How to Start Your Rides and Runs Right!

Start and Finish Your Turns Tight & Right

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #44 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

You may already be well aware of how important the start of any barrel racing run is.

When I interviewed World Champion barrel racer, Mary Walker she explained that the reason for her tipped second barrel in the fourth round of the 2012 National Finals Rodeo was a positioning issue – in the alley.

You read right. She felt as though Latte tipped the SECOND barrel, because of a positioning problem in the alley.

But what if your success in a run, or a ride, started EVEN before that. What IF it started before you even laid eyes on your horse?

In the height of the competitive barrel racing season especially, I know that if I’m not very intentional and specific about planning my rides in advance, I’m less likely to stay on track.

Sometimes, when the busyness of life gets the best of us, planning might take place after we’re already on the way to the barn, but rarely do I throw a leg over my horse without first giving thought to my intentions for each ride and what I am aiming to achieve in the long run.

Your ride starts well before you lay eyes on your horse.
Your ride starts well before you lay eyes on your horse.

At the same time, if we become too strict with our plans, we risk getting out of touch with how our horses feel and what they need in the moment.

This is so critically important, because let’s face it – than can change from one day or one minute to the next!  We may find that we need to focus on something entirely different than what we planned on.  In these cases, it’s best to be flexible and allow our horses to guide us.

Once you’ve made some notes (even mental notes) of your intentions for your ride, your second opportunity to set yourself up for success comes when you set foot toward your horse to halter him.  Notice I said “halter,” and not “catch” (there is a BIG difference)! Think of it this way – you want to “catch” your horse’s ATTENTION, then halter your horse.

To illustrate this point, I’ll share that during most of the winters I spent in Wyoming I was fortunate to be only two miles from a nice heated indoor riding facility.  Without fail, I would regularly escape the bitter wind and cold into a 55 degree dirt paradise.

As my horses got clued into the routine they’d hear my truck start – and their ears would prick.  I’d come trudging through the snow and when they caught sight of me rounding the corner of the barn they’d turn around and start walking the other way. Hmm…

It kind of bummed me out.

They were never hard to catch, BUT it was obvious they didn’t genuinely want to be.

But what could I do about it?  And did their “feelings” matter THAT MUCH, anyway?

Yes, it was cold.  Yes, they’d have to stop eating hay, load up and get a good physical work out.  Yes, we did this same routine three or four days a week.

At that point, I didn’t think there was much I could do about it.  I figured they’d just have to “get over it,” and come with me… but that was before I knew what I know now!

When we don’t know there are things we can DO to actually cause our horses WANT to be with us and go to “work,” that’s often when we overlook that deflating reality that our horses don’t sincerely want to be with us, and so we mentally write it off.

“Well that’s just too bad, you have to come with me and be a barrel horse whether you like it or not!” 

When this happens, you might even dismiss how your horse feels and deny that his emotions really matter, or are THAT important anyway.

If you’ve ever been in this boat, I’m here to say that you’re missing out on the very thing that could take the relationship with your horse (and therefore your performance) to a whole new level.

Ask yourself this – have YOU ever been cajoled into doing something you really didn’t want to do? How did it feel? Did you put your very best effort forth into that task you were actually dreading, or did you just go through the motions without enthusiasm?

As I explained last month, it’s hard to overrate talent in the barrel racing business, but desire, can take ANY horse even further.

“Show me a man or woman with heart and I’ll show you a way to overcome someone else’s talent.” – Jeffery Combs

These days, when my horses catch sight of me, their ears still prick – this time it’s for a different reason.  When I grab halters and head toward the gate, they actually amble on over to greet me, and meet me at least half way, if not hustling over before I even get to the gate.

Why?  It’s all been a matter of truly understanding horse psychology, and caring about how my horses FEEL.  I’m here to tell you – there is a direct connection between how your horses feel and how they perform.

Let’s use a fun analogy…

If your boyfriend stopped by to pick you up for a date, barged into the house, grabbed you by the arm, while talking on the phone or muttering to himself, not even acknowledging you and proceeded to march out of the house, expecting you to follow and be happy about it – how would you feel?

More than a little miffed!?

Lower your hand as an cue and invitation to graze.
Lower your hand as an cue and invitation to graze.

What if, on the other hand, he called you when he was on the way to let you know he was looking forward to having a nice time.  Then politely knocked, came in, gave you a tender kiss, said “Hey Baby, how you doin’?” then asked about your day, gave you a little back rub, and asked if you were ready for a fun, romantic evening?

Sound nice?  Sound like something you’d look forward to?

When you march out to halter your horses, which kind of interactions do yours most resemble?  Do you get in a hurry, with a million things running through your head, not really present at all, and without much consideration, slap a halter on and away you go?

Or do you put all else aside after planning and setting an intention for a good ride, then start communicating with your horse before you even get near him.  Do you say something endearing, like “How’s my Stud Muffin today?”  (OK, that’s not really necessary, but something I often do).

Do you use body language to ask your horse to respect your presence and turn and face you, then come toward you (if he hasn’t already on his own), before you halter him?  Does your horse lower his head and offer his nose to the halter?  Do you take a moment to just BE with your horse, in HIS environment, before jerking him out of it, maybe give him a little scratch first?

Which description above would put you “in the mood?”

The truth is, when we greet and halter our horses, we have an opportunity to set the tone, to set ourselves up for a good ride before we even get to the arena.

A great run starts well before you get near the alley.

We can either develop our understanding of horse psychology and learn how to meet our horse’s needs, and communicate with them effectively on the ground and watch how it benefits everything we do with on their backs – or we can NOT learn about this.

We can overlook this, we can write it off as meaningless. However, when we go that route, we miss out on all the advantages – the best one is having a happier, more genuinely willing horse.

“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” – Wayne Dyer

Below, I’ll outline some specific steps for getting your horse connected so that you’re set up to make your ride, or your run a great one.

Walk in a focused arc toawrd your horse's hindquarters.Walk in a focused arc toawrd your horse’s hindquarters.
  • Clear your schedule for horse time, that is horse time only – not time to catch up on phone calls, or socializing, or making mental grocery lists, etc. Allow yourself enough time to avoid getting in a rush.
  • Before you ride, set your intentions for what you plan to work on or hope to accomplish. At the same time be aware, flexible and willing to spend time doing what you feel your horse needs in the moment.
  • When you pick up a halter and lay eyes on your horse, start thinking positive thoughts and communicating to him, even from a distance.

“Sometimes feel is a mental thing. Sometimes feel can happen clear ‘cross the arena. Sort of an invitation from the horse to come to you.” – Buck Brannaman

    • If your horse doesn’t acknowledge you or walks away, follow him at a brisk walk as if you’re “on a mission” (your goal is NEVER to corner, ambush or “catch” your horse, just get their interest peaked and eyes on you).  With intense focus arc around toward his hind end, get more intense in your body language, the closer you get, until…
Start over toward the hindquarters if they lose focus.Start over toward the hindquarters if they lose focus.
    • Your horse just starts to yield his hindquarters or turn to face you, immediately stop and turn the other way – take all the pressure off (even looking at him is pressure).  Relax your posture, look at the ground, even slowly walk away.
    • Pay close attention to you horse’s body language (“FEEL” his presence or look out of the corner of your eye if you’re not ready to add pressure by facing him), be quick and ready to approach if he leaves (add pressure by walking toward the hindquarters) or retreat (release pressure by turning and walking away) if he faces you. Remember the quicker you time a release, the quicker your horse will learn.
    • If your horse has a habit of running away, get your relationship and respect reestablished by starting out in a smaller space.  Keep walking briskly behind your horse, arcing toward their tail until they turn toward you, even just a little bit out of curiosity.  Start small if you must, or even twirl your lead rope to encourage a horse to move forward or yield their hindquarters.
Use your halter as a massage tool.Use your halter as a massage tool.
    • At any time if your horse’s focus leaves you and he gets distracted or starts to physically leave, walk again in a wide arc toward his hindquarters.  Again reward him when his focus is back on you and he’s shifted his body to face you.  Remember what gets rewarded, gets repeated – make it very obvious what you want especially at first by rewarding your horse with a rest or rub when he’s “hooked on” to you.
    • When he’s content in your presence use a halter to massage your horse. Spend a few quiet moments just connecting.
Reward a horse who hooks on, then invite them to follow.Reward a horse who hooks on, then invite them to follow.
    • When you’ve got this going good and you have your horse’s interest, relax your posture while facing your horse and walk backwards to invite him to follow you. You want being with you to be a good thing, so again reward him with a rest or rub before he disconncts. Ask again for your horse’s attention then to follow as you walk forward. Walk back in an arc toward the hindquarters if you lose the connection, then start over when you have it if necessary.
    • Teach your horse to lower his head by squeezing your fingers on his poll area.  Start by squeezing lightly and increase the steady pressure until he guesses the correct answer by lowering his head.  (IF this is completely unfamiliar to your horse, you might start teaching with the halter on first so you don’t inadvertently reward him if he pulls away and/or leaves).  When he lowers his head in response to the pressure – release immediately.
Encourage your horse to seek the halter.Encourage your horse to seek the halter.
  • With your arm over your horse’s neck, use the same kind of steady pressure with your fingers to press on his off-side cheek bone to suggest that he turn his head and find the halter with his nose. Ask that he hold this position until you fasten the halter.
  • Become more interesting to your horse by being a little unpredictable and doing something they enjoy  – take your horse for a few bites of grass before you ride, ask your horse to lower his head and hold his nose to the ground until he licks his lips, give your horse a treat when he puts his nose through the halter, then take the halter off and leave, halter another horse first, etc.
  • Be equally as mindful when you turn your horse back into his pasture, pen or stall. This makes it more likely that your horse will actually look forward to seeing you again – it helps set your NEXT ride up for success!

When you consistently approach haltering as a way to intentionally get your horses “in the mood,” the process really won’t take any more time than tracking down a unwilling horse.

Here’s a rundown of what this helps accomplish and the benefits you stand to gain by doing so…

    • When you expect your horse to pay attention to your presence, then turn, face and come to you, it builds rapport and increases your horse’s general respect for you (which helps increase his responsiveness).
    • Establishing a positive connection through communicating with body language on the ground primes your horse to be open, willing and ready to learn when you climb aboard. This connection is the beginning stage of acheiving oneness under saddle (which is FAST on the barrel pattern)!
    • Putting everything else aside, and placing your full focus on your horse and making your time together a priority means you have more respect FOR your horse – they know the difference!
Success doesn't start in the arena!
Success doesn’t start in the arena!
  • When you’re fully present, you’re less likely overlook the little things your horse might be trying to tell you.
  • Not being in a rush and making haltering a positive interaction makes being WITH you and doing things FOR you much more appealing and enjoyable to your horse.
  • When you tap in to what your horse needs and how he’s feeling, and understand and meet his needs first, he’s more likely to give you his best in return.

The bottom line is that how you begin your run, your day, your ride – EVERYTHING you do, is more likely to go well when you have a good start.

It’s my hope that with the tips above you’ll be on the fast track to taking advantage of one of the most important, yet commonly overlooked ways in which you can take the relationship with your horse, and therefore your barrel racing, to new heights.

So, ask yourself this – is there room for improvement in the interactions you have with your horse before and/or after riding? Please share in the comments below!

As always, your questions, input, suggestions and feedback are welcomed and encouraged!

For even more on this topic, check out the resources below:

28 replies
  1. Jan Guelff
    Jan Guelff says:

    Thank you for putting this in writing. (I usually don’t watch videos; they take too much of my time.) Several years ago I discovered this technique after 60 years of working with horses. I call it “walking them down” and the time spent haltering then scratching their favorite spot is time well spent. I now have no hard-to-catch horses. Thanks again.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Jan, it was my pleasure! So glad you enjoyed the article. I know it’s already become easier for me to take more time to do these things now that I’ve moved to Texas and am not freezing cold while out haltering my horses! 🙂

  2. Pamela Pilkenton
    Pamela Pilkenton says:

    Hi Heather

    These are such good points!! I know many barrel racers that could truly benefit from this advice!! Having my horses want to be around me whether I am catching them or not has always been important to me. I always greet my ponies with a positive happy greeting!! They are very tuned to your emotion and mood!

    Thanks for your time in offering such good insight into our passion!


    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re so welcome Pamela, glad you enjoyed it! Our horses DO KNOW what’s going on with us, so much more than we give them credit for. They are wired to be so very perceptive of what’s going on around them, so it’s a great idea to be aware of that and use it to our advantage (and theirs)!

  3. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Well said, I’ve been doing this for years, I call it are alone time. Each day I spend 15 min. just being with them scratching,rubbing & talking. By doing this I can see if they have any cuts or scraps. they will all come running to me when I call. Thanks I love the things you share with us.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Kathy, I have heard of that alone time also called “undemanding time,” or “sharing territory.” Whatever we call it, there’s no doubt it strengthens the relationship between horse and human! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  4. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    Thank you so much for this. I have used this method ever since my mother taught it to me when I was 10 and spent 3 hours trying to catch my pony with no success. All my horses since, including an 8 month old weanling, now stand at the gate and neigh when they see me with a halter.
    I am glad you put this in writing, as I have a friend who just rescued a kill pen yearling and they have some respect issues to work out. I will give this to her and hopefully she will use this method to gain respect and trust with her horse. Thank you for the great articles!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re so welcome Nikki, it was my pleasure putting the article together! It’s so great to hear that you’ve been applying the same kind of techniques and ideas for “starting before you begin” with your horses! This was definitely a subject “too good not to share!” 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Breanna
    Breanna says:

    Good job Heather, it was a great article. My horse Toolarah always runs away when I try to halter her, So this article has helped so much. Thank you.

    Gotta Gallop,
    Breanna & Toolarah

  6. Priscilla Baldwin
    Priscilla Baldwin says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am having this problem with my mare now. I really believed it all started because she was in pain and didn’t want to ride. Now we have that all fixed I know how to work on getting her to want to be haltered again. I know she loves to be with me, just not when she sees the halter. Thanks for all the great advise.

  7. Sheryl Schweitzer
    Sheryl Schweitzer says:

    Nice article. Catching my 3 year old is like going on a hunting trip sometimes. It does work better if I take the time to clear my own head of the millions of things going on before even approaching her.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Good observation Sheryl. It’s always helpful to think about the tone we set when we first greet them… we would never barge into a friend’s house uninvited and yank them away from the dinner table and expect them to be excited about going to work. Lol

      Establishing general respect and getting that hindquarter disengagement really good (by just looking at their HQ) is definitely important as well!

  8. Lyndsey Pearson
    Lyndsey Pearson says:

    Thanks for this! My horse was really hard to catch before I read this article- now i can catch him easily! Way better than running around the pen for 10 minutes. It helps our runs too, you’re right it makes him more willing. 🙂

  9. shyanne miller
    shyanne miller says:

    I have all my horses out on pasture and when I walk out they take off, sometimes they come to me, but only when I don’t have a halter, my oldest mare is the dominate and so the other horses follow her, I don’t want to corner them and make them feel uncomfortable. What do I do.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Shyanne,
      You might want to work with that mare alone in a round pen first using this same sort of “catching game” and then progress to bigger areas. It wouldn’t hurt to go out and bring them a treat and give them a scratch and just carry the halter with you as you do, then leave. Get the relationship with her better and then the other horses won’t be as likely to pick up the bad habit of automatically leaving when they see you coming.

  10. Nancy Schuma
    Nancy Schuma says:

    Good reminder, Heather. While I’m not quite the bulldozer, more often than not, I feel hurried to get horse time in on the weekends …and I know they sense that too. Many things will be changing this next year as I begin the journey to fulfill my desires and this is a timely article to ensure I get it right from the start.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Glad to hear it Nancy. 😀

      One of the greatest blessings to my husband and I has been our move to Texas. One thing I REALLY appreciate is the opportunity for a few moments of “dwell time” when I halter the horses in the pasture before I ride, all made possible (or at least A LOT easier) because it’s not so darn freezing cold!

  11. CCarner
    CCarner says:

    I learned this technique on my own as a young girl.
    Just spending time with them. Letting them know that with humans,it’s not all ways hard work.
    I have been able to turn the hardest to catch , into pocket ponies.
    Matter of fact, I am doing this very thing with my newest barrel horse. Who was treated as just a tool before I got her.
    She is already starting to come around!
    Thanks for the great read!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks for sharing!

      The difference in our gelding, Dot Com is amazing. Every single day he is the first to approach people in the pasture and he has such an enthusiastic, curious, happy expression!

      He actually seeks people out and his ears prick forward when he even sees us outside… and he is NOT food obsessed – he is genuinely looking to connect.

      I consider it to be a HUGE complment – his willing attitude always brings a smile to my face! 😀

  12. Sean
    Sean says:

    Once again, accurate, articulate, and applicable. Thanks Heather, I’m not sure that I know a single horse owner who wouldn’t benefit from having a more thorough understand of this aspect of the relationship, or at the very least appreciate the content and detail of your efforts here. This is not barrel racer specific, I know old cowboys who rope even some of the mature horses in their ramuda and seasoned rodeo competitors from all timed events who either use an alley, a bucket of grain or a posse to catch their victims. Once again thank you for sharing such sound advice!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks Sean, I know old habits die hard. So many people bee-line straight for a horse’s head like a mountain lion as soon as they show signs of not wanting to be caught… which only makes the problem worse. I’m glad to share different ways of thinking/being that are based on true communication. Thanks again for your comment!

  13. Haley Spicer
    Haley Spicer says:

    Thank you for this advice! Luckily most days my mare happily walks up to me partway when I go to get her but what you said about how you plan your rides got me thinking. With my work schedule and availability to get to the barn, I find it almost impossible to pre-plan rides. I usually go in the afternoons and evenings and occasionally stay overnight (a plus to boarding at my best friend’s farm) and ride in the morning. Lately I’ve been getting out there 2-4 times a week. I try to keep variety and even out arena and trail riding but planning out my rides doesn’t seem to work when I try. What are some tips for planning ahead?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Haley,
      You could set aside time one day a week, like a 1/2 hour on Sunday for example to just think about elements in your horse’s development that might need some specific attention and maybe pick out a handful of WORDS that summarize what your focus will be. Some people are just not planners, I certainly AM, but as long as you are feeling out your horse in the moment and ensuring you have everything you need when it’s time to compete, you’ll be in good shape!

  14. Suzanna Lindamood
    Suzanna Lindamood says:

    This is such a wonderful article! I have done this for years, I may not have the fastest horse or a top barrel horse, but I have a horse that loves me and without doubt trys his hardest to please me. He doesn’t care if we are checking cows, roping the dummy, or running a barrel pattern. I have always believed that the ‘relationship’ comes first. This is so hard for people to understand. Thank you for putting it into words!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks for sharing Suzanna! I agree – if our horses aren’t happy partners then what’s the point, right? Barrel racing is what I enjoy doing DOING, but it all started with a foundational LOVE of horses. As competitive and serious as we are, I never want my drive to win to overshadow that. I really think we CAN have it all!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *