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

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

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One of the biggest problems we face when it comes to micromanaging horses, is that we don’t often know we’re doing it.

When that’s the case, we also don’t know that the reason we’re doing it is because our horse isn’t taking responsibility, and down the line even further – we may not realize that it’s OUR responsibility to teach the horse theirs.

So I’ll begin by not-so-anonymously stating that my name is Heather Smith, and I’m a “recovering micromanager.” My gelding Pistol is one of my four-legged partners, AND enablers.

If you’re also a micromanager, and would like to start on the road to recovery – welcome to the club! You’re in good company. VERY good company.

One of the first steps is admitting there is a problem. The primary symptom of the problem may be that you’re not clocking in competition as you would like to. The next step is a willingness and desire for change.

The best way I have found to truly test yourself and test your horse, not to see whether you are micromanaging – but HOW BAD (because we ALL tend to do it to some degree), is to remove what’s in the way of making it obvious.

A few years ago, I started to become aware of my own and my horse’s tendencies in this area. I was just too active with my hands in general and seemed to make a lot of adjustments in a run. A friend and mentor pointed out that perhaps I was making those adjustments because I felt the need to – my horse wasn’t taking responsibility, which made him fairly tricky to ride in a run.

Of course, there’s always room to improve our riding ability, but let’s not forget – that it IS also possible to develop our horses in a way that makes them easier to ride!

All those years ago, in an effort to curb the habit of being so overly active with my hands, I had a great idea! I spent a few rides putting a bridleless “handle” on Pistol, meaning in a relatively short period of time I was cruising around the arena doing some pretty fancy looking stuff without anything on his head.

If you’re over active or erratic with your hands in a run, it could also be a balance problem. Look for exercises to address this in “The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.”)

Surely if I could ride Pistol hands free, the problem would be solved, right!?


I simply went from micromanaging with my hands, to micromanaging my seat and legs, which didn’t provide a real solution. I was still having to make a lot of adjustments.

There are several contributing factors that made this micromanaging rut so easy to fall in to. The first is my gelding’s kind, obedient, tolerant nature. He’s so laid back, that I don’t think he minds too much if I do everything FOR him, which is what he had become accustomed to.

What made this problem more difficult to detect was that when Pistol didn’t take responsibility for direction, he was subtle about it – he would nonchalantly drift here and there, sometimes just a step, in a way that’s barely noticeable. Naturally, I fell into habits of continuously correcting him that were subtle and not very noticeable as well.

I used to think that he just wasn’t taking responsibility, but in reality, he was making his own choices all the time – but he was such a gentleman about it that it was easy for his “volunteering” to go under the radar!

Micromanaging was also an easy rut for me to fall into because I’m a bit of perfectionist. I’m always striving to make things better – tweaking, training, tuning, and as a result, doing for my horses what they should be doing for themselves.

Bridleless barrel racing.

Teaching a horse to be responsible, means letting go of the illusion of perfection created by “holding” them in place, to build a higher level of quality communication and movement that they actively participate in and maintain on their own in the long run.

It’s easy to fall into these habits, and spend our whole life comfortably unaware, but not clocking was NOT comfortable for me at all. So over the years, I kept searching and searching, and it wasn’t until I dove back into bridleless riding with Pistol recently, that I really discovered something that has and will forever change how I instill responsibility in horses. It’s helped me not only become even more aware, but also helped me nip my micromanaging habits, AND Pistol’s lack of responsibility, in the bud once and for all.

It all started when I set out to teach him a cloverleaf pattern, but not the one you’re thinking of – a four leaf clover pattern. Just like on the barrel pattern, my intention was to teach him precisely where to place his feet, while remaining willing to respond to any adjustments. I again spent a few rides preparing him before we went sans headstall, but when I did – boy was I disappointed!

I started by simply asking him to follow my focus on the pattern, but he zig zagged all over the place! For every adjustment I made, he would over correct and go way too far the other way – again and again. I’d use my body language and focus to turn a corner and WHOOPS, we’d go right by it (a lot like he used to sometimes go by the first barrel) – I just wanted him to stay on the pattern!

I spent most of that first “test ride” giving him the benefit of the doubt, and making numerous, subtle corrections to get on track, but I thought to myself – “These corrections aren’t going to hold – he’s not engaged mentally, he’s not thinking for himself, he’s not responding to my focus, seat and body language very well, and he’s not motivated to stay on the pattern!”

Here’s the thing – horses don’t become more genuinely motivated to do something through not being give a choice, ie. when we MAKE them do it. Surprisingly, having reins in our hand, and constantly using them in ways we’re not aware of to micromanage them is an out of control epidemic in the horse world. If Pistol was comfortable with me micromanaging him like a puppet, I had to make a change that motivated him to want to think for himself.

Bridleless barrel racing.

I figure we have three options – we can scare horses into doing what we want, so they operate out of fear of what might happen if they don’t, we can keep holding, preventing, correcting and nagging, without ever really engaging their mind and truly having a conversation, OR the best option, is that we give them options – which causes them to get mentally engaged, and take responsibility for gait, direction (patterns) and body shape, by convincing them that it’s the easiest, most comfortable and appealing thing to do.

While it’s important to give consideration to their ideas, we essentially must cause our ideas to become theirs – it’s a way of getting a horse to do what we ask, and do so gladly!

I realized that I needed to apply more discomfort when Pistol veered off track, and give him more comfort when he stayed on the pattern. It’s not that Pistol wasn’t educated to understand what I was asking with my body language, he just wasn’t taking responsibility for doing what does know. In some cases, even with older, advanced, horses, they really DO need more education also, in addition to more responsibility.

To do this, the next time I saddled up I put my headstall back on, “glued” my rein hand to his withers in an effort to use it as little as possible, and each time Pistol veered off the four leaf clover pattern, I used my spurs to steer his hindquarters like a boat rather than my hands to steer him like a bicycle. If he started drifting to the left, I used my right leg to push the hindquarters to the left so the front end headed back on track, then released. I wasn’t too picky about form at this stage because we were primarily working on responsibility for direction.

I let him make mistakes and get off track, but then made the wrong thing even more difficult (though not impossible), and the right thing even easier. The greater the discomfort a horse experiences when they veer off track, the more they will learn to crave the comfort of staying on track and being left alone – and learn to LOVE staying on the barrel pattern like it’s the best thing in the world!

Teaching responsibility is a matter of getting in and getting out, then putting them on the honor system rather than constantly holding and preventing them from not maintaining direction, gait or shape.

Pistol had a pretty well established habit of not taking responsibility for direction, and he also has a pretty high tolerance for discomfort. Unlike Dot Com, Pistol is not an especially sensitive horse. I had to be more firm, and use more repetition than I would if I were doing the same with Dot Com (who by the way struggles more with taking responsibility for GAIT – which I’ll address next week).

I had to make the discomfort, caused by the busyness in my body and bothering with my spur more exaggerated – kind of like a swarm of bees had come in and stung his sides and caught him by surprise. It wasn’t quite enough to scare him, but it was certainly motivation to find relief as quickly as possible. The contrast between discomfort and comfort has to be enough to provide incentive.

I only used my reins if necessary to block any excess forward motion but not to steer, and when he’d get back on the pattern, I relaxed and comfort instantly returned. When he veered off again, I got busy in my body and bothered him with my leg until he was back on track, then I instantly released and let him go on. Once he started to get engaged and made an improvement, I’d stop and let him rest on the pattern. For Pistol in particular (the “energy conservationist”), getting to rest is great motivation.

It’s up to us to set our horses up to find relief in doing what we ask, always making that the most appealing option. In the process we lessen our dependence on the reins, by encouraging our horses to use their brains!

In training Pistol to take responsibility for the pattern, you could say that he was training ME to leave him alone, and THAT is what motivates horses.

Remember, when your idea and your horse’s idea are not the same idea, you’ll run into problems on the barrels. If you want your horse to use himself very specifically and efficiently at speed, his brain must be engaged – he has to be invested the conversation and taking responsibility to do his part.

Teaching responsibility for direction (following a pattern) is a HUGE part of causing your horse to LIKE, if not LOVE barrel racing. A lot of people mistakenly believe that some horses just “don’t like barrel racing.” While it’s true that some horses have more aptitude for the sport than others, it’s usually us humans that don’t often understand #1. The importance of properly preparing a horse before introducing the barrel pattern, and #2. Doing so in a way that actually makes it appealing!

This technique can be used motivate a horse to take more responsibility, and it’s great for horses who are burnt out or have developed a negative association to the barrels. We have the power to cause our horses to want to stay perfectly on the barrel pattern, and actually make training enjoyable for them.

Horse training is simply a matter of applying comfort and discomfort, or pressure and release, but what makes it both a challenge and an art, is the way, and the timing in which we apply it.

Bridleless barrel racing.

In a matter of days, Pistol was aligning with my body language and honoring his responsibility to stay perfectly on the four leaf clover pattern. He did not volunteer to go off path and when I redirected my focus and turned in my body, he turned in his. If necessary, I could use a little leg pressure for back up, but because our communication system is highly refined and he’s also taking responsibility, head gear wasn’t necessary, and micromanagement was no longer a temptation for me.

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. Had I not chucked my headstall over the fence, and set out to reach some specific goals without it, I may have never realized just how much I was micromanaging, and how little Pistol was taking responsibility, until the main tool I had used for years to do so, was no longer within reach.

There is certainly a lot of lessons and benefits to be gained from riding bridleless. If it’s something you aspire to, always make sure you prepare your horse well with headgear first (remember Pistol is emotionally balanced and very advanced in his understanding and response to my seat, legs and focus), and take safety measures before you remove the reins (I often ride with a neck string in an arena at first as a safety net). As a starting point, it can be very valuable to ride with your rein hand held at your horse’s withers, which allows you to test yourself and still use the reins if needed.

What all this comes down to is whether your horse is coming wide out of the turns, not clocking as fast as you want, dropping his shoulder, or displaying any other kind of problem on the barrels, either he doesn’t understand what you want, or isn’t taking responsibility for doing what he does understand.

In all cases, it can be traced back to what we’re doing or not doing to cause it.

Being as fast as possible on the pattern means we must be very precise, and any correction, even a minimal one, will create a delay. Developing a horse that is mentally engaged and gladly takes responsibility for staying on track is not only how we can eliminate delays for even faster times, but is also a big part of how we can cause our horses to actually enjoy running barrels.

Next week, I’ll be sharing the second part in this three part series on the subject of taking responsibility for maintaining GAIT (Dot Com’s challenge).

So I’m curious, are YOU ready to join me on the “road to recovery” as a micromanager?

I’d LOVE to read your thoughts in the comments below!

17 replies
  1. Mary Moe
    Mary Moe says:

    Wow! Loved this one! I am forever telling myself, “quit micromanaging!” This is something to really think about, and talk about making one trust their horse! Whew! This has truly inspired me yet again! Thank You!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Mary! Yes, micromanaging is something most of us do subtly on autopilot. Worth considering and looking at especially since we’re trying to shave fractions of a second off our times – the details matter! 😉

  2. Melody Skiver
    Melody Skiver says:

    WOW I loved this I had an inkling that you put here I words! I even had a charm necklace made that says’ “let go of the reins”! for a spiritual sense PLUS MICROMANAGING!

  3. lin
    lin says:

    thanks heather, again you have given us such insight & revelation to further our knowledge of horsemanship. I will try this. always open & willing to learn more for the good of our horses. great read.

  4. Ardis S
    Ardis S says:

    I found myself chuckling quite a bit, a micromanager I am. I learned to do this without realizing. I was told by a clinician to”let him run, stay out of his face, start the turn and stay out of his way!!” That was an aha moment, but your words explain it better, I am also a why person!!Thanks.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      I know right Ardis!? Lol One can’t help but have a subconscious desire to micromanage a horse that isn’t taking responsibility for direction and gait, but once they are (which WE help them do), then it’s time to back off and let them work!

  5. e03131989
    e03131989 says:

    I’m guilty of micromanaging too! My horse doesn’t take responsibility for maintaining his gait. So I feel like I’m constantly on him when I’m trying to lope circles. “Make the wrong thing difficult, make the right thing easy”. Thanks for the inspiration to fix my bad habit!! 🙂

  6. topmark
    topmark says:

    I practiced this last weekend and it felt horrible. A comment above fits what I was feeling perfectly, “Turn him and get off his face!” That’s what I was doing and couldn’t put it into words! He tried going around the barrel a second time and even bucked a little because I was pulling back and he was trying to go. Thanks for sharing, Heather, and thanks for sharing your experience, Ardis! I’ve been searching all week for the words. All I could say was he knew what he was doing and I didn’t.


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