In Search of SPEED – How to BE Explosive on the Barrel Pattern!

In Search of SPEED - How to BE Explosive on the Barrel Pattern!

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SPEED. We breed for it, we condition for it, we train for it, we feed for it, yet getting the most of it that we can from our barrel horses remains, on many levels – a mystery.

Until now, that is.

Today I’ll be sharing some interesting observations I’ve made about speed, and unconventional tips for creating it, especially when all other avenues have been exhausted.

Many years ago, I was told by a judge in a competition (where I had to ride an unfamiliar horse), that she thought I had a calming effect on horses. That really stuck with me. For a long time I was proud of that comment. It was a little “feather in my hat.”

However, as “my eyes” became better developed, I began to notice other people that had that same calming effect – they were great with nervous or young horses, but when it came to running barrels, these people (and their horses) were S-L-O-W.


THEN – I observed changes in a person I knew who had been in a serious horse accident. She was back riding in a few months, but something had changed on the inside, and it was affecting her riding. She safetied up a bit – hesitated. Her legs might have been kicking and saying “GO,” but her subtle energy communicated “Don’t GO” to her horses, and it certainly affected how they clocked.

Then one day I was helping set barrels at a barrel race and had a really good view of a particularly successful barrel racer as she came down the alley. I will never forget the look on her face – her eyes bulged out (mine were also at this point), she looked almost vicious! The energy in her body was intense, and her horse picked up on it (I did too!)… her horse matched that energy and they WON the barrel race.

No kidding!

What I’ve learned is that horses pick up on things as we ride them, subconscious messages within us that sometimes WE aren’t even aware of. Sometimes our horses seem like they are not in tune with us, and granted, sometimes they aren’t, but on many levels, they really are – much more so than we realize.

Horses are GOOD at getting in sync, because it’s how they’re wired to survive. It’s their natural tendency to take on the energy of those around them. Like when one horse spooks and runs in the pasture, and they all think they have to do the same – “Save your life!”

A few weeks ago, I noticed a drammatic change in my barrel horse when I put my 70 year old Dad (who is not in the greatest of health) on him for a spin around the pasture. Pistol didn’t just “take it easy” with my Dad, I mean he shifted into S-L-O-W motion sloth mode, like one. foot. in. front. of. the. other.

It’s not uncommon to see that special connection some horses make when they have a child on their back, but the connection Pistol made to meet my Dad where he was, and take care of him, was really extreme (and of course, appreciated)!

I connected the same dots, when I realized that when I jump on Pistol bareback, he feels like a dud. Perhaps it’s because on a subconscious level I don’t feel quite as secure as I do in the saddle, and perhaps he not only reads into this, but he also probably feels a subtle, but legitimate lack of security physically, and adjusts to fit the situation based on the feedback coming from me, whether I’m aware of it or not.

Horses FEEL things, they notice things. They are ultra aware and so much more sensitive than we give them credit for. We would be wise not to overlook this in our search for speed.

If we want to understand horses, become excellent at communicating with them, AND achieve unlimited success, we must strive to develop a level of heightened awareness that goes beyond words and conscious thought.

I may get frustrated at times that Pistol seems so pokey, but the truth is, horses are like computers – they may not do what we want them to do, but they always do what we’ve programmed them to do!

One of the most important steps toward developing “positive programming” starts with removing what’s in the way of it, this starts with awareness – of ourselves. When I think about WHY I have this calming effect on horses, I can’t help but reflect back on the many terrifying runaways I had on my pony as a kid. Regardless of whether I ended up bloody, bruised, or just lucky, I never hesitated to get back on, and never have… consciously anyway.

Later in my youth, I had more nightmarish experiences on my next childhood horse. I certainly learned a lot of problem solving skills, and adapted a “never give up” attitude in the process, and it’s by no means something I dwell on. I’ve certainly had many, many positive, confidence building experiences in the years since then, with many horses in all stages of development, and in competition. But perhaps there was still something deep down inside ME that saftied up a bit, held back, and subconsciously communicated to my horse “Go, but don’t go,” even though I don’t remember EVER having a conscious fearful thought?

Because the placings at barrel races come down to tiny fractions of a second, it’s so important to open our mind, and put effort toward noticing these little details with the same great depth that our horses do. The speed our horse’s display on the pattern depends on it. We can’t be “superficial” by just jumping on and thinking a good nylon massage is going to override what we’re REALLY telling our horses.

These observations are right in alignment with the feedback I received a few years ago when I submitted a couple videos of my runs for World Champion barrel racer Kristie Peterson to critique through

“My first thoughts after watching your runs, is that you need to trust your training. You ride very good and it looks like your horse is really well broke. I suggest you get wild!!! Do not over train or over think. Have fun!! and get crazy!!!”

I laugh when I read that to this day, because I’m a “left-brain introvert.” I dig details, processes, perfection, thinking… ALL which ARE very valuable qualities in the training stage (which I DO tend to get stuck in). However, this also makes it necessary to intentionally create balance by busting out of those ways of being to let ‘er rip in competition.

How do we do that?

With practice, of course!

One way we can simply just learn to “let loose,” OR help overcome what could be subconscious fear of speed and losing control, is by putting the pedal to the metal more often (unless you DO have legitimate reasons to fear losing control, in which you should address that first).

As a teenager, I was a wild and crazy and so were all my friends – we were adrenaline junkies! Although I certainly DO NOT recommend doing things that jeopardize your safety, it’s interesting to consider that these days I actually catch myself harping at my husband to SLOW DOWN when he’s driving!

What the…!?

The truth is, I’m not as comfortable at speed in general as I used to be, because I don’t spend as much time enjoying it. It’s an easy rut to fall into if you’ve ever taken a break from competing, or if you start colts and find yourself in “training mode” a lot.

So the next time you’re tooling around on the 4-wheeler doing chores, head down the gravel road and open ‘er up. Get in line for the wildest rides at the county fair – go on a roller coaster every chance you get. Have a race track tilled up in your pasture so you have good, safe ground to breeze your horses, or finally answer to that big hay field that’s been calling your name since forever and sprint through it already!

Fall in love with speed!

It’s so important to let go of any subconscious fear that may be holding you back, and get more comfortable with “turning loose!” Your horse isn’t likely to do so, until YOU do!

Beyond expanding our comfort zone, there is also much to be said for exercising our bodies and minds in specific ways that help us respond much quicker, and thus ride more effectively and efficiently in a run.

The subject of improving timing is one that I don’t have space to go into here, but have addressed in The First 51 Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

The next stage of awareness for increasing speed, comes in considering our individual horses.

You see, even outside of the influence I have over Pistol, by nature he is one laid back dude. He was BORN confident and relaxed! If he receives what might be a subtle suggestion to slow down or stop, he’s on it! He’s not as quick to accelerate on the other hand, while Dot Com is the opposite.

Now this doesn’t mean two “laid back, thinkers” can’t be a successful barrel racing team, it just requires extra awareness, willingness and effort to address and balance each of these areas completely and individually to increase our aptitude for the sport and chances for success.

There IS plenty I can do to help a horse like Pistol be the best he can be on the barrels, much of which I shared in The “Lazy” Barrel Horse – How to Build a FIRE in Their Feet!

In the process of removing obstacles blocking the expression of speed on the pattern, next in line to self(and horse) awareness, is that we must do everything we possibly can to take advantage of a horse’s instincts so they work for us vs. against us.

We can enhance any horse’s natural tendencies to match our energy more consistently and precisely through training. We do this by teaching them specifically what to pay close attention to and connect with, and what to ignore. It’s when we inadvertently do the opposite that we run into trouble.

At all times, we are either teaching our horses to pay attention to the subtleties and specific meaning of our actions, or we are teaching them not to, for the better or worse. It’s so critical to be particular and purposeful about this so we can bring out ALL the speed our horse has to offer.

This ensures that when we DO turn loose, that our horse will too! Remember – horses naturally seek to connect with us, but the degree to which they do depends heavily on how we have developed them and enhanced their natural inclinations.

I’ve gone into greater detail on HOW to do this both in my book, Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, and other articles here at that I’ll link to below.

A good barrel buddy friend and I have laughed over her collection of more than a dozen different types of whips and over & unders hanging in her trailer. Now part of being understood is being effective, and certain tools and equipment help us with that, but there’s so much more to speed than whipping and kicking.

If barrel racing were easy, everyone would do it, right!?

In this article, I’ve only touched on just a few of many areas we must consider and develop if we want to optimize SPEED. In fact, I could write a whole book on speed alone, which is what I did in The Barrel Racer’s Guide to Speed Development, a free e-book where I shared specific steps for developing strength and coordination in horses – the TWO foundational elements of speed, in any athlete. It’s your gift with the purchase of “The Secrets” which you can get here.

I hope that what I’ve shared today, what I have shared in the Speed Guide, and what I will continue to share in the future, will help ensure that you continue to dissolve roadblocks in the way of you AND your horse’s greatest potential.

It’s true that most people don’t realize they are holding their horses back. Gaining objectivity can be the hidden key that unlocks loads of barrel racing success! The “search for speed” can be a challenging one, no doubt, but I hope today’s article gives you some leads.

As you prepare for the summer season, keep in mind that if you’re not really communicating from the depths of your being and riding from the depths of your being, your horse probably won’t RUN from the depths of his.

Asking for what we don’t really want is confusing to horses and frustrating for riders. So before you expect your horse to leave it all in the arena, make sure you are prepared to do so too.

When you can truly RIDE YOUR HORSE FAST from the inside out – he’s more likely to CLOCK FAST! This requires both inner AND outer work on behalf of ourselves and our horses.

You’ve got to crave and desire SPEED, and RUN FEARLESS to draw out every bit of try and heart your horse has to offer. This comes from the INSIDE. When you get that right, it will certainly be reflected in your results on the outside.

I’d love for you to put all this into action just in time for BIG RESULTS this summer!

I can’t wait to hear all about it, AND I’ve love to hear your thoughts on SPEED right now in the comments below!

Here’s that link again to get your copy of “The Barrel Racer’s Guide to SPEED Development,” sent to your inbox within minutes – how’s that for FAST!?

For even more resources on this topic, visit the links below:

44 replies
  1. Tami
    Tami says:

    Good article on speed. Very true! My 7 year old daughter can peewee on my horse, then I can go run a 1D pattern. I have to share that the way I got there is Kristie told me the same thing 🙂

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Ha ha, Tami, love it! I think lots of barrel racers could benefit from loosening up and “getting wild!” It’s easy to get stuck in “paralysis by analysis!” So great to hear that your horse is competitive at the top as well as a blessing to your young daughter – awesome!

      • Mikki
        Mikki says:

        My Daughter is also riding my 1D barrel horse at 7. It totally floored me when I let her ride him the first time. It was like he flipped a switch & became a gentle giant. I finished my year on him last year & gave him over to her. He is now placing with her in the peanut class & hitting 4D money at open shows. He had alley issues with me yet walks right in like an angel with her until she asks him to go. These animals amaze me. We are so blessed that God has placed them with us!

        • kim king
          kim king says:

          loved this article! I can let her rip in practice runs but I can’t at a show…..Help! I’ve been running barrels on my 2D horse at NBHA shows now for 6 years – she and I are 2D in the arena where I make practice runs but 4D in a show… I just ordered your book and I am in search of knowledge!

          • BarrelRacingTips
            BarrelRacingTips says:

            Hi Kim, you might first make sure there is really a difference between your speed in practice vs. at a show. It’s common to be in the 4D at a big show, and 2D at a race with less entries because there isn’t quite as much tough competition. At the big races there are more likely to be a few “freaks” that blow everyone else out of the water! Lol

            Outside of that, make absolutely sure that YOU are riding/thinking the same (or as close as humanly possible) in both environments. Think about what it is that changes for your horse to cause that inconsistency? I’m sure “The Secrets” will help, as will the free Speed Guide that comes with it – keep me posted! 😉

  2. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    This is a great article.. I have so much energy I will hand walk my horse a couple minutes before my run and then get on. This helped me use all my energy in the arena . Took me a long time to figure this out. First time I did this I came in second.

  3. Cari Z
    Cari Z says:

    well, this was perfect timing for me!! I too have that “calming effect” on my horses & was always proud that my barrel horses have been so laid back – hmmm, might have to re think this!!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Having that “calming effect” IS a great thing, Cari, but we just need to learn how and when to TURN UP the life in our body, as well as make sure our horses are tuned in and responsive to our changing energy! IF you’ve struggled with making nice runs, but just aren’t clocking, it’s definitely something to consider!

  4. Nikki N.
    Nikki N. says:

    Great article and came just one week too late for me, as I ran what I THOUGHT was a correct, clocking, pattern this last weekend. TIGHT turns, STRAIGHT lines…and the clock said 20.21. Whaaaaat???? Luckily my husband videos all my runs. It looked BEAUTIFUL…but I no longer ride in the Maclay Medal and this is NOT an equitation class. I need to GO and get OUT of trainer mode and into jockey mode. My horse, like Pistol, will haul butt and clock if you ask her but will cruise around if you don’t. Guess I got what I asked for. LOL
    Another lady (IFR finalist) told me the same thing: “you ride beautifully, you are nice and quiet for all those colts or the really blown-up horses…and that’s great. But you need to get out there and RUN. Pretty doesn’t stop the clock. Quit being a trainer on this mare and get out there and GO.” I will remember this and your article next race and see how different my results are. 🙂 Thanks!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Way to go Nikki! It’s simple if you think about it, but not always easy to “see” what’s happening. It certainly took a while to realize what was going on when so many of my runs felt fast but clocked slow!

      You gotta hand it to and appreciate those honest horses that will deliver only what they are asked for – whether it’s what their rider ‘thought’ they asked for or not. They keep kids (and older folks) safe, and challenge the rest of us to take a good look at ourselves and ride better!

  5. Kim
    Kim says:

    THANK YOU HEATHER!!! I so needed this article. I’ve tried just about everything I can think of, ask and observe to get my horse to use the speed I KNOW he has. As I was breezing him a few weeks ago I FELT his aggression, speed, whatever that he’s never shown me in the barrel pen. It’s ME – I need to do what Kristie told you to do; get wild, get crazy and bring out the best in my awesome horse. He’s well broke, he solid and smooth and will naturally calm down after a run. I need to get the GRIT and ENERGY so he will too. Thanks so very much for your input and insight.

  6. Cayde Terry
    Cayde Terry says:

    Thanks for this. I just finished reading Ray Hunt’s book about harmony with horses and it touches on the same things… GREAT BOOK.

  7. Julie
    Julie says:

    I have to ditto with most in the above comments. Sometimes I feel like I can run the pattern faster then my horse goes and get so frustrated when these little kids beat me when I know my horse can go faster. Whips and spurs only anger my horse and he actually slows down. I will go out there with a new determination in my body now. Thanks so much

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      I hear ya Julie! Keep in mind that we can run into problems when we get over aggressive and rush the turns especially, so one thing that has worked well for me to really hustle my horse and encourage a longer, reaching stride is keeping my hands quiet, but “pump my seat,” which seems to really help generate more energy from a horse’s hindquarters!

  8. Roberta
    Roberta says:

    What do you mean by “pump my seat”? I didn’t get it… again lol. Is like jumping in the saddle, getting up and down? Oh, God, this language problems embarasses me… lol

  9. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Gah I so needed this…. So glad im not alone, you took the word right out of my mouth “trainer mode” always use to say I can put a wicked handle on a colt, but I cant seem to get a good run on the barrels I cant seem to finish a horse. I think I have been told never run always slow perfect practice to long. How am I ever going to get good a running if I never DO?!?! Thank you for this. I sure needed it.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re so welcome Stephanie – my pleasure, glad you enjoyed it and it resonated with you! Remember, the special talent you have for developing horses is a GREAT thing, but we all have to work at becoming more balanced if we want to be excellent jockeys and competitors too… for some of us, it has to be developed like a learned skill because either it doesn’t quite come naturally, or we’ve just been conditioned to always keep things slow and correct. Someone who has great talent for being a jockey may really struggle with the process of developing young horses… it’s all about being aware of our strong and weak points, not judging them as good or bad, but being intentional about where and how we need to improve.

      • Stephanie
        Stephanie says:

        One question on this topic If I may, when i run and decide to get a little crazy have fun and ask for some speed do I correct my horse if she comes off pattern? Or do I slow down if she gets nervous with the added speed and do drills at speed? Or perhaps im entering trainer mode right now and I need to just not over think it? Just run the best we can reward it and know what i need to work on? Hope this is okay to ask. Thank you so much for your time and GREAT tips!

  10. Kristy
    Kristy says:

    Love your article on speed! You had quoted “that you weren’t enjoying speed as much anymore- just let it rip in a field someday” . I’m pretty sure we all feel that way. We don’t enjoy it as much like we do when were making a run. By reading this article I’m gonna work on feeling comfortable while galloping outside of the arena and just hang loose. While I stay in complete control of my horse at all times. Were always working on perfection and never just “having fun” with our horses. I just have one question about people who use quirts… I’ve heard several insights about how to create more speed in our barrel horses and riders using spurs and quirts to make the horse go fast. While there are other techniques that can create that speed. I think people use quirts because it’s the quick and easy way to create speed. But is it the right way? I would love to see an article about quirts 🙂 thanks!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Right on Kristy, when we’re carefree teenagers, we seem to find reasons to let ‘er rip more often… With adulthood comes all this seriousness, blah! A quirt, whip or over & under can be a more effective way to inspire speed vs. kicking with our legs, which can cause our horse to tense up and shorten their stride. It takes some coordination and timing to use them well with good timing, however. Another option is to train them to a voice cue.

  11. Olivia
    Olivia says:

    I loved this article! They always seem to come at exactly the right time… thanks so much for posting them! What you do is great!

  12. Kay
    Kay says:

    SO SO very true. The horse can read you in about 1 sec.
    I rode scared after a bad accident and I believe that I scared my mare. She began to be terrified of the arena. It really got bad when I asked her to run with a whip. Before that we had beautiful runs but about 1.5 or 2.5 sec off and out of the money. I think that when I asked her to run she thought “my rider says run, there must be danger” and from then on she was running scared. She worked good patterns but just terrified of the shoot and just begged not to be made to go thru that shoot. I am now in the process of trying to convince her that the shoot is not a pit of snakes. The jest of this is that I believe that my fear (that I so much did not want to have) was there and she read me and became fearful too.

  13. Kay
    Kay says:

    Roberta when your horse walks you should be sitting in the saddle relaxed and you should feel your bottom rocking in movement to the horses body. If you want to slow down their walk you can slow down the rocking movement that your bottom does as the horse walks. And vice versa.

  14. Anna Earl
    Anna Earl says:

    Hi Heather,
    Thanks so much for all of your emails and articles! I swear they have always matched exactly what I am going through with my horse. Yes it is heartbreaking to clock 4 seconds off the winning time..which I recently did. Of course the gal who won has a rodeo caliber horse and we did trip twice so I was proud of my boy for just picking himself up and going on. He is a little sensitive so those trips could have jammed him up but he handled them great! And yes I do believe I safety up on this horse……partially because I have had some issues that had to be addressed. It seems our times have gotten slower since I have started asking him to do things more correct and not just point him at the barrels and go….he has quite a bit of natural talent so it’s easy to do that, however he tends to get a little strung out and wants to completely take over so I constantly have to remind him that I am trying to help him…….. so I wonder if I just need to go faster more and he will get past this…I have been asking him for speed a race or two then going back to a little slower a race or two etc..that seems to help him keep his mind together but we are s-l-o-w. 🙂 I too realize this calming effect I have isn’t necessarily an asset when running barrels….lol…just like I thought being called a perfectionist was a complement years ago I now realize it can be helpful but also gets in my way of actually DOING. Not sure if that makes sense but just something I have noticed. Anyway thanks again for your emails….guess it’s time to ask for speed again since the tip you are emailing seems to come right when I need to do THAT. Thank you!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Anna,
      Sounds like you’re making some great observations, awareness of ourselves is so critical! I would say that before you can confidently work on adding speed and know that it’s the right thing to do, you’ll want to be sure things are very correct going slow. If your horse is getting a little strung out and wanting to take over, you may need to go deeper into addressing those things even more thoroughly and completely, so that it doesn’t create a problem when you add more speed. If you really have everything you need to advance, you might have minor bobbles and setbacks here and there but keep in mind that you shouldn’t have to be going too far back to square one repeatedly. When that foundation is really firm on all levels, it will be a more steady rise to the top vs. a roller coaster. Developing that mental (educational), physical and emotional foundation in our horses is really what helps enables us, as riders, to “turn loose” also. Hope that gives you some ideas! Keep up the great work!

  15. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    My horse has the speed, knowledge and love but I’m always behind when he leaves the barrel. How do I keep up with him?

  16. nicifarber
    nicifarber says:

    I will say, that after reading more of the articles this past summer, working our tails off, and still clocking 4D times… I couldn’t UNDERSTAND why we weren’t clocking. Perfect turns, straight lines… NOTHING was showing…. It dawned on me… I had to teach my boy how to RUN!! We started doing short sprints in the plowed field across the road. At NBHA State Finals… it paid off… 4th in the 2D of the Futurity (on a horse who wasn’t supposed to be a futurity horse). He shaved a full second off his time on Friday, and catapulted us into the middle of the 3D for Finals. I always find something new when I come here, and this article is no different! Thank you Heather!!

  17. Suepittullo
    Suepittullo says:

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Love the way you write. Read one of your more recent article on the same subject . It was what I was riding like, a passenger not a participant. Got my focus at the next barrel race, decided to really hunt the barrel, rode balanced and more participating , came out with a 1 D win which I have not experienced in 15 years. Thanks so very much!

  18. Sbill
    Sbill says:

    I needed to read this and it came at the right time for me. Me and toy ran a 15.6 bottom of 2d almost 300 girls. I was so happy and proud. That was August 2015. Since then weve been running 4d with less than 150 riders at some shows. I believe deep down i am subconsciously fearful of the speed and falling off. I want to run fast but when i get out there my mind says dont run too fast. I board her at stable that has its own race track so i started to do sprints with her. And i can go a lil bit and then my mind says whoa too fast! And i swear she heard it like plain as day! And she’ll slow down. What are some things i can tell myself before a run and at home that can help me rewire my mind. Are there somethings you tell yourself before as well that will get you fired up! Toy is very fractious shes the kind that in the wrong hands someone could blow her up. She gots speed but she acts like she doesnt know how to handle it, could that be coming me?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Keep in mind if there’s something deep within you that doesn’t feel comfortable, that it will subconsciously cause you to safety up and not really ask your horse for all she has. Her being fractious could be connected to the development you’ve offered her, but if she doesn’t feel dependable, that could be causing you to hesitate when it’s time to make a run, thus turning in slower times. Creating more emotional fitness in her (and therefore security in you) would be the first steps I would take based on what you described!

  19. Abby
    Abby says:

    Love this article!
    Going from running a super hot barrel horse to one that’s similar to your Pistol, this advice will help me to transition from having to keep myself as calm as possible to keep my horse focused and responsive, to allowing my energy to flow so my mare will dig in and GO!


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