but the REASON for it lying under the surface that we must address. When we do, the undesirable behavior goes away.

When our horse’s mind can work in our favor, when our idea and their idea are the same idea, the physical part of barrel racing tends to come together much more quickly and easily!

I plan to be more aware as we go forward, but now Pistol doesn’t only “look” quiet, calm and confident, he really IS. There’s a BIG difference, and I KNOW it WILL be reflected in competition, and that we’ll be set up for a much more successful summer as well.

Remember, we have a choice. Resist the temptation to overlook your horse’s impulsiveness, fear or anxiety. Acknowledge their emotions by taking action and working through them when they come up consistently and they’ll tend to come up much less extremely, and much less often.

When your horses can count on YOU, you’ll be more likely to be able to count on THEIR full focus and attention when it matters most.

Here’s to developing authentically confident, educated, WINNING barrel horses – on purpose!

In the comments below, I’d love to hear YOUR questions, challenges or experiences with creating relaxed, focused, high performing horses!

11 replies
  1. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    Really enjoyed this article. I got a 16 year old barrel horse 5&1/2 months ago. He’s a great horse, but “afraid” of everything. He hasn’t really run barrels in a couple of years & when I first got him, he ran for me a few times & then decided he didn’t wanna do it at all!! He won’t go in the arena & won’t come OUT!!!! He has no confidence & I don’t know why. I think he’s been through the ringer over the years with people trying to “fix” him. From trying to make him a roping horse or a pony horse at the track, etc… We’ve come a long way on the trail riding aspect & he’s much better at an arena now, but I’ve recently started trying to just exhibition him & as soon as he thinks he’s gotta run, he goes into panic mode & refuses to go in the alleyway. We’re still working hard, but I’m kind of at a loss anymore. He’s such an awesome horse!! Thanks for the tips!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Stacey, it sounds like your horse has become “allergic” to training and learning! You might try transitioning from speed back to slow, speed up, then slow, etc. at home and don’t speed up again until he relaxes. It’s a way to use merge speed and relaxation so that he doesn’t have such an emotional spike.

  2. Sandy Hickey
    Sandy Hickey says:

    It’s going to be hard to make my comment brief! I cannot tell you how many of your articles I have read that have come along at such perfect timing for me. This one is NO different!! This very topic is one on my mind and on heart all the time, but ALOT at the moment, regarding one of my mares particularly. While she appears to be the herd boss and acts tuff on the outside, she is rather a right brain extrovert (if I remember right without looking at the horse personalities) and a truly insecure, full throttle aholic and afraid of everything and looking for that leadership. I have been learning what works best for her to keep her calm and relaxed and focused on me. She is very well trained and super smart and athletic, but she can be quite a handful at times! I remember one year our first ride out for the season, she took out a hot wire fence on a narrow trail road and all of the neighbors cattle got out while she was spinning around and acting scared to death of cattle that day, and everything else in her path! ALL of which she had seen and been around a million times!!!!
    While I haven’t been as consistant with her as I need to be, while exploring what works and “accidently” finding what does, when I reflect on our day or previous competition. I have tried a few different approaches with her, and this article confirmed with me, looking back, what it is she needs and what has worked the best for her in the past. I had learned that in warm up time, she does best with “collected” exercises, and making small perfect circles at a WALK with nice bend in her ribs and setting her hip in, has become her “go to place” for relaxing. BUT the biggest challenge I have had is finding, that place in ME and giving that to her(and all of them)100% of the time!! So, thank you for this article and giving me the confirmation and confidence to stay connected and consistant. I am going to work harder at becoming a better, focused leader and give her the time and be more consistent in our exercises at home and take them with me wherever we go! Please let me know if you EVER will be doing hands clinics. I would really love to come ride with you sometime! Thanks for all you do for horses and barrel racers!!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks for sharing Sandy… definitely sounds like RBE behavior. I just saw that horsenality reports are 50% off today, so that’s something I recommend looking into to develop even more understanding and specific strategies for your mare. I think you’re on the right track – a couple keys for these horses are meeting their need to move their feet and matching their energy. And the small, collected circles will help keep her “shortened,” soft and connected to you.
      Hang in there, horse’s like yours tend to be the most difficult in the beginning stages but much easier in advanced stages. Most high level performance horses are big “movers” (they have a natural desire to move their feet) and so there will be certain things that will come easier for her as an athlete.
      For me, becoming more “emotionally mature” with my horses has made all the difference – I don’t let their behavior effect mine, I stay neutral and steady on the inside without getting the slightest bit tight, frustrated, angry, annoyed, etc. and simply do what the horse needs in each moment without attaching any emotion to it. I don’t attempt competing until they have proven to me they can remain emotionally balanced in varying circumstances.
      Glad you enjoyed this article – when we understand what horses need as individuals, it certainly brings a lot of clarity to WHY horses behave as they do, AND what we can do about it! 🙂

    • Casey
      Casey says:

      Your mare sounds a LOT like mine! She acts dominant with other horses, but then when riding she has a tendency to get anxious and lose mental connection, and needs a strong leader so she can stay calm. I have had to learn to be very purposeful and aware of my interactions, and make sure I am always being the leader, and not inadvertently confusing that role for her. This article that Heather posted was also perfect timing for me. I read it the afternoon before I took my mare out for our first ride out down the road alone. I was so thankful I had the tools from this article to respond to my mare’s anxiety as we went down the road. So you’re right. With a horse like this, we have to do a lot of work on OURSELVES in order to be the leaders they need.

  3. Cruzer
    Cruzer says:

    Just what I needed!!! I feel like my gelding “lost his groove” over the winter and this is just the answer I have been looking for!!! Thank you so much I really enjoyed this article!!

  4. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Just wanted to say Thanks, I’ve always done this with all my horses, I like them to be calm and ready when I ask. People have looked at me like I was crazy when my horse was standing there almost asleep, but when I change my breathing and ask ( are you ready ) that’s when it’s time to go to work! And my horse ran down the track and she has been my steady eddy for 15 yrs.and still going! Your awesome Heather keep sharing info.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You got it Kathy! There’s no reason our horse’s can’t learn to turn “ON” when we’re ON and chill out otherwise. “What we allow is what will continue” – so often we’re just enabling horses to be emotional basket cases, BUT we DO have the power to change that! Keep up the great work!


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