How to Kiss Bad Barrel Racing Habits Goodbye!

How to Kiss Bad Barrel Racing Habits Good-bye!

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Train your body, ride better, and unleash your potential!

Judging by the title you might guess that this article will cover steps to overcoming bad habits – quite the contrary!

This article WILL cover a step by step process that will allow you to embrace new habits in your riding; habits that will better serve you in an actual run.

There’s quite a difference between the two (overcoming bad vs. embracing new), but more on that later…

When it comes to the mental game, there is plenty of talk about the importance if quieting the mind. It IS ideal for us to hand the reins over to our subconscious and let go of “thinking” our way through a run.

To do this, however, we must rely on our bodies to operate in a way that allows our horse to perform to their fullest potential.

But what if our body doesn’t hold up its end of the deal?

Over time we find ourselves riding in a way that may have worked for us as a kid or may have worked for a horse we had in the past. When it’s time for a change – feelings of frustration are common.

Because barrel racing is a high speed event, there is only time to react, making it very difficult (if not impossible) to think about changes we must make in our riding during a run.

As barrel racers, we can be hard on ourselves when our riding doesn’t measure up to the way we want to ride in a run, and how we know our horses must be ridden to perform at their peak. 

Studies show that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. Sounds simple enough. That is, until you apply it to barrel racing!

The reality is that most of us don’t have a string of finished horses to make several runs on every day for 21 days straight. And we wouldn’t want to jeopardize our horse’s physical and mental health to better ourselves. But if something doesn’t change, the wheels continue to spin.

The good news is that you don’t have to keep banging your head against the trailer! IF you are determined to accomplish your goals, it IS possible to create new habits, and do so without sacrificing your horse (or your sanity).

#1 – Change How You Speak/Change How You Think
As I mentioned previously, this article is about embracing new, positive habits (not changing bad ones).

When discussing our riding with others (or ourselves) we must re-program our minds to think/speak about what we want, not what we don’t want. Try not to make mention of how you “always look at the barrel” or “lean too much coming into a turn.” For example, when verbalizing thoughts, turn words around to say “I need to look up where I want to go,” and “I should keep my body more centered and balanced.”

Changing the way you communicate about your habits changes the way you think. Ultimately the goal is for your body to make all the right moves without thinking.

The subconscious mind cannot decipher words like “don’t” and “always,” it more easily picks up on words that trigger images. So if you say or think “don’t look at the barrel,” you’re likely to continue doing just that!

#2 – Visualize
We’ve all been exposed to instruction telling us of the importance of visualizing the perfect run in our minds before competing.

In order to perform our best, however, during that time preceding a competitive run, it can be more beneficial to completely quiet the mind. Visualization definitely has it’s place, but consider making it your homework to be done before the barrel race.

Maybe you’ve experimented with visualization in the past and were disappointed with the results. However, studies show that the mind doesn’t know the difference between a real experience and one that is vividly imagined. There are a few keys to utilizing this technique properly in order to experience real benefits.

One is that the visualization must be vivid. Don’t just see yourself making a run, FEEL every part of your run down to the smallest detail, utilizing ALL your senses.

Another key to benefiting from visualization is to practice it every day. If it takes 21 days to create a new habit why not make it 30 for good measure?

At this point you might still be a little skeptical, but there is one more integral part to this process…

#3 – Wax On/Wax Off
In the movie Karate Kid, Daniel made slow movements over and over which simulated and improved his karate moves.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Daniel was essentially practicing a form of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that features slow, rhythmic movements, deep breathing, and concentration to condition the body and clarify the mind.

Our muscles have “memory,” and it takes time to work through physical motions before muscles become accustomed to the movements. Daniel could not see the value in waxing so many cars until he was put in a situation requiring him to block punches – which he was then able to do with ease and a lot of speed! (Don’t worry – this step doesn’t require waxing anything!)

Wax on, wax off.To instill new positive habits it’s time to combine our visualization with slow but realistic movements simulating how we want to ride in a competitive run.

You’ll need to employ the help of your four legged partner for this one, so saddle up! You won’t need any barrels or an arena, just your horse (preferably outfitted in the saddle and reins you compete in) and 15 uninterrupted minutes per day for 30 days.

Mount up, check your watch and ask your horse to walk briskly forward while you start visualizing that perfect run, positioning your body as you would for the first barrel (no actual barrels required). Your horse might be a little confused at first but it’s best if your horse also responds to your cues going slow as he would in a run by shortening his stride slightly and turning in response to your body language, all while maintaining a walk.

If your horse is especially sensitive, and assumes you ARE going to make a run, lower your energy so as not to confuse him (some horses may need to be taught how to better respond to our energy and avoid assumption-making).

Go through the motions with your body exactly as you would like them to be in a run. At first you might keep your eyes open as you get a feel for the exercise. As long as you’re in a safe area (and on a safe, connected horse) feel free to close your eyes if that makes visualizing easier. There’s no reason to worry about walking a certain size pattern or where your imaginary barrels are, your run must only be realistic in your mind.

Be absolutely aware of the motions your body goes through as your horse walks through each imaginary run. Be warned for example, that if you don’t put two hands back on the reins after leaving a barrel during visualization, then you will find yourself staying at the horn all the way between barrels in your actual runs (trust me on this)!

The more aware you are of your position, the more you’ll get out of the process. You might find as you make changes to your riding, that down the road you want to change other things about your riding that you weren’t previously aware of.

No problem, just start over for another 30 days!

In conclusion, remember that embracing new habits in your riding requires that you:
 – Are determined to improve and open to change
 – Change the way you speak/think
 – Have awareness of your current habits and what you want to create instead
 – Vividly visualize
 – Commit 15 minutes per day for 30 days to “moving sensualization”

Remember as with anything, that half-hearted effort will result in half-hearted results.

Committing 15 minutes per day for 30 days this spring could make a world of difference in the level of success and satisfaction you receive from barrel racing in the long run.

When our bodies are properly trained, we can trust the subconscious to take over and let our body do everything it’s capable of. Through this process you’ll create new muscle memory and new neural pathways in the brain, which will allow you to ride like you need to achieve new heights in your barrel racing!

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll especially appreciate Exercise 11 – Walk to Win in The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises for Precision on the Pattern.

Click here to request a FREE chapter!

For more resources on improving your riding, visit the links below:

23 replies
  1. km
    km says:

    thanks for this I have actualy just started doing the riding with y eyes closed and walking through my perfect pattern a bout 2 weeks ago befor reading this but liked the othere tips and I do think it has helped on the visualizing! I was hoping to see the next tip on this soon!! =) thanks and love the site!

  2. kathleen green
    kathleen green says:

    really like that it’s not just visualing your perfect run but instead slow your mind down to the parts you’ve practiced that correct your run and make it smooth and effortless…..have an over achieving mare that was started on barrels by someone else…very quick, very willing, very fast and i’m having to relearn how to ride her…..the slow workouts practicing where my hands, body, eyes should be are creating a “oneness” between her and i..combining practice with some lessons learned from a dressage trainer to get the hind quarters moving first. that has really helped to keep this mare’s forward motion going smoother and shoulders’s single digit temps here now and i won’t be running until it warms up, and i can’t wait…looking forward to a great season….keep the emails coming….thanks, talk to ya

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks for your comment Kathleen! Sounds like you have a great understanding of the value of breaking things down and practicing perfect slow to create new, positive habits. Also, great idea to get together with a dressage trainer – there are definitely some similarities in how we need our barrel horses to move. I’ll keep the tips coming, and I wish you all the best in the new year!

  3. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I’ll try this it sounds great. I love to visualize. My horse may not like it, and if I want to walk and be relaxed I can’t use the bridle I run in, That bit is time to go to work. All sounds good and I will work on looking were I want to go! lol

  4. Deedle
    Deedle says:

    I have been barrel racing a very l;ong time and I am still learning. Once you fall in love with barrel racing and horses it stays in your heart and soul forever. I had to teach myself to walk again after I was told I would never walk so I know that nothing is impossible. Took 8 yrs but I am walking and back to racing. I just wanted to thank you for reminding me of I am not a kid anymore so I need to work on my body style when in saddle and I really never realized that what you said was so true. Well off to saddle up and start the reteaching myself. I have three great horses all different, so I got a lot of fun work ahead. Keep up the great work with sharing your knowledge, not all successful barrel racers are as giving as you.

  5. Jodi
    Jodi says:

    Thank you for all the positive reinforcement , of learning new habits because the old where not working. I am feeling so much better about all the new experiences with my horses they are all responding well. Your tips have been so helpful and your book is amazing!!!

  6. Emmie
    Emmie says:

    I’m going to start trying this one today!!!! I have about 23 days until my next barrel race. So I’m committing to this 15 min session with the horse I’m running. And trying a few other tips in my exercises 🙂

    I have a HUGE problem I’m hoping you have an article or help for. I rely on a tight rein I think to balance but also out of fear . And I hold my horse the whole run. Even heading home. I’ve only noticed the severity of it recently when I saw pics and video and asked my partner to watch me. I feel at times I’m not doing it but subconsciously I am. 🙁

  7. Sandy Hickey
    Sandy Hickey says:

    This is wonderful. My only question would be, if you have two horses with completely different styles you need to improve upon. Both my horses are sensitive and respond well to whatever I am thinking. But one is very, very ratey ultra sensitive and the other has a lot of natural rate, but can get to rolling and over step the first barrel if I do not sit deep and say a low, slow “whoa” to prepare her for the turn. Would you recommend working on both of them during the same 30 days? Just like I have to shift my focus between them at a competition jackpot. I LOVE ALL your articles. Thank you for sharing!! P.S. Can you critique barrel runs if we have good video’s?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I think these steps are best when you’re trying to overcome a specific habit that tends to show up in all your runs. You can create a new habit to ride a certain horse better or differently, but that new way of riding is likely to show up a little bit across the board. So the key is to use these steps to develop good, overall habits, and then you may have to actually be more conscious about making adjustments to ride each horse differently based on their needs.
      I plan to start offering a coaching/video review service in the future – stay tuned! 😉

  8. BettsR
    BettsR says:

    Can’t wait to start trying this! One question, does it need to be an uninterrupted 30 days? I have a race coming up in two weeks and don’t know if that will mess up the 30 days or not! Thanks! Love these tips so much!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Successive days are ideal, but do what you can. If you make a run, you might just carve out a few minutes of your day to make sure you walk the pattern to do your visualizing also.

  9. Kim
    Kim says:

    I have been training myself and my horse for just over a year to barrel race. He can flat out run fast outside the arena but seems to feel he can’t run fast in the arena. I’m working on speed and making him see he can run fast inside the fence like he does outside when we race in the fields. I’m going to try this and hope my body language at a walk doesn’t interfere with me trying to show him my body language when I want fast. I know I definitely need to work on me though. Thanks for all the helpful tips!

  10. Thalia Moore
    Thalia Moore says:

    This is so useful and I must try it. I do barrel racing bareback on a mare, in speeds of trot, lope, and gallop. Thank you so much for this.


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