In It for the Long Haul – Advice from Your Future Self on Keeping Barrel Horses Sound, Healthy & Happy

In It for the Long Haul – Advice from Your Future Self on Keeping Barrel Horses Sound, Healthy & Happy

Lately we’ve been exploring the ways it’s quite possible to restore health and soundness even in performance horses with existing pathologies.

If I could give you one piece of advice tough, it would be this – be as pro-active as you can about preventing them to begin with.

Today I’m happy to share a number of tips for doing just that.

When my husband’s gelding Frosty was first diagnosed with ring bone, we pulled out all the stops to salvage his roping career and general well-being.

Craig & Frosty - partners for life.
Craig & Frosty – partners for life.

We worked with some of the most sought after, respected, and well-known orthopedic Veterinary specialists in the world, and then some. We tried every therapy and treatment modality under the sun to no avail.

Today one of his low pastern joints is now fused, but years of traveling with a “hitch in his giddy up” certainly contributed to even more all-around wear and tear. Being insulin resistant hasn’t helped either (we have not confirmed this via blood test, but was always my suspicion – now backed up by his incredible turnaround).

But when Craig partnered up with Frosty, he intended for it to be for the long haul. Even if that meant saving a place for him in our pasture and having one less rope horse to ride.

“You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause he’s banged up a little.” – Tom Smith, Seabiscuit

I seemed more logical to find a retirement home for him, but Craig wouldn’t have it. Which is OK, because Frosty represents something special. His presence is a daily reminder to appreciate and take care of what you have.

He reminds us that soundness today, doesn’t guarantee soundness tomorrow. He reminds us of what a massive commitment horse ownership is. He reminds us of the sacrifices our horses make for us.

Sherry Cervi once shared a quote from her mentor…

“Those horses are like a pack of cigarettes. One day you’re gonna run out of runs. You better enjoy it while it lasts.”
The living legend in our pasture – an own son of Lowry Star.

Health and soundness problems are less often random accidents, and in most cases preventable, sometimes curable or at least manageable. But rather than be wracked with guilt over mistakes of the past, I encourage you to always go forward into the future committing to do better.

Every mistake is one you never have to make again.

Craig was fortunate to have not just one, but now two “one-in-a-million” horses in his life. It’s like having a second chance. You can bet Craig doesn’t take it for granted.

Like everyone else, I’ve made some mistakes with my own horses as well. But when you know better, you do better.

We live and learn. We just have to make sure that we DO learn, or the same lessons will tend to keep repeating themselves. Of course if you want to be really efficient – learn from other people’s mistakes whenever possible!

Below, I’ve relived some lessons I learned the hard way, not just from my personal experiences but those I’ve witnessed others go through. They are lessons I want YOU to learn the easy way, so you can spare the heartache and expense that has weighed heavy on me and many barrel racers I know.

HORSE HEALTH

Life lessons

If I was able to do it all over again, I would pay even closer attention to my horse’s hoof care. I’m quite a fanatic in this area as it is and have been from the beginning, but admittedly there have been times that our horse’s have gone too long between trims or I’ve rushed through their trimming when I should have been more detailed. If you can’t keep up with hoof care, or if you’re not happy with the quality your farrier is providing – I encourage you to make a change!

It doesn’t matter if your horse is a baby, a top performer at his peak, or 20 years old. Unbalanced feet cause stress and inflammation to the joints, which can lead to bony growth and arthritis. Healthy, balanced feet support the health of the whole horse and can go a LONG WAY in preventing sneaky and sometimes irreversible pathologies from cropping up. When problems are already present, the tiniest adjustments to the feet really can create the opportunity for comfortable movement and healing, OR the opposite.

I highly recommend you do whatever it takes to provide your horses, young and old, with the very best hoof care you possibly can!

I’m fortunate to have very little experience with colic and ulcers. Let me explain why I think that is: My horses live on pasture and eat grass most of the time. When they do eat hay, it’s good quality – which is determined through nutrient analysis tests. Our horses rarely if ever stand around with nothing to eat. My horses have always had lots of opportunity to move and be horses, they’re only kept in stalls or pens when absolutely necessary.

I no longer feed grain and only use low glycemic feeds such as rice bran and flax. They receive joint support at minimum in the form of an oral supplement, and also receive probiotics when competing to enhance their digestion and immune system. They look good and feel good. When traveling I keep hay in from of them as often as possible. They do not get in the trailer without a full hay bag in front of them. Our horses always have access to a fresh, unlimited supply of water. I don’t make sudden changes to their feeding program and I follow a deworming protocol based on regular fecal analysis.

My horses are developed physically and mentally to an advanced degree before I ever subject them to the stresses of extensive traveling and competing. The seasoning process starts well before I start hauling them regularly. My horses are emotionally fit, meaning they don’t pace, they’re not nervous, they don’t have vices, they haul peacefully and are generally happy. This isn’t because I’m lucky – it’s intentional and is based on how I’ve developed them!

All the factors I’ve mentioned above contribute to the health of the gut, and a horse’s gut health contributes to every area of their health. I’ve witnessed cases of ulcers and colic more commonly in horses whose care is lacking one or more of the areas I’ve mentioned above – all “food for thought” to help prevent colic and ulcers from slowing you down.

Excessive hard, fast work contributes to wear & tear.
Excessive hard, fast work contributes to wear & tear.

TRAINING

In the process of training my horses (or training myself, depending on how you look at it), I’ve put them through a fair amount of physical and mental wear and tear. I realize now that back in the day, I tried (not always successfully) to use repetition instead of psychology to train horses instead of authentically communicating with them. I took a lot of pride in establishing perfect “body control” and even though my horses were obedient, in the early years I didn’t have a clue about what it meant to really develop a horse’s mind.

Horses are such great learners, but we have to be great teachers. It’s our responsibility to take care of our students in more ways than one.

My life wasn’t always structured in a way that make it easy to put the horse first and work on their timeline. Now that I “take the time it takes,” everything we do absolutely takes less time! I’m better empowered now to set my horse’s up for success from the get-go. I train smart instead of hard. My horses are mentally much happier, and doing so conserves them physically as well.

Now days, I allow my horses time to process and THINK all the way down to their feet. It doesn’t always look very action packed, in fact it’s verrrrry S-L-O-W in the beginning stages. However, it’s amazing how what LOOKS so insignificant can accomplish so much – AND how much SPEED it contributes to later! I no longer just order body parts around, but I have real-time two way conversations with my horses (through body language, primarily) where we’re BOTH mentally engaged and present – which ultimately allows for even greater results – especially when high pressure and speed is involved!

If I could go back in time, I would take on a more quality over quantity approach to developing my horses. I wouldn’t ask for as many hard, fast maneuvers that tend to contribute to wear and tear on their bodies. Again, I’d use less repetition, but have higher expectations for the quality of movement and effort that I do ask for and receive from my horses. Of course, it takes time for us to figure out how that feels, but let’s hope we can do that without our horses having having to make too many sacrifices.

Hindsight is 20/20
Hindsight is 20/20

To be honest, if I could start all over, I’d also spend more time, energy and focus on training myself vs. my horses. I’d put myself in learning environments even more instead of being so determined to figure it out all by myself. I’d put myself on the sacrificial alter of learning and care less about how I looked or what other people thought. I would put more value on what my horses thought and felt, knowing that their feedback will never steer me wrong. I’d read even more books, watch even more DVD’s, ride in even more clinics, ask more questions and get more professional help.

If I had “eyes to see” what I seems obvious to me now – it’s that there is a lot more to being a great rider and jockey than just hanging on. The very high level of balance, feel and timing that’s necessary for barrel racers to be competitive is not something that we’re all born with. Some of us have to work hard on it. Most of us aren’t able to become amazing riders just by riding and running alone. In fact, if we don’t focus on developing good skills and habits outside of the arena, our horses will just suffer for it, and so will our times!

I recommend all beginner barrel racers find quality instruction from the very beginning in order to develop good movement patterns. These movement patterns stick with us, and while it IS possible to change them, it can be difficult. We all want to have a solid, positive foundation of default riding habits in a run especially and the best way to develop those is intentionally!

For support in this area, you’ll enjoy the “Your Reflection” chapter of The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

CONDITIONING & COMPETING

If I could turn back the clock, I would NEVER make another run on a horse that wasn’t properly conditioned. People take horses that have been sitting in pastures for weeks and make runs on them all the time without a problem – but they’re taking a big risk every time. The one time I did resulted in a tendon injury that ultimately ended my childhood mare’s career. Could I chalk it up to a freak accident? Maybe, but why take that chance again?

Looking back, being as there were fewer treatment options then, I would have also been more aware instead of ignorantly thinking “she’d get over it after a few weeks off.” At minimum, she needed inflammation management, stall rest and hand walking that in my early 20’s I didn’t exactly impeccably deliver.

I also wouldn’t ride, run, train and condition my teenage, finished, and slightly arthritic horses the same way as I would younger horses. Sometimes for them, less is more.


“Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon & wise too late.” – Ben Franklin

If I had to do it all over again, I’d be even more particular about my developing my horse’s educational foundation and mental connection so it would ALL be there, NO QUESTION – in the alley, and under high pressure or high speed circumstances.

I’ve seen one unintentional step or rub up against a panel or wall in the heat of the moment cause some major wrecks and injuries. I’ve heard of numerous horses who have fractured a leg as they abruptly took off in the alley. A strong foundation allows me to stay in constant, even communication with my horses, allow us to stay completely controlled while gradually accelerating in the alley, making injury much less likely.

I would be even more conscious and particular about creating habits of balanced, powerful quality movement and posture in my horses. I would ensure that they actually used their bodies well in general, and did so on the pattern. A balanced, 4×4 way of moving equals less stress on joints and soft tissues.

I would be more careful that my horse did not develop the tendency to start a turn too soon or lean to the inside with their rib cage toward the barrel and their nose out, both of which commonly results in falls. I would also avoid prematurely guiding my horse to finish a turn with my hands, which tends to direct the horse’s head before the body is ready to come through – also a common contributor to falls.

I would not be afraid to draw out of dangerous ground conditions, but I would also not blame those conditions as the reason why horses struggle who aren’t using themselves properly. I would always carefully examine the ground, making sure there were not large rocks or debris in the arena dirt if possible, and also take note of whether panel gate bottoms were completely buried. One wrong strike of a foot on a hard object at speed can result in a career-ending coffin bone fracture.

When it comes to the type of ground I ride in regularly, I’d make sure to keep a balance between pasture or road riding vs. nice, soft arena footing. I believe both are necessary to condition our barrel horses properly. Hard surfaces are great for building tough, calloused hooves, but too much hard ground (even packed arena dirt) can contribute to wear and tear. Hard, fast work, especially in deep sand can put a horse at risk of soft tissue injuries in a hurry. I recommend you not just notice, but study ground and intentionally become an expert on it, then make judgments accordingly. Doing so better prepares you to recognize the difference between conditions that are “less than ideal” and plain dangerous.

Learning is a gift.

Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s easy to take your horse’s soundness and health for granted when you’ve always had it. But if you lose it, it changes you. You grieve the loss. Nothing last forever, that’s for certain. But if we do the very best we can, and make good choices that are in our horse’s best interest, they can enjoy long, healthy and successful careers.

While the points I’ve mentioned above are actually tips from my “past self,” they could just as well be from YOUR future self. Some of them may even seem obvious or like “no-brainers,” but remember that it never hurts to soak in confirmation of certain ideas from more than one source, and on multiple occasions to really drive an important message home. It’s also critical that we don’t just “know” these concepts, but that that we act on them, and live them.

I’ve gone through my share of struggle and growing pains over the years. Today, I’m glad to use all my experiences for a special purpose – which is to help take your barrel racing to the next level and enjoy every step of the process.

I hope today’s tips do just that.

Also enjoy these additional resources for keeping your barrel horses healthy and happy:

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