How to Use Body Language to “Go and Whoa”

How to Use Body Language to

I once came across a definition of impulsion recently that described it as the equal balance of “go and whoa.”

So if we have more “go,” or more “whoa,” we not only lose impulsion, but chances are we won’t win the barrel race either!

In a world where tiny fractions of a second can be life changing, maintaining this balance becomes a very delicate matter. Our horses must be able to deliver every ounce of speed they can muster between barrels, and then rate down for the turns like a jet engine in reverse.

Make going by barrels a thing of the past.
Make going by barrels a thing of the past.

It’s not uncommon for horses to get too much run on their mind and lose their “whoa,” OR start anticipating the turn so much that they can no longer be driven up into the turn. When we’ve reached to either of these extremes, it’s well past time to take action to correct the problem.

But a barrel racer must specifically understand HOW, which is what this week’s Q&A video is all about.

If a rider’s hands don’t educate a horse appropriately, in time a horse will become more and more dull to their pulling. If a rider uses their body to constantly urge a lazy horse to keep moving, soon their urges lose their meaning as well.

Eventually, a barrel racer might go to a bigger bit which may help temporarily. But if they don’t change themselves, and learn how to teach and maintain light responsiveness in their horse, eventually they “run out of bit,” meaning that even firm contact connected to a severe mouth piece no longer gets the desired response.

Once you’re in this spot, there’s nowhere to go except back to the beginning. It’s likely to be a long road once habits are established, which is why I suggest having extremely firm basics to start with, and revisiting and refining them on a consistant basis.

Barrel racing is a sport, that in my book, demands more firmly established mental, physical, emotional and educational foundations than any other equestrian discipline. Yet it’s a sport which has developed a bad name for horses and riders who lack these foundational elements.

Not only can refining the communication with your horse ensure that your horse doesn’t blast by a barrel, run through your bit, or refuse to stop, but doing so also means that your “go button” will work better too (think of it like strapping a nitrous oxide booster to the back of your saddle)!

When your horse is in tune to your body language and understands that something as subtle as raising your energy means “GO” then you’ll have instant blast off (and that’s without having yet even picked up a whip or over and under)!



If your horse gets strong and pushes against bit pressure, like Courtney’s horse does in the video above, or if you’d just like to get a more explosive “blast off,” you’re sure to take something away from this week’s Q&A.

After all, we can ALL benefit from more refined communication with our horses!

Have YOU struggled with balancing “whoa and go?” Can you imagine having such refined, precise control of your horse?

Are you ready to take action and implement the suggestions in the video?

Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments below!

31 replies
  1. Breanna
    Breanna says:

    I love this video. My horse Toolarah is a very lazy horse when you ask her to back when I’m leading her with her halter and lead rope she is very slow and doesn’t really respond well. And when I stop she dosen’t stop as good because she keeps walking without me.

    Gotta Gallop,
    Breanna & Toolarah

    Reply
  2. Sherry SmithDennis
    Sherry SmithDennis says:

    I have started back to basics to get my horse to be more responsive. The video reinforces the things I have been doing.

    On a side note, I see a lot of girls running without a tie down. How do you know if your horse can run without a tie down(although you’ve been using one all along)? And what do you do to transition them from not having a tie-down.

    Finally, really enjoy your tips. They are very helpful. But when are you going to do a full length DVD with all of you tips and exercises.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Sherry,

      Thanks for your comment. Tie downs are what I consider to be a mechanical means for getting a horse to “gather up.” I prefer to create that in a more organic sort of way, and believe in developing horses to be responsible for staying mentally and physically collected (vs. scattered).

      If a horse has been running with a tie down and you’d like to transition to going without, you can start by not using it during any of your training, tuning and rides at home, and only use it in competition. Eventually make some runs without it at home, etc. and make the transition to competing with out gradually so that your horse almost doesn’t notice isn’t not there.

      You can expect as you go, to need to refine their responsiveness and responsibility, because you’ll tend to notice differences in how they may use themselves at first based on how they depended on that tie down in the past.

      I think a horse that is not physically restricted has a better opportunity to perform to his potential (I do NOT believe they are “necessary for balance”), but in a sense it requires higher level awareness and horsemanship from the rider. They are a bit of a crutch and a lot of top riders will admit to only using them if they are in a pinch or having some kind of trouble.

      You also want to make sure your horse understands to yield to bit pressure and flex at the poll under all circumstances. Many people first put a tie down on to control a nose that is going up, but that only happens because there is a hole in the horse’s education, which is the human’s responsibility.

      Hope that helps! 🙂

      Reply
  3. LeeAnne
    LeeAnne says:

    Thanks so much for the video. I love how it is just the little things that we need to focus on that can make a world of difference. My horse Pancho is 4 and this is his first year of jackpots. He has been a ranch horse for the last year. He is super and is soooo calm. I am having trouble with getting him by the barrels and I know it is me. I have been away from barrel racing for 20 years and it is taking some time to find the groove again. I know that I am looking at the barrel and sitting way to soon and he is only listening to me! I never thought about what is going on on the ground. His does lag behind when I lead him and I do tell him he is a bit lazy. I thank you for you tips and plan to pay a lot more attention to my body language all the time not just on the pattern. Pancho is placing in the 3d with a fast lope…I cannot wait to see what happens when I find that GO button! Thanks again LeeAnne and Pancho ( Te Te Moon)

    Reply
  4. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    Thank you for your tips! I look forward to them everyday. I think I have taught my horse “not to run” between barrels. I perfected barrels when working the pattern instead of in “dry work”. I would make him do a perfect barrel then instead of powering out of the barrel I would pull him up and slow lope to 2nd and 3rd. this has obviously transfered into his runs. He is very athletic and fast, however we don’t clock. I am just sick I have done this to him. What can I do now to change his mind set??

    Thanks again,

    Sheila and “Doc”

    Reply
    • Kristi Werner
      Kristi Werner says:

      These tips are perfect in getting us to realize what we are doing that affects our horse. You can now see that slowing your horse after a correct barrel turn is teaching your horse that he doesn’t need to run between the barrels or after a barrel turn. It is amazing the so little things we do affects the horse.

      Reply
  5. Erika
    Erika says:

    I am having trouble with my horse ducking at the first barrel (left barrel)… And if I go to the right barrel first, she ducks the left turns.. What could i do to put a stop to this?

    Reply
  6. Brittany Gates
    Brittany Gates says:

    I am having trouble with my horse sholdering the 2ed and 3rd barrel every time. i need help please help me i no we could do it.

    thank you,
    Brittany Gates and “Pacon”

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Brittany,
      Even though you didn’t say that your horse is tipping barrels, this article may be helpful – Keep Em Standing – Four Tips for Reforming a Barrel Crasher. You might also check out this one, to make sure your horse’s feet are falling on the correct path – Follow the Barrel Racing Pattern of Least Resistance. There are a lot of different ideas when it comes to fixing a dropped shoulder, some people move the shoulder up and over when they drop it, some people move the hip in, some people encourage more balanced, forward movement which discourages any leaning, keep in mind these things are typically done in slow work. The body positioning problems are harder to notice going slow, but if you are really aware you can fix those things with repetition. Also make sure in a run that you are riding all the way up to the turn, keeping your eyes up, elbow bent, and not collapsing your own shoulder/body!

      Reply
  7. Brittany Gates
    Brittany Gates says:

    And am also having trouble with my horse suger breaking down into a trout how do i fix it?

    thanks agin:)
    Brittany Gates and “Suger”

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Brittany, I would do just as the video describes… if your horse drops down in gait lift your energy back up, use a little leg then tap them on the rear if necessary. It’s their responsibility to go and keep going until you give them new instructions! 🙂

      Reply
  8. Audrey Barnett
    Audrey Barnett says:

    This article relates to my current barrel horse. I know he has a lot of speed, but he is just SO lazy he isn’t motivated or interested in anything I ask him to do. He also goes SO far past the barrel before turning(takes him that long to get his lazy butt in gear) that all the professional pictures I have of him you can’t even see the barrel!! He is really lazy at the back up too. I do tons of different exercises to get him working off his butt and using it in a turn, but he won’t APPLY it to the barrel pattern. Hopefully your tips will help me out somewhat, but I think I’m just going to sell him.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Audrey, thanks so much for your comment! I understand the position you’re in and I actually addressed this very subject in a recent email. Also, here’s a past post and Q&A that I think you’ll find helpful – “Provide Motivation and Create Consistencyin the Barrel Horse.”
      Horses and people all have innate tendencies, so it IS possible that he would enjoy life more as a trail horse, but at the same time, how we handle our horses can either help balance their tendencies out OR make them more extreme. Some food for thought, hope it helps! 🙂

      Reply
  9. Future Champion
    Future Champion says:

    I love all your tips, really love this one, because my horses use to be very great stoppers, everyone would compliment them yet our clock work wasnt showing up good! It took me a long time to realize I needed a good balance of both! Maintaining that balance is hard and will take some learning but im excited to hit the rodeo rode and give it all we got! Your tips/website/ interviews are absolutely amazing and encouraging!

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Alicia,
      A good, simple choice for transitioning a horse out of a snaffle (when they are super soft and responsive in it) is a Jr. Cowhorse type bit or something like the Sharon Camarillo tender touch models. They are pretty basic and good for getting started.

      Reply
  10. Chelsey
    Chelsey says:

    I am having some issues with my horse being so bendy in the neck that he leaves his butt behind around the barrels. I can see this issue in side passing too, more to the right than the left. The same with his roll backs as well. He is better to the left than the right. To the right he just bends his neck instead of getting down and leaves his hind end behind. If I have him loping and collected he does great but when we add speed he gives his head (sometimes too much) but doesn’t always rate. So we will go by and lose time or he will come out of the barrel wide and of course lose time.

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      He Chelsey, I think in general it will be a good idea to do much less (little to nothing) with your reins and use lots of leg! If your horse is over flexing to contact, then use your legs to correct the rest of the body that is falling out of position. Also make sure your horse is taking responsibility for maintaining direction and gait, so that you’re not tempted to use the reins so much for those reasons.

      Reply
  11. Cassidy
    Cassidy says:

    Hi Heather, another great post! My horse and I had some major issues last year which caused him falling down and then breaking my foot that required surgery. I had to take some major time off to heal- which I honestly think was a blessing in disguise. With my time off I did lots of research on horse nutrition, horsemanship skills, and barrel racing tips. When I started riding again, I hardly worked the barrels, I focused on getting my horse soft and getting in tune with each other again. I have done lots of slow work and when I run him we are making very pretty and smooth runs and are placing in the 2D but if feels like we have a lot more gears to pick up and I am having a hard time getting more speed out of my horse without getting him jammed up and not paying attention to me. Do you think breezing him would be beneficial? What else do you recommend to get your horse to RUN? Thanks again for this website! I am a frequent visitor and looking forward to reading your books!

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Wow, Cassidy that’s awesome! Some of our greatest growth that applies to our barrel racing often takes place away from the barrels – I’m IMPRESSED! When our horse is educated and confident, and we’re riding with good timing, one of the best things we can do is specifically condition for SPEED, which is covered in “The Barrel Racer’s Guide to SPEED Development.” Click here for details.

      Reply
  12. Bailee Mills
    Bailee Mills says:

    I am working with a mare who I plan on barrel racing this season and I have noticed that she is very unfocused and she tries to make decisions on her own; for instance if I am trotting circles then she will start loping and I will then stop her and back up, she will do it again, and so on. We are working on basics. Whether I am riding by myself in the arena or with a friend, she is constantly looking around and not paying attention. Any help? Thank you soo much!!

    Reply
  13. Emma
    Emma says:

    My horse is fast but he doesn’t preform like he does at home. He know my body language but refuses to run at other places. He is slowly getting better but I know he has more. And he knows to. What can I do?

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      My best advice is to have even higher expectations at home for the quality of responsiveness and do your best to determine if it’s a respect issue or if your horse is nervous and insecure? Groundwork can be a great help either way.

      Reply
  14. Mahlia
    Mahlia says:

    I have a big big issue with my horse. The video helped me understand what she is doing as far as running ahead of me, but she freezes up in the ally and will not go i don’t want to have to spur her or whip her. she just freezes up. She wasn’t always this way, it just happened all of a sudden, and every since she has been a hassle. Oh and she doesn’t do it at home.

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Mahlia, I think this post will help -> Seven Tips to Solve Gate Problems for Good. It’s critical that you rule out a physical problem first and also realize that in order to be “understood, we have to be effective and to be effective we have to be understood.” If you allow this problem to continue, even just one more time, it will get worse and worse, so it’s really important to figure out the reason WHY it’s happening. If it started all of a sudden, my guess would be soreness or ulcers, etc. so a good Vet. would be your first stop! 😉

      Reply

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