How to Create Quicker PHYSICAL Responsiveness through Deeper MENTAL Connection

How to Create Quicker PHYSICAL Responsiveness through Deeper MENTAL ConnectionPhotos by Sarah Brummer

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There’s an problem of epidemic proportions in the timed speed event world.

All because of this little thing called “connection.”

It’s what winning runs are made of.

Connection (lack of it, specifically) is so often what stands between shaving that last half second off… or NOT clocking, yet again.

It’s no surprise that an understanding of true connection, and HOW to create it goes under the radar.

Two years ago, in “Get Connected to Shave Time Off the Clock,” I started sharing insight on this subject, as well as three exercises for getting on the same page with your horse.

Like the layers of an onion, true dedication to never ending self-development means that I’ve taken my understandings in this area even deeper since then.

First, let’s consider that in the timed speed event world especially, we’re all on a strict, unforgiving timeline.

From the beginning of our young horse’s development, we’re already thinking about how to get things done – FAST.

With the end in mind, we either don’t know, or simply forget to use our energy and focus – to offer a horse a FEEL, to set it up and wait.

When we fail to do this, we fall into a rut of drilling instead of teaching.

In the process we end up training our horse’s bodies without really training their minds.

Beware the illusion of connection.

As a result, horses learn to go through the motions, to be obedient, to stay within the boundaries we set for them, to have the “look” of a high caliber performance horse… but eventually, when when we keep missing the mark even after doing so many things “right,” we start a desperate search for what’s missing.

If you’re anything like me, you look to yourself first.

After many wrong turns and false hopes, what I’ve discovered is that that in many cases, what’s really missing is that we neglect to train and condition our horses mentally.

To further clarity, I’d like to describe the difference between a concept I’ve been introduced to called “get to” and “got to.” When you’re training at home and can take your sweet time, you’re in a “get to” situation. When you need to safely maneuver through a tight alleyway at a rodeo where there are horses crammed like sardines, you’re in a “got to” situation – there’s no question your horse HAS to respond appropriately and quickly.

What happens on the road and in the timed speed event world is that just about everything we do with our horses seems to turn into a “got to” situation, whether it REALLY is or not. In so many instances, our horses have to DO IT NOW, so we naturally become very autocratic in our communication with them.

When we don’t allow a horse time to really think through what we present, and learn it for himself, he essentially becomes a very finely tuned robot. We end up having one way conversations – monologues instead of dialogues. The horse may be responding in the correct way, but mentally he’s checked out.

The difference is so subtle that it’s barely noticeable but it can be the difference that makes the difference on the barrel pattern.

Essentially, a lack of connection will slow you down, even if ever so slightly.

It’s important to realize that many horses have been trained in a way that they respond almost perfectly even with very little mental engagement. If a rider doesn’t understand the value of mental connection, and how to recognize and reward it, then its even less likely to exist consistently.

The reason I feel I can write with such great understanding on this subject, is like many timed speed event competitors, I had spent over a quarter of a century being an excellent “robot trainer.”

But I want to be the very best, so it’s opened me up to considering what’s necessary to close the gap at the highest levels of competition.

To better understand the very subtle symptoms of a lack of connection and how to restore it, first consider these three ingredients…

Our horses must be CALM, CONNECTED and RESPONSIVE.

Now, as an example, let’s consider my husband’s innately insecure rope horse, Dot Com. It’s difficult for him to be in a connected, positive learning frame of mind until he’s calm – that’s the first priority.

Body language is universal.

Once calmness is established and he can think, two way communication flows and he is responsive rather than reactive.

On the other extreme is my innately confident, laid back barrel horse gelding, Pistol. He’s already calm and so to achieve true connection, I must have responsiveness. But again, this isn’t necessarily a matter of barking orders at him.

To “feel together” with my horse I must feel OF and FOR him. This means that before I get firm to create responsiveness that I must do my part which is to always first make a request with my intention, energy and focus.

Even if only a split second passes between the intention and the firm reinforcement, if I fail to first ask softly and help him “prepare the position for the transition” then I have not been fair to him.

If I were to skip this step, I would tend to create resentment and even less desire for connection in laid back horses like Pistol, and fear, reactivity and impulsiveness in more sensitive and insecure horses like Dot Com.

Without authentic, real-time mental connection, we loose quality, quickness and power. And we all know we can’t afford to lose any of that in a run!

The symptoms of lack of connection in Pistol specifically show up as microscopic delays in responsiveness in our every day riding. If I park him next to other horses for a few minutes, and am really aware – I’ll notice that he’s sluggish to walk off when I raise my energy.

He also tends to get “the drothers,” (he’d rather be over here, or he’d rather be over there) meaning he has his own mental agenda but is very subtle and sneaky about demonstrating it, which he does by veering off track ever so slightly when I ask him to travel straight from point A to point B.

But I refuse to micromanage him any longer and I refuse to use a lot of leg when he has the potential to be so much more tuned in and responsive.

Horses are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, but they won’t deliver until we play our own cards right.

It’s not so much about HIM as it is ME.

I’ve realized that he had developed a habit of “escaping” through holes in my FOCUS.

How many of US are truly connected with our horses – how often are WE riding like robots, just going through the motions – physically present while our mind is elsewhere?

We can’t expect our horses to connect with us if we drop the connection with them first.

In some instances, signs of this disconnection are obvious, for example when a horse is very distracted and unresponsive. But it takes a very keen eye to see and feel where a horse is truly at mentally, especially when they are obedient and doing everything correctly with their body.

The first place I refer to is the horses eyes and ears. On the ground, a horse might tip their head to the outside of the round pen or circle. If they are looking somewhere else, you can bet they are thinking about being somewhere else as well.

But a horse can even have their nose tipped in, one ear on you and STILL not be connected. I’ve noticed sometimes that only the inside eye will be looking elsewhere while the body gives the illusion of connection.

Sometimes it’s so subtle. Dot Com for example can be in another mental place entirely without ever putting tension in the rope or rein.

Lately for Pistol, I’ve realized that I need to take an even greater “quality over quantity” approach, meaning that if it’s hard for ME to stay completely mentally engaged for a long period, then I need to commit to strengthening my own ability to stay mentally engaged,then I shouldn’t be riding for a long period.

Reward a positive state of mind.

I’m also conscious to give Pistol comfort and relief when he’s done well (because we BOTH need a mental break!). This also means that I no longer only reward him for performing a task well, but for the way he performed it – if it was in a positive, connected, responsive mental state, I’ll reward that, even if the task itself wasn’t perfect yet – it’s a great way to preserve his try and motivate him to stay connected.

Just last week I had an opportunity to “connect” with cattle in a cutting environment. The goal wasn’t to ram and jam the horses around, but to simply walk through the herd and have them make initial contact with a cow. I didn’t just march Pistol’s body into the vicinity of a cow, but I actually rewarded his mental connection with one, which was obvious when he reached forward for a sniff. A horse’s eyes and ears always tell you a lot about where their mind is.

Do you see the difference?

I could make his body move a cow around, or I could offer him relief for mentally connecting with a cow and allow time for him to really understand that it’s a positive place to be. We have so much control over how our horse’s feel about their job, but it’s not likely to be good if we just go out and bang body parts around.

The same idea applies to the barrel pattern. Without holding them on track, you can make it uncomfortable to veer off the pattern, and offer comfort ON the pattern, while still requiring that they remain 51% connected to you and 49% connected to the pattern – which ensures they’ll allow you to help them with positioning in a run if needed.

Bringing out the best in barrel horses physically means that we must meet them at their level and become more intense mentally ourselves. It requires strong focus and will power to make our requests clear, concise and consistent.

There’s no more grey area for Pistol and I – no more half hearted, semi-slow responses from him, and no more micromanaging from me.

As a laid back kind of guy, he’s typically looking for an opportunity to do less. This doesn’t rule Pistol out as a performance horse, but it does make it necessary for me to employ strategies that go much deeper than just wailing on him to make him go.

While he does have to GO, he’ll do so with even more quickness, speed and power IF it’s for the right reasons.

I’ll be honest – making horses do things is easy.

We ALL have plenty of experience with that, and we can achieve some level of success with it. It’s what the majority of timed speed event folks do.

But I want more, and I hope you do to.

I personally want more achievements in the barrel pen, and I want even higher level understanding and communication with my horses.

Remember that without calmness and responsiveness you won’t have connection, and without connection you won’t have calmness and responsiveness.

Connection is about awareness, being present in the moment, and riding and operating with FEEL and fairness.

It’s quite simply the key to explosive speed and empowered, happy horses – and who doesn’t want that?

I hope what I’ve shared today about why connection is so rare, why it’s so important, how to recognize it, and restore it, will be helpful in your quest for barrel racing excellence!

In the comments below, I’d love to hear your two cents OR questions on the subject of connected barrel horses!

In addition, enjoy the resources below for further deepening you and your horse’s mental connection.

2 replies
  1. Cruzer
    Cruzer says:

    I have a question, my barrel horse always seems so grumpy. He always has his ears pinned back and just seems bored. Could it be he is depressed? Is this part of our “connection” problem? Any tips you have would be great!! Thank you!!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You might consider researching the concept of Horsenality – that will give you a TON of insight into why your horse seems crabby and also give you some strategies for changing his attitude! 😉


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