How to TEACH and Prepare Your Horse to Handle Challenging Ground Conditions

How to TEACH and Prepare Your Horse to Handle Challenging Ground Conditions

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The barrel racing world has been abuzz lately on the important topic of ground conditions and what must be done to improve them, especially at the super bowl of rodeo and most prestigious event of the year – the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

As individual barrel racers with gold buckle dreams and valuable equine athletes that are both part of our livelihood and families, our hope for change comes in part through believing there is power in numbers, and that our voices and concerns are more likely to be heard when we join forces and take a stand together to #raisethebarforrodeo, as is being attempted through this petition.

It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions surrounding the issue – after all, there’s not just a lot of money at stake each night, but one single slip can be career ending for a beloved barrel horse, and the safety of the world’s top jockey’s is at stake as well. It’s no doubt serious business and an issue that can’t be taken lightly at any level.

In times like this, with social media at our fingertips it’s easy to hop on the finger-pointing and complaining bandwagon. When so many others are on board, it can be tempting to follow suit.

So while I do believe there is power in numbers, and am an advocate for safe ground conditions, I’m also a BIG believer that we must each take personal responsibility for our own safety and that of our horses, and that’s what I intend to help you do today. In any circumstance when we haven’t done everything in our own power through preparation, then a one-sided blame game isn’t quite a fair one to play.

Especially when a public message from WPRA headquarters enlightened us to the legitimate limitations in the influence and control barrel racers have over the ground conditions, situations like the WNFR especially require us to take matters into our own hands in addition to joining forces, and each do our part – which may include reaching out to local rodeo committees, but especially TEACHING and preparing ourselves and our horses, starting with the steps we take in our own home arenas – to increase the odds for safe and successful runs no matter what kind of challenging circumstances come our way.

In the pro members post below, I’ve shared TEN ways to do just that!

Will the balanced barrel horse please stand UP!?
Will the balanced barrel horse please stand UP!?

1. Lessen the Leaning – If you’ve ever taken a sharp turn on a snowmobile, you know it’s natural to lean to the inside, which gives you more control through the turn and weighs down the inside ski for more bite. Horses however, are ‘top heavy’ meaning that extreme shifts in weight to the inside, especially combined with “inside out” positioning (ribs arced to the inside), can be a recipe for the upper body to go down (on the ground) while the feet go UP (in the air).

It’s important to realize that it IS possible to change the “style” and habits of even old campaigners with consistent slow work integrated with intermittent and gradual testing at speed. This requires becoming more aware of where you horse carries his weight in general, in circles, and even away from the pattern. Even a horse that burries up his hind extremely can struggle – continual, even forward motion is key! Each and every time you feel a bit of lean, proceed in a forward, free-moving counter arc to transfer weight to the other side of their body. Be consistent and have new, high standards to lessen the lean!

Also know that if your horse can’t maintain the direction and gait that you ask for, then it’s not likely he will maintain shape, balance and positioning without being held (micromanaged) in place (see #3).

-> Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs

How much time to you invest in becoming a better jockey?
How much time to you invest in becoming a better jockey?

2. Improve Your Riding – If our horses have to shift their own weight to manage our weight on their backs, they aren’t going to as efficiently use their body to navigate tough ground conditions. Our goal should always be for our horses to work well because of us, not inspite of us. Unfortunately there are A LOT of talented equine athletes out there achieving wild success inspite of their humans!

Our riding habits in a run are often something we default to, even as we jump from horse to horse. Although we may make conscious subtle adjustments to ride different horses differently, if we want to change our default habits (like always leaning, or forgetting to “sit,” etc.), it IS possible – we just have to reroute our neural pathways over time just like we would correct a well-established habit with our horses. We don’t have to be a victim of our riding habits in a run – they can be changed!

-> How to Kiss Bad Barrel Racing Habits Good-bye

Can your horse follow patterns guided by focus alone?
Can your horse follow patterns guided by focus alone?

3. Responsibility – If your horse is just going through the motions and allowing himself to be (wo)man-handled through the pattern, then his heart and mind just really isn’t INTO his job. When he’s not focused on his job, he’s not going to use his body efficiently. Instead of owning the pattern, the barrels can be just meaningless obstacles. When the mind is scattered, the body will be scattered – but it doesn’t have to be!

A horse that is dialed in and staying “hooked” will naturally rate, collect and round his topline. He’ll crank the turns with only subtle guiding contact vs. pulling. He’ll use his body in a way that is more balanced and athletic, making slips and falls less likely. In the event of a mishap on poor ground, a horse that is focused will be able to recover quickly, possible saving the run and even the rider’s life! Repetition alone will not teach your horse responsibility for the pattern. The key is in testing and teaching your horse the desirable way and place to be with his mind, feet and body.

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

Small adjustments in positioning and posture can make or break a run.
Small adjustments in positioning and posture can make or break a run.

4. Power in Positioning – One cause of falls in barrel racing, is riders that PULL a horse’s head through a turn before the horse’s body is ready. I know this, because my own gelding suffered a bad fall that was MY fault his futurity year for this very reason. To correct our tendency to over-handle horses we have to correct our riding habits, train horses that take responsibility for their job on the pattern, maintain high level responsiveness (even at speed), AND and use our body language more than our hands when appropriate.

I want to develop my horses in a way that empowers them to make their own good choices, making it unnecessary for me to micromanage them through a run. Doing FOR a horse what they can do for themselves will only interfere with the run and slow things downs. I want top notch responsiveness and obedience under all circumstances (including at the gate) because it’s all connected and reflected throughout a run. The more empowered and prepared my horse is, the less “damage control” I have to do (just to survive the run), and the more I can focus on the little refinements that WINS are made of.

-> Improve Horse and Human Posture for more Power (and Traction) on the Pattern

Practice 'long & low' relaxation to counteract emotional tension.
Practice ‘long & low’ relaxation to counteract emotional tension.

5. Emotional Fitness – Of course our barrel horses are going to have adrenaline coursing through their veins in those slightly right brain moments as they get “on the muscle” and ready to make a run. But when does this go too far? One example, is when a horse runs with high head carriage. While this may be slightly due to a certain horse’s “style” or build, an equine athlete who is so “hot to trot” that their mind is in the clouds, will also tend to have their head in the clouds. When a horse is truly connected with the jockey and focused on achieving one goal together, they tend to reach forward vs. upward as they inhale each turn and eat up the ground.

From a biomechanical standpoint, when the head goes up (extremely and/or with tension), the back tightens, becomes concave and the stride shortens. At a gallop a horse is already carrying more weight on their front end, so allowing the emotionally unfit horse to solidify a habit of performing with poor posture puts them at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to poor ground, because they are less likely to round their back, fully engage their hindquarters and use themselves in a way that is not only more powerful, but more safe as well. I want my horse to elevate their front end, but when the line from the neck through the ribs carries a lot of tension and stiffness, slips become more likely.

-> Help for a “Hot to Trot” Barrel Horse!

Restricting full range of motion can inhibit balance.
Restricting full range of motion can inhibit balance.

6. Lose the Restrictive Head Gear – Last month Kathleen Rossi with Integrated Equine shared the physical drawbacks that can come along with using tie downs, bonnets and other head gear. In many cases these tools are used to make up for or mask symptoms of, a horse that is emotional, unfocused, uneducated, and/or has developed habits of carrying mental and physical tension and poor positioning over time.

If my horse feels the NEED to carry his head high I want to KNOW that so I can resolve the issue, which is why it’s not personally appealing for me these days to use a piece of tack that blocks these indicators. It’s true that a horse’s head weighs upward of 50 lbs. and that they DO use their head for balance. Notice when a horse slips or falls that their heads quickly jerks up? If a tie down is preventing a horse from fully extending their head, then it’s also inhibiting their ability to save themselves (and you) by regaining their footing. Horses learn to lean on tie downs, but it’s my belief that God gave ’em everything they need for balance.

What is your horse telling you about saddle fit?
What is your horse telling you about saddle fit?

7. Find a Free-fitting Saddle – Kathleen with Integrated Equine also tells the tale of a horrific end-over-end wreck that occurred to her and her horse in the middle of a pole bending run years ago. Looking back, she whole heartedly believes that it was restricted scapulas (shoulders) were a major contributor to the mishap that could have easily broke both their necks. It’s so important that we stop viewing ourselves as “victims” of “accidents” or even “bad ground,” when there’s so much we could be DOING to make slips and falls much less likely.

A horse that is sore and cannot extend his stride, round his back and use his body athletically can be flat dangerous to ride. When a horse has a short, choppy stride for example, it’s always a red flag to explore saddle fit more carefully. Also, don’t assume that because a saddle fit well four months ago means that it still fits well – our horse’s change and switching saddles sometimes only means switching the specific areas where our horses get sore. Don’t give up on your search for perfect fit!

-> How to Evaluate, Find and Enhance Saddle Fit for Faster Barrel Racing

Your horse's build plays a factor in how easily and safely he can navigate the pattern.
Your horse’s build plays a factor in how easily and safely he can navigate the pattern.

8. Horse Conformation – If you want to get really serious about preparing yourself and your horses to handle poor ground conditions, it pays to analyze conformation even before purchasing your dream horse. It’s my personal belief that bull-doggy horses with legs that seem set out at their corners, are better able to not only handle poor ground but also stay sound over the long haul.

Think of it this way – anything that is really long, lanky and tall is going to have a little more trouble with balance than something with a lower center of gravity in relation to the ground. I feel a horse with “wide-set corners” will have a slightly easier time staying balanced in four wheel drive through the turns.

I was always amazed at how well Latte stays so balanced, upright and correct for having such a big, racy build. Once I spent a day with Mary Walker it was easy to see that she did not allow him to lean to the inside or move in a way that was unbalanced. Our horses conformation and genetics play a big part in their ability, but it’s up to us to enhance their natural traits and talents.

-> Discover and Develop the Horse Power You Need to Succeed!

A little hoof wall goes a long way to create traction!
A little hoof wall goes a long way to create traction!

9. Fancy Footware – After nearly 10 years of being responsible for our horse’s hoof care, I’m still a raging advocate for natural trimming, but will say that the worn smooth “wild hoof” that trimmers drool over and attempt to develop – while it may offer enhanced all-around health, increased proprioception, and other benefits, it doesn’t exactly leave a barrel horse with much grip. I aim to offer my barrel horses with the best of both worlds by creating healthy, balanced (bare) feet with just enough hoof wall growth for traction.

Dot Com has beautifully concave feet that offer a natural shovel effect. The drawbacks that come along with metal shoes or putting nails through the hoof wall outweigh any traction benefits in my book, so while I may consider a glue-on flexible type shoe in the future (mostly for stabilization of Pistol’s collateral ligaments), for now, bare is what works for us (in case you didn’t know, it’s what worked for Jordan Briggs during her 2009 NFR qualification aboard Frenchmans Jester).

Never overlook the powerful adaptability your horse came already equipped with. Last summer when the ground was hard and dry and our horses were slipping on the dead grass in the pasture, small sections of sole started chipping out just inside the hoof wall (with no interference from me). If that’s not “nature’s rim shoe” – I don’t know what is! Remember to work WITH your horse’s God given traits vs. against them to find a balance that’s both healthy AND fast.

-> Barefoot Trim for Barrel Racing?

Pedestal work is just one of MANY ways to teach calm confidence on challenging footing.
Pedestal work is just one of MANY ways to teach calm confidence on challenging footing.

10. Confident Footwork I hope your parents didn’t teach you to swim by pushing you into the deep end first thing. While this “do or die” way of educating may have been popular in the stone ages, it doesn’t have much application today. That’s because while it may be somewhat effective for teaching survival skills, methods like this also often instill fear and insecurity.

I DO believe we need to challenge our horses by competing on them in less than ideal ground conditions, or by even working cattle or trail riding in environments that offer less than perfect footing, but I don’t think we should do it until they are very confident with handling their feet in good conditions. A horse that runs and turns with a foundation of confidence is a horse that tries hard and wants to be fast. A horse that has insecurities is more likely to safety up and hesitate, clock slower, get nervous and possibly and eventually even dread running barrels.

There are plenty of ways we can get our horse’s confident about placing their feet in general that will pay off on the pattern. Most importantly remember that confidence always comes before competition, in the dictionary, AND the sequence of our horse’s development.

-> Hauling Do’s & Don’ts: Avoid the Pitfalls to Arrive (and Stay) at Your Best

I hope this 10 point summary has given you resources to explore as you prepare yourself for the inevitable… such as ground conditions you didn’t know were that that bad, until you were in the middle of a slip at the first barrel!

Even empowered with all these ways to educate and prepare ourselves and our horses, never hesitate to draw out in conditions that are unsafe. There is a line between less than ideal ground and dangerous ground. Always follow your gut instinct and do what’s best for you and your horses. No first place check (or even gold buckle) is worth your life or your horse’s career, no matter how far you drove or how steep the entry fee or how great the winnings might be. There is a lot of value that comes in hauling home a healthy horse to try again when the conditions are better.

I also encourage you to #raisethebarforrodeo on a local level. In some cases, it’s simply that the rodeo committees aren’t familiar or well educated on how the ground must be prepared or the equipment that’s necessary to do it. If you have the knowledge or equipment to lend, but all means I encourage you to step in and offer it for the betterment of yourself, other competitors, the individual event, and the industry as a whole!

Click here to visit the discussion forum where I’ve linked to videos for analysis, education and discussion.

To study up and be an even more prepared and knowledgeable competitor, follow the links below:

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