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.
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!?
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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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:
- Exercise 6 – Dream Catcher in The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises for Precision on the Pattern