How to Build Your Barrel Horse’s Confidence and Respect with Leadership

How to Build Your Barrel Horse's Confidence and Respect with Leadership

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #43 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
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In this final part of a three part series of Q&A videos, I’ll be sharing what it really means to provide proper leadership, and how doing so can create not only happier, but more competitive barrel horses.

The definition of leadership, thanks to Wikipedia, goes something like this…

“Organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal.” A leader is “somebody whom people follow: somebody who guides or directs others.”

I also love this definition of leadership in the quote below from Dwight B. Isenhower

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Now there are a few signs that may be showing up if your horse is in need of more and/or better leadership from you…

  • Gets distracted, can’t focus, can’t stand still
  • Is spooky, tense, high headed, hesitant, worried
  • Is resistant, unresponsive, unwilling, or dominant
  • Is “naughty” or dangerous – kicks, bucks, runs off, invades your space

You might automatically think “Oh, MY horse isn’t that way!”

“Naughty?” Or lack of education and leadership?
“Naughty?” Or lack of education and leadership?

But really, if you become very aware and look closely – does he ever volunteer to walk off before you ask?  Or is there ever even a split second of hesitation present when you ask him to go? 

If so, regardless of whether the symptoms are very subtle, lack of leadership can be holding you back in competition.

In every herd of horses, there is a leader, usually a boss mare that leads the other herd members.  When you are with your horse, YOU are the leader, even if your herd consists of only you and your horse. 

It’s up to US to watch out for danger, protect our horse and help them feel OK about their surroundings so they can be calm, connected to us, and responsive.

When we have these three things, we put the odds much more in our favor to achieve barrel racing success, or success in anything for that matter! 

Leadership is a commonly overlooked, and misunderstood foundational element that is critical for giving ourselves our greatest chances at getting around the pattern without delays, not to mention keeping our horses happy and therefore healthy.

Below I’ll include a quote from the bookTurning Pro by Steven Pressfield.

“I got the chance a few years ago to watch a famous trainer work with his thoroughbreds.  I had imagined that the process would be something hard-core like Navy SEAL training.  To my surprise, the sessions were more like play.

The work was serious, as in teaching the two-year-olds to enter the starting gate, and the horses were definitely learning.  But the trainer took pains to make the schooling feel like fun.  When a horse got tired, the trainer took him off the track.  If a mount got bored or restive, the trainer never forced him to continue or drove him “through the pain.”

He explained:

A horse is a flight animal.  Even a stallion, if he can, will choose flight over confrontation.  Picture the most sensitive person you’ve ever known; a horse is ten times more sensitive.  A horse is a naked nervous system, particularly a thoroughbred.  He’s a child.  A three-year-old, big and fast as he is, is a baby.  Horses understand the whip, but I don’t want a racer that runs that way.  A horse that loves to run will beat a horse that’s compelled, every day of the week.”

Wow, powerful stuff – “A horse is a naked nervous system.”

Can you imagine what it would be like to have a naked nervous system, as horses do?

Does this give you greater insight into just how sensitive and tuned in to danger they are?  That perhaps even dominant behavior can be fear based and generated from a core need for self-preservation?

That a scared horse perhaps it not behaving badly or being “naughty,” but that they really just need to feel safe and secure, and that the comfort and ease of stress we can provide our horses is how we can meet their greatest need?  And that when we do, they’ll be more likely to give us their all in return?

Maybe your horse doesn’t tend to get distracted, maybe he’s a completely willing, happy go lucky partner of a barrel horse.  Even so, he’s likely to appreciate, and you’re likely to grow – from receiving and learning to provide the kind of leadership we all need to be the very best we can be.

For more on doing just that, enjoy the video below…

Have you ever had a “difficult horse,” or one that was different around you vs. someone else who offered a different level of leadership?

As always, I love receiving your feedback and questions in the comments below!

For parts I and II of this Q&A series, visit the links below:

31 replies
  1. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    Thank you, Awesome, This is something I think I needed. It’s been three years sence I’ve been out on the road and I needed to start some basics for ME. Thanks again. I watch and lesson to all your e-mails. Keep then coming. Have a Great and Blessed Day.

  2. Breanna
    Breanna says:

    This was so helpful for me. I have a pushy little 3yr old filly named Toolarah who is trying my leadership at the moment. I have been needing help on how to deal with this problem and then I saw your new Q&A video, and it helped so much. All of your tips are very good 🙂

    Thanks, Heather

  3. Melody
    Melody says:

    This is a great video! It helps a lot!
    I have a question for you,
    My horse Lakota, will flex on the ground, and in the saddle but when i ask him to move off my leg and bend around the barrel and try to flex his head to give me his nose, he just dives in like i was asking him to turn, but the thing is, i wasnt! Could you help me with this?
    Also, a quick question,
    Muscle building, what are good, quick ways to build good hind end muscles?
    Thank you for reading this, and taking your time to help all of us with problems!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Melody! Great questions. As for asking a horse to bend to the inside of a circle without falling into it, teach them to counter arc, which is to maintain bend in one direction while moving the other. To do this, I think you’ll need to get the lateral flexion and the response to your leg sharpened up even more separately before you ask again to put them together. Separate, isolate then recombine! Once you have, be a bit of a pest with your hand and leg if needed (ie. cause “discomfort”) until your horse steps away (vs. fall in) and release the instand he does. Even if he gets it “a little bit” reward big time and he’ll catch on quick!
      As for muscle building, transitions are great and anything that requires a pivot around on the hind quarters, mix it up with 1/4 turns, 3/4 turns, then trot off, lope off, etc. Focus on quality movement in general rather than allowing your horse to just lolly gag around most of the time. The FREE Speed Guide available with purchase of “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success” has some great ideas for conditioning as well!

  4. Ally
    Ally says:

    I can’t wait to try these excersises! I have a very pushy 6 year old gelding I rescued two years ago. He is a great horse but has started to buck during the pattern and is very pushy on the ground. I really feel that he lacks respect and needs a leadership role in his life!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re probably right Ally! It’s amazing how things can unravel when the leadership piece is missing or not quite as good as it could be! I don’t doubt you cant get things turned around!

  5. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I have a 9yr mare that I call my scaredy cat cause she’s afraid of everything! I already do lounging for respect, it helps some . I will try the small circles when I’m riding & she spooks. She spooks at everything in the arena at our house , if u move a cone, in its new possition she will spook at it. Crazy I know! But I’ve been riding her & racing since she was 3 & she still spooks at barrels! If I don’t ride her every day on barrels she will go flying in the arena & shut down way before the 1st & 2nd barrel ducking & dodging like she’s cutting a cow. Very frustrating! But by the 3rd she’s got it figured out. I also have just started a 4yr thoroughbred mare that was trained for the track, the circles really have helped her calm down! I know that they made her use her mind & when she is thinking she’s good!!! When I saw ur video it just reinforced that I was doing it right!!!!!! Woooohoooo!!! Love the knowledge that ur videos give!!!!! Don’t ever stop!!!!! U r such a blessing to me & probably to a lot of others! May GOD bless u! Thanks so much, Dawn

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks so much Dawn for your kind words! I’m so glad to hear my posts and videos have been helpful! Keep in mind that a spooky horse is PERCEPTIVE, and that some horses are just more in tune to any potential danger than others. It’s like their instincts to stay alive and fight for their life are a little closer to the surface. The neat thing about these horses is that they are usually more sensitive in general, meaning when they are mentally/emotionally balanced they tend to be more light and responsive.
      What these “spooky” horses really need is CONFIDENCE, and that is something that WE provide to them. It’s not so much about going through the motions of the certain exercises, as it is about the leader we are being in every moment. It’s their relationship with us that will give them the confidence they need to feel safe and be calm, and over time it builds and pours over into confidence in all circumstances – they even become more confident with other horses out in the pasture when we aren’t there!
      So this is just some food for thought… I don’t doubt your horse is more sensitive by nature, and skills, techniques and strategies ARE important, but ask yourself – are YOU confident? Are you brave and bold? Remember, although they out weigh us by more than 1,000 lbs., horses are cowards! When you horse spooks, it’s a sign that she doesn’t trust your leadership. When you provide what your horse needs (and she may need a more skilled leader than the average horse), it will be reflected in her behavior. You are definitely on the right track, hope these ideas help a bit. These challenging horses can be the most rewarding – keep up the great work! 🙂

  6. Renee
    Renee says:

    Thanks for the second tip, I have a new horse, and after being bucked off (two different horses) twice in a year I am a little scared, I do the first tip before I get on and it really helps with my nerves and hers. I will remember the second tip too thanks so much.

  7. Molly
    Molly says:

    Great advice! I have a question.
    My horse is really grumpy. He has always been like this but when I ride him he isn’t grumpy. Just when I get him from the pasture or have him tyed he pins his ears. He is healthy and sound. Do you have any advice to make him “happier” I should say, when he is around me?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Molly, if you’re sure his health/soundness is not an issue, usually a grumpy horse is a dominant one that is bored. You might check out “How to Start Your Rides and Runs Right.” Like all horses, one like this requires quality leadership. If your horse is genuinely sensitive, you might try to be more considerate in how you handle him as he may be telling you that you’re too intense or rough. If that’s not really the case you can also move their feet until they give you a better expression. For example, when I work my horses in the round pen, I don’t allow them to come to me if their ears are pinned. Coming to me is their reward, but they better wipe any nasty looks off their face first! In addition horses like this may need more mental stimulation, here’s a past Q&A that is great for “lazy horses” who tend to really need to be challenged mentally the most – “Provide Motivation and Consistency in the Barrel Horse.” Hope that helps give you some ideas! 🙂

  8. crystal
    crystal says:

    I have a horse like DC and have done alot of slow work on him but when it comes to speed – he wants to run past every barrel at 180 miles an hour. I have spend the last 6 months doing slow work stopping at the barrels and alot of trail work making him listen to me like you said as far as sitting back and saying whoa and he gets that part but he just looses it when we compete. I am thinking maybe he just needs to be a trail horse because his brain is fried. He was a head horse before I got him and couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. Any suggestions? I am not looking to spend alot more time working on him as I feel he just can’t handle pressure. He loves going on trail rides. I am frustrated because he is wicked fast..

    • Lynn Kuennen
      Lynn Kuennen says:

      You might want to try a calming supplement. I have had some luck with very high strung horses. If that doesn’t work he might not be cut out for the pressure.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Crystal,
      Keep in mind that when speed increases so do emotions. Some horses are so sensitive emotionally that they have a hard time separating the two. However, it’s often these very sensitive horses that make the best performance horses. Bringing them to their potential however means that we must take measures to help them be as balanced as possible mentally and emotionally. Of course this is even more of a challenge when they have a history like your horse and DC do, where they were pressured to compete without having this foundational mental/emotional balance. I haven’t been able to devote myself as consistently to DC in the past months as I would have liked to, but do know that firming up his foundation in this way was something I initially thought would take a couple weeks has turned into over a year. Taking that time and having the skill to help a horse like this isn’t something not everyone is interested in or has the skills to do, it’s a personal choice, not right or wrong on your part. If you decide to keep moving forward, remove any timelines from your mind and commit to “taking the time it takes” and then VERY gradually build to more speed only when your horse is relatively relaxed and confident at the speed you’re at. You might also gradually simulate the pressure of competition by making a run only a friends places, and then only in exhibitions and so on… build on your little success gradually.

  9. Sandee
    Sandee says:

    Hi Molly
    Hands,hands,and hands! I seam to hold my hands different everytime I run! I start out with two hands I sit and turn but when I watch my videos I sometimes drop my rein,to the first barrel and then sometimes I’m turning with two hands.Weird! Also,I’m ready my horse is ready and for some reason I yank back just in a split second and keep on going I need your advice on how to hold your hands properly.Hope that makes since?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Sandee, one thing you might consider is that the action in your hands is an involuntary response to your body experiencing a lack of balance.

      I could be that you’re involuntarily counter acting the state of getting off center and your hands are going wherever your subconscious feels they need to be in the moment.

      It may also be that your horse isn’t really staying on track as he should, requiring you to try to redirect him constantly.

      These are just a couple reasons for excessive hand motion, hope it’s helpful. 🙂

  10. Karen
    Karen says:

    I love your tips and the feedback you give readers – thank you! I have a challenging horse; 7 years old, spent two years getting him broke to leg/rein pressure, etc, is very responsive under saddle and a good boy on trail rides, in arena, but having trouble on pattern. He is very smart and learns quickly. Last year when I started competing he started crow hopping/bucking to second barrel. I had him vet checked and he is sound….very frustrated. He only does this on the pattern; is a very good boy otherwise. He has talent – need to get him past this. Thanks!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks for your comment Karen! Something to keep in mind is that a horse will buck for one of two reasons – fear or disrespect. I also think it’s possible for very sensitive horses to be bothered when a cinch grabs or rubs them just so, which can certainly happen in a run. If your horse is super sensitive, consider a softer, more comfortable pad and/or cinch. Also, get your detective hat on – symptoms of these problems are almost always present elsewhere, even if they aren’t nearly as obvious. If we look closely, we’ll find “clues” to the root cause of the problem! I would also consider one more good Vet. check (a second opinion) to be sure. This is an issue I would take pretty seriously, you don’t want it to turn into a habit or risk your confidence. Just like gate problems, the solution comes not just in getting the horse to stop bucking, but in figuring out and eliminating their desire to buck! 🙂

  11. Faith
    Faith says:

    Hey, I would just like to say that I love all of your tips, and this video helps a lot. I have a question though. My horse Maverick is the dominant horse in the herd very confident, he is very obedient to me, but he is a thinker. He over thinks everything he always has to be 10 steps ahead of me and whenever I intervene and try something else than he though or new he has a melt down. He does the same thing when we are racing except really extreme last summer he blew up in the alley way and jumped 8 feet in the air landing on his side and he almost destroyed my confidence in him. He has the heart of a lion and is so quick and smart. But I need help figuring out why my confident smart strong horse is completely melting down, and then I am willing to do all that I can to fix the problem.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Faith, I can really get a feel for what you’re describing and riding a horse like this becomes a full time job because they are always one step ahead and you’re caught in a cycle of correcting or preventing their mistakes which becomes very frustrating for you both.

      The answer I believe is in RESPONSIBILITY. Try setting up a couple cones or barrels with the goal of doing a figure eight without constantly using your reins and legs. Focus with your mind and body on where you want to go, when Maverick gets off track, use your leg to steer his hindquarter like a boat (instead of using the reins like a bicycle) until his nose is back on the pattern, then release and allow him to continue. If he steps off pattern, bring that leg again and be a bit firm about it, but do not attach any emotion/frustration to what you’re doing.

      This is a way to start teach him that is job is simple – go where I ask you to go, and don’t switch gears in any way until I ask. When he does, life is good and comfortable, and when he gets off track, life gets harder and more uncomfortable. The great thing is that you accomplish this all without having to use a lot of rein contact to micromanage his gait or direction. Make it your goal for him to stay perfectly on pattern by only following your FOCUS, then move on to more patterns and move up to the trot, etc.

      Let me know how it goes! 😉

  12. Becky Hodnett
    Becky Hodnett says:

    Hi, I just love your posts!! I have a horse that is getting very nervous when we haul to barrel races. He was a bit of a late starter and is currently 9 years old. He’s gotten pretty solid and quick on his pattern and I have just eased him along at his own speed over the last year or two. He was always the lazy calm horse that I could take anywhere but now that I have started trying to haul him to barrel races he gets super nervous when we are there. I mean borderline dangerous when we warm up or are just riding around/ outside the arena. Rearing, freaking out when a horse lopes by in the warmup, randomly bolting, bucking,etc. I have done a lot of work to try and improve micromanaging him and trying to build his confidence and he seems to really take to the barrels yet this issue seems to be getting worse. I try to move his feet around when he gets this way and stay as calm yet firm as possible but it makes him more explosive!! He is sound and healthy and is super smart/emotional and gets really influenced by his atmosphere. I’ve done lots of ground/foundation work with him and it is often revisited. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I refuse to give up on him as he is truly a diamond in the rough. Please help!!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Becky,
      I think the first step here is to back way off so that you never put him in a situation, where you just “hope” it will be better. You sound like you’re pretty aware of addressing some foundational elements, etc. but if you keep “going there” with the dangerous behavior, it’s just getting better established and will become even harder to correct every time it occurs. There is actually no quick fix for this, in fact, I’d be able to support you best through video coaching. Here’s the info – I know you’re serious about working through this and I’d be happy to help in more depth!

  13. Deb Butcher
    Deb Butcher says:

    Thank you very much Heather!

    I do not barrel race but am a serious competitor in cowboy mounted shooting, which is also a timed event where we run a specific pattern but shooting real guns at targets (balloons). Just watching your video was very helpful and the knowledge posted on your website is very encouraging.


    I have already ordered one of your books and look forward to all that I will learn and how I will improve my skills (both with horses and self improvement) with what you share.

    Thank you, I appreciate your time!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      AH, THANK YOU DEB! I have always admired mounted shooters and wow, I imagine there are a fair number of similarities with barrel racing. In anything we do, it’s so important (especially if we just really love horses) to understand their needs and where they are coming from – it can make a WORLD of difference and ensure that both human AND horse are winners! 🙂
      I really appreciate you kind words, thanks again for your comment!

  14. Tiffany Balderas
    Tiffany Balderas says:

    This segment fits perfect with my weekend of racing. I have an alpha mare that does lack confidence, she is very willing to run in any 4d race that i enter into, the problem is rodeos and the bucking shoots, if there is no animals and/or people around she will run just fine the minute that you add other animals,and/or people near the shoots,she will duck to the outside of the second barrel instead of proceeding it. Not sure what to do in order to get over this hurrdle any suggestions

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I would think about how I could simulate the problem on a smaller scale in an environment I can work on building her confidence, take it step by step and gradually move back to the rodeo environment.

  15. Caity
    Caity says:

    Great video, I think this will be helpful with my 3yr old. I broke him myself and he has been under saddle about 3 months now. When we go somewhere new he is very responsive and will move off at just a kiss or if I push the reins forward, because I think he is interested in his new surroundings. But at home in the pasture he will shut down and does not want to move forward when I try to ride him. I have been reverting to lunging him and doing ground work, but it can be frustrating when I know that he understands what I want from him but is essentially refusing from what I can tell. He is a completely different personality from my first horse and I am having to learn to think in a new way!

    Any other tips to motivate him to want to respond instead of freeze up/shut down?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I would make ABSOLUTELY sure he understood exactly what you wanted by really testing his forward and yielding to pressure and response to your energy on the ground, etc. and than maybe think of a creative way to make it EASY to go where you ask… like to another pasture where there are other horses, then have a treat waiting for him – anything to break this cycle of resistant thoughts and when you’ve covered those bases, you may just have to amp up the firmness. It’s certainly not something we want him to get in the habit of doing – and when a horse has done something three times, you’re already on the way, can’t let ’em be “too wrong for too long.” Hope that helps!


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