How to Plan Your Peak for a Winning Warm-Up and a Winning Run!

How to Plan Your Peak for a Winning Warm-Up and a Winning Run

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Have you ever been a little indecisive when it comes to exactly what you should do, and when, in your warm up?

I used to be. When you’re getting ready to put all your hard work and effort on the line, it’s no fun to second-guess yourself.

In fact, the only way to truly blast down the alley with confidence is by being absolutely certain of the steps you’ve taken to prepare yourself and your horse.

Those final moments before the gate opens especially, can make you or break you.

Thankfully, I’ve gained a ton of clarity over the years when it comes to creating a customized warm up plan based on my preferences, each horse’s individual needs, and the conditions I’m competing under.

There’s simply no room for doubt at the top, and that’s exactly where I intend to take you!

One of my most powerful lessons regarding warm ups occurred quite a few years ago when I was entered in a big barrel race not far from where I lived. I was fortunate to be so close by – I didn’t have to keep my horse in a stall and I could even go home for lunch!

Usually I kept in touch with barrel buddies via cell phone to stay updated on how the schedule was going so I could be there in time to make my run. But one day, after I had checked the draw in the morning and realized I was going to be up pretty late, I decided to go home for a while and return with my horse later on.

You can imagine my shock and surprise when I pulled in with my gelding that evening, got out of the truck and faintly heard my name over the loudspeaker! My husband sprinted to the building and sure enough, the draw had CHANGED and I had 15 minutes to prepare for my run instead of the hour and a half I had planned.

Craig and I worked faster than a NASCAR pit crew to saddle and boot up my gelding. I long trotted him through the parking lot and ducked my head under the walk-through door just in time to lope a couple circles and take off to the first barrel!

You’d think with my “warm up plan” gone down the tubes that our run would have been less than stellar. BUT, surprisingly, that was not the case at all. My horse and I laid down one of our best runs ever! I was amazed to say the least.

Winning Warm Up

I made some interesting connections after that run about what truly makes up a “winning warm up.” While it’s never fun to be thrown into a situation where you feel unprepared or have to rush, I’m thankful for the circumstances that day because I went home with some profound new insights.

When I reflected back on what exactly contributed to that awesome run, even in less than ideal (pretty much non-existing) warm up conditions, the first thing I realized was that previously I had been warming my horse up too much.

The gelding I was riding was pretty laid back, the weather was semi-warm that day and in those cases a shorter warm up is more appropriate to keep a horse “fresh.”

While you DO want your horse’s soft tissues physically warmed up, as well as have time to spot check responsiveness, and get your horse mentally engaged, when you’re “doin’ it right” (and when you’re prepared in advance), it really doesn’t take long to accomplish this.

When you think and ride efficiently in a warm up, more of your horse’s mental AND physical energy reserves can be channeled to where they need to be expressed most – your RUN!

Truthfully, how you warm up depends on A LOT of factors, and in the Winning Warm Up chapter of The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises I’ve clarified ALL those factors so you never have to guess, question, hesitate, worry, or be indecisive over exactly how you should go about warming up for your greatest chances of success.

There’s definitely NOT a one size fits all, cookie cutter approach.

There are SO many things to consider, which is why I’m so excited to have laid it all out in a way that’s totally clear – enabling you to not only develop a customized “base plan,” but also have confidence to know when, how and why to make adjustments based on your changing circumstances.

Below I’ve shared an outline summarizing the FIVE Exercises featured in the Winning Warm Up chapter, each with some bonus tips for you to put into action right away…

Exercise 46 – Plan Your Peak – This exercise offers a detailed checklist featuring 40 critical questions to help optimize your performance with categories for:

Planning Your Peak in Advance
Questions for the Day of Competition
Considerations Based on Conditions
Questions for Planning Your Winning Warm Up, AND
Your Final Pre-Run Spot Check (sneak peak below):

  • Is my horse calm, connected and responsive?
  • Does my horse move forward powerfully and with quality?
  • Is my horse emotionally balanced with equal “whoa and go?”
  • Is my horse utilizing his hindquarters well (such as in a stop and roll back)?
  • Will my horse softly flex his neck and poll both laterally and vertically with ease?
  • When asked to counter arc does my horse respond quickly and with good posture?
  • Is my horse responsive and willing to yield his shoulders, ribs and hips from subtle leg pressure?

Write down or even memorize these seven questions to ensure your horse is tuned up and ready to rock when it’s game time!

Winning Warm Up

Exercise 47 – Flip the Script – In this exercises I’ve shared the truth about how we can finally gain control of the on-going, negative chatter in our minds – not only in general, but especially in the warm up pen. Never again think to yourself “Don’t mess up!” or let overwhelming competition environments rattle your focus.

Instead, trot down the ally sitting tall – with belief in yourself, your horse, your training, and ultimate confidence!

Remember Gandhi’s wise words – “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

I’ve included 30 barrel racer-specific affirmation statements to be used as a replacement for your existing “mental recordings,” that have the power to change your THOUGHTS so you can change your DESTINY.

Refuse to be a victim of your mind any longer!

YOU were BORN to be a high level, successful barrel racer – the resources in this chapter will make sure you NEVER forget it.

Exercise 48 – Come Back to Me – Enjoy a short excerpt below from this exercise filled with valuable, effective insights, tips and how-to’s for keeping your horse relaxed and dialed into you in the warm up pen:

Another way to create more connection and relaxation is to ask your horse to bend his entire body in response to your leg. Again this is most commonly done in motion, but don’t hesitate to teach your horse to flex through his whole body, using the inside rein to tip the nose, inside leg to yield the ribs away, and outside leg toward the back cinch on the opposite side to move the hip in to create a full-body bend, even without forward motion, which is helpful in small spaces. Keep asking for quality bend while staying very calm yourself until your horse shows a sign of relaxation such as blowing out, licking their lips, working their mouth, a big sigh, lowering their head, etc. You can also ask for this bend on a small circle, a large one, at a walk or a lope as well. You might ask for bend in the neck, ribs, or through the whole body, in a circle or on a straight line. The objective is to ask for lateral bend in the way that seems most appropriate in the moment, based on what your horse needs and what is possible in the environment.

I then go on to describe exactly why lateral flexion is so valuable for helping horse’s relax.

Winning Warm Up

Exercise 49 – Get Engaged – I went DEEP in this one to help readers better understand the mysterious yet amazing mind/feet connection in horses. This brings total clarity to exactly why barrel horses especially get so anxious (which is often misunderstood), and includes specific steps to resolve tension and improve focus.

You don’t have to get off your horse, stand still, hand walk him, or inconvenience yourself in your warm up to keep his emotions under control. Establishing emotional fitness requires understanding WHY your horse feels the way he does, then learning HOW to empower him to get his own emotions together. The steps you take in every moment, either help him do that OR enable him to continue being distracted, “hot” and hard to handle.

Don’t risk losing mental connection in those critical moments before a run. Even if you’re dealing with learned behaviors, and even if your warms up are relatively drama-free, this exercise delivers profound concepts, yet simple steps for regaining complete mental engagement quickly when it’s teetering on the edge.

When you understand and apply the principles of the mind/feet connection, you’ll have a tool you can use any time, anywhere, to stay in control, and especially refocus on what matters most, when it matters most, which in the warm up – is making a winning run!

Exercise 50 – Laser Beam – There was one more really important thing I learned that fateful day when I let ‘er rip in through the barrel pattern after only having a few minutes to prepare for my run.

The difference between that run and the many others I’d made, was that I was VERY focused – I had to be! I couldn’t notice all the people starring at me, I didn’t have time to care about anything but my run. Do you think I was embarrassed that the announcer called my name several times before I ducked through the door? NO! I didn’t care! I had a ONE. TRACK. MIND.

Let me tell ya, I have NEVER been so focused before in my LIFE and it paid off. I had complete tunnel vision and I know without a doubt it was a HUGE part of why I clocked so well that day.

The good news is that we can train ourselves to focus like this on purpose.

Exercise 50 takes you through two short guided visualizations for establishing laser-like mental focus in the warm up pen, allowing you to build mental strength much stronger than any distractions, and only concern yourself with what specifically relates to your run.

Don’t allow your mind to be weak and unprepared when you enter the arena. Exercise 50 will also help you become aware of the ways in which you practice distraction daily, to lessen or even eliminate activities that essentially destroy your ability to focus when it comes time to compete.

Be proactive and intentional about training the unseen areas that relate to competition, and you’re so much more likely to SEE and experience, real, tangible, positive results!


Winning Warm Up
Enter the area with a PLAN, exit with a SMILE!

The most fun AND challenging thing about competition, is that it’s ALL about preparing yourself and your horse to be your best at a specific time and place that you have no control over. Planning a winning run intentionally, requires a lot of forethought and appropriate action steps leading up to that time and place.

It’s really all about noticing the little things, knowing your horses inside out, making the connections between what you’re doing in your every day riding, in your horse’s health care program (and even your own), in your warm up, and beyond.

A great warm up will never take the place of prior, proper, preparation, but how we start our run IS reflected in how we finish our run.

When we start with a warm up designed to bring out the greatest potential in ourselves, and our horses, we’re more likely to finish our run in good (short) time!

It may take some trial and error, some tweaking and tuning, but what I’ve provided is the framework that takes out the guess work.

Let it be EASY to prepare yourself and your horse to reach your peak with perfect timing.

Click here to let “The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion” and the other 46 exercises help you!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this preview into the pages of Volume 2 in the series.

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

Do YOU have a unique warm up routine? Any specific warm up challenges?

Tell me about your warm up “wins and woes” in the comments below!

Get FIVE ‘Perfect Pattern’ Exercises Now – for FREE!

13 replies
  1. sandra
    sandra says:

    My new horse has gate issues and so is obviously insecure and emotional. His emotions get high and he forgets what is going on.
    I haven’t even raced him yet just play days and riding at the arena when there is a race.

    My mare I warm up very little do not even lope, let her stand before her run and we do wonderful. If I think I’m going to mess with her before her run she doesn’t do good.

  2. Nicole Johannsen
    Nicole Johannsen says:

    I’ve always wondered what I should for a warm up before a race. I was always afraid of getting them too tired and not be able to perform to their peak and then other times I worry they’re not warmed up enough if I end up standing around with him for a while.

    I also had an experience when I was late to the gate and I remembers how focused I was and it made the whole run seem more fluid and come together better. Although it still wasn’t a best run, I felt that we were running more as a focused team together. I think it helped for my horse to not have the standing time to focus on what was around him, because in the time crunch he focused in me more than surroundings and it eloped us stay connected better.

    Great article and I can’t wait to get your next book when it’s available!

    • Nicole Johannsen
      Nicole Johannsen says:

      Same goes for me with the standing around too. Instead of paying attention to hose around me I fully focused on my horse and the task ahead.

      • Heather Smith
        Heather Smith says:

        Excellent, some people/horses might feel as though standing still ALLOWS them to focus whereas others might feel it just opens the door for distraction, a very personal thing. 😉

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Sounds like you hit the nail on the head there Nicole – experiences like that can really give us clues to what kind of adjustments we can make to make our warm ups even better!

  3. Hannah Yarbro
    Hannah Yarbro says:

    My horse Peppy is having excitement issues. He gets too hiper before our run. I did realize that I was warming him up too much but even when I get on to right before he’s still CRAZY… I’ve tried a lot of things but havnt been able to fix it

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Hannah,
      There are a lot of articles here at with strategies for sensitive, high energy horses. You might search for “Dot Com” in the upper right corner and read all the articles that I’ve shared on my journey with him. My books would also be a good resource! 🙂

  4. Kyrsti Hickman
    Kyrsti Hickman says:

    I have finally found the perfect warm up for my horse. He likes to spend as much time relaxing and then a very short, good warm up of extended gates then about 2-3 minutes to stand before the run so he can get his head on right. If I work him right before going in, he gets too hot and blows the first barrel. My friend always warms up her horses for an eternity and then ride them around in between events instead of letting them rest as much as possible and they usually start to slow down a lot earlier in the day than my horse does.

  5. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Hi Heather..I truly enjoy reading all your posts and tips. My problem isn’t my horse at all..I love him even though he is a tad crazy at a show. He is very high energy and no matter how long you work him he is still high an energizer bunny. I have truly learned to deal with his energy..took me some time but he no longer intimidates me now the problem is ME!! I can’t NOT think of falling off and breaking my neck or any bones..turning 50 has truly made me afraid. I am overweight and afraid…working on the weight but have no idea how to get the confidence I need to ride well. A couple of weeks ago at my first show of the season I was so afraid holding on for dear life that I hurt my rib or shoulder blade holding on so tight to the horn…I wanted to let him run but just couldn’t do it. My husband rode him and went over 3 seconds faster and I was so pissed. What do you offer a heavier, older rider with no confidence in her riding abilities?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Kathy, thanks so much for having the courage to share your fear – it’s folks like you that really want to blast through it that give other people the bravery to do the same! First, I’d suggest working on getting healthy and fit (get hooked up with Andrea for that, I also LOVE Success in the Saddle) AND focusing on rider exercises to improve your core strength and balance. Think of it this way – if our horse has a legitimate problem, and it intimidates us, then the first step is to fix the problem itself, THEN we can see what residual mental/emotional pieces that may still linger and address those. I’d be happy to dive into this in depth through video coaching if you like, keep it in mind! Also, there are rider exercises in my “First 51” book and I think you’ll enjoy this post -> Sit, Ride, RUN – Three Sequential Steps (and Exercises) to Become a Better Barrel Racing Jockey

  6. Sabrina
    Sabrina says:

    Hi Heather, I am 17 years old, and I live in Canada, and this is my 5th year barrel racing. I have a 25 year old gelding that takes very good care of me. He has taught me how to barrel race. I don’t really have a warm-up plan when I go to a competition because I don’t know what to do. He does get excited before a run and I think he feeds off my energy. I usually circle him around a bit and then let him stand because I find if I circle him too much then he thinks he is going to go into the arena right away. But on the other hand if I let him sit right before we go in then when I try to get into the gate he doesn’t want to go or stars backing up. Any suggestions of what I could do better?Thanks


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