In my mind, there isn’t a group of equestrian disciplines that the principles of natural horsemanship apply to better, than those of timed-speed events. They are THE ultimate test of horse and rider!
When a person really dives into, studies and understands these principles, deciding to put the ideas into practice becomes a no brainer. While nothing we do with horses is technically ‘natural,’ it just makes sense to work with their instincts vs. against them if we want to train and compete with these animals as harmoniously as possible.
What natural horsemanship offers, is an opportunity to learn and develop ourselves – both what we must understand in a mental sense, and the habits we must acquire physically, so we can really understand, and then optimize our horses.
When we’re able to bring out their best potential in this way, we’re essentially putting the odds more in our favor to be successful in competition!
We must do our part to inspire the horse to stay with us mentally and physically, take responsibility for moving with quality without being micromanaged, and even responsibility for managing their own emotions (at high speeds and under the stress of hauling and competition, no less).
Sound too good to be true? It’s not!
Horsemanship instructor and clinician, Matthew Bohman helped a handful of students and I do just that. Although I stepped in as a part-time teacher at the Principles for Performance clinic, my dedication to never-ending self-development had me also playing the role of student.
In this article, I’ll be sharing five of my personal takeaways from the event, in hopes that you might learn or benefit from the insights, until YOU have an opportunity to ride with Matthew and/or I yourself!
1. BAD BARREL RACER! – As Matthew coached me through a “swinging the shoulders” exercise, often without realizing it, I was using my inside hand to “pick up” Dot Com’s shoulder when he started to lean in – two very ingrained bad habits on both our parts. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read over the years about “picking up the shoulder,” but the way most people go about it is not very effective.
The rib cage area falls in first, and when we get complete control of those ribs, we have EVERYTHING (even a horse’s body can go one direction while the nose goes another). When my hand kept creeping back, up and over, Dot Com’s neck would just become over bent. When that happens in the body, it inhibits quality movement more than it helps.
I’ll admit, “dropping in” drives me NUTS, so I’m hard wired to make a quick move to create something that feels better. Matthew helped me use my legs more effectively to get Dot Com shaped up better – to get the ribs back where then need to be.
At this stage in Dot Com’s (re)development, I’m still often focusing on “isolate, separate, and recombine.” If he gets bracey and his ribs stiffen and drop in while I’m trying to free up the shoulders, I’ll go back and fix the ribs with my legs before attempting to combine it all again. Going to that inside rein was just a temporary way to make ME feel better, it didn’t really fix Dot Com’s habit, and it was really only a way of micromanaging him, that honestly, didn’t even work very well.
The other thing I was reminded of what was when a horse falls into a circle, along with his ribs going there, so does his MIND (remember the stop sign exercise I shared via email few months ago?). So another part of the solution involved just pointing Dot Com the other direction (outside the circle) when this happens, so we can begin to reroute his thought patterns. When he’s not thinking about dropping in, he’s not as likely to DO it.
Going forward I plan to be much more aware of my hand habits and will remember Matthew’s suggestion to pretend like I’m riding with handcuffs, and hopefully I don’t have to get REAL ones!
2. IT DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT – Have you ever been working your horse on the pattern, or performing an exercise or maneuver and you just KNEW “something” wasn’t quite flowing… after some trial and error, a little push and shove with your horse, it STILL just wasn’t there… some aspect was missing, but you didn’t know what!?
The last couple times I rode with Matthew, the same thing happened to me (he allows students time to experiment vs. puppeteering them which is awesome for learning). Thankfully, he’s right on when it comes to recognizing problems and offering solutions. Although I’ve tended to fall into a couple different traps (like not getting enough nose to rib bend, then over doing it), the common denominator I’ve experienced is that I haven’t SET UP Dot Com well enough to do what I ask with ease.
Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time in my career trying to hammer quality movements out of my horses. You may have too, and like me, have maybe even achieved some level of success doing it. However, when your horse’s body position is perfect, his weight is balanced, and he’s centered mentally – everything becomes EASY. Those fast, athletic WHOOSH movements just HAPPEN.
You KNOW when you feel the difference. Everything becomes less like wrestling and more like dancing. If you’re not sure you’ve got there yet, or if something still seems hard when it should be easy, don’t give up, but don’t settle for mediocrity! Look back on all the ingredients that are necessary for the success of that exercise and brush them up, individually if needed.
Keep in mind that when shaping up our horse’s bodies, it’s just as easy to “over do” as “under do.” More speed or flexion isn’t always better. There’s a time and a place to be effective and ask for more respect/responsiveness, but performing a maneuver incorrectly faster isn’t where the magic is. A lot of riders become misled into thinking it IS – because it’s the closest thing they’ve felt to that powerful, effortless, round movement.
We’ve all seen obviously over-bent horses, but I’ll venture to say that the degree of flexion that most barrel racers think is “just right,” is often still too much. Dot Com is so ultra light that a very subtle touch can have him excessively rounded up like a dressage horse on steroids. However, a wadded up, over-bent, over-arched, pretzel-like horse is NOT an athletic one.
In this state, he’s an uncomfortable horse, that at best will only be able to perform klunky and slow – which is exactly what I got, until I set it all up a little better. THEN Dot Com offered me some pretty amazing, sweepy, quick, powerful moves, all without having to be rushed or “held” in position. Proper positioning IS critical, but it’s not created by adding more speed or going to extremes. The way to perfection is through subtle, consistent precision.
3. RESIGN AS A PROFESSIONAL BUTTERFLY HERDER – Dot Com has made great progress in the past few months, however, when our time together has been sporadic, he has seemed to fall back to his well-ingrained “burnt out rope horse” ways. It’s been my goal to completely restore his mental fitness in a way that lasts, yet he still defaulted to “dragon on ice skates” mode at times, and needed a fair amount of guidance and support, especially when getting back into a groove after a break.
His tendency to get stiff and high headed, squirt off in upward transitions, and fall into circles was hard for me to handle – in that the ugliness of it all was nearly all I could take! Fidgeting with my hands – gentle, persistent reminders to him about where and how I wanted him to carry himself, actually seemed pretty effective for “subduing the dragon” – BUT the change wasn’t authentic and lasting.
The weekend of the clinic, for the first time ever, I was having to really encourage Dot Com to move forward – a darn GOOD problem for him to have. As Matthew says (and I completely agree with), it’s easier to build the GO than the WHOA.
As Dot Com was getting in the habit of really using his body better, and not assuming that my legs meant to squirt out from underneath me, I was able to throw him complete slack in the reins at a lope, and use MY LEGS to ask him to collect and lift his back just a bit while he cruised around the arena at a pretty good clip, mentally centered with his head low and in good form – NO micromanaging.
He started to feel more like a solid, horse that I could ride and win on in any circumstance, rather than a horse with the potential to erratically “flutter” to and fro like a butterfly (or shoot like a rocket). It was nothing short of amazing, and no doubt an eye-opening breakthrough for us both. I was reminded of some of the other new tools and exercises I have to help Dot Com manage his emotions (an impulsion problem is an emotional problem), AND take responsibility for maintaining speed as well as quality posture – let’s just say I’m confident we have lots to look forward to!
I was also reminded that to really progress myself, I need to release fear of my horse “looking (or feeling) ugly,” and have faith that when I get his body right (with my legs) AND his mind (responding vs. reacting), AND always focus on this first, that in time the picture will indeed be prettier than any illusion of beauty that subtle rein micromanaging could ever accomplish. May this article represent my official resignation from my position as a “butterfly herder” (and Dot Com’s as “head butterfly!”)
4. LEAPS and SOUND EFFECTS aren’t ALWAYS BAD – We started out Saturday morning on the ground. In the sphere of natural horsemanship, there are THREE reasons to do ground work (NOT only to be safe or “get the buck out of ‘em”) – they are to teach the horse something, to teach the human something, or prepare for something. I personally feel as though there’s something extra special we can accomplish on the ground that riding doesn’t hold a candle to, and I think it has to do with the fact that we are communicating more at the horse’s level – they can see and read our body language more so like they would another horse.
No matter how advanced a horse is, I’ve found that we can always set up a ride to be even better by utilizing ground work. On that morning, we worked on teaching and/or refining the roundness through our horse’s ribs on a circle, we asked for quick, balanced roll backs on the hind quarters as well as some sideways movement.
Now, being an extreme forwardaholic, Dot Com’s “sideways” has never been great. Matthew acknowledged, “You’ve done a lot of sideways” (if he only knew how much more I’d done at home), so he offered his hand, I gave him Dot Com’s rope and my stick, then POP – Dot Com leaped in the air and farted – LOUD (I jumped a little bit too). It might have been the best thing that happened to him AND ME all weekend.
You see, horses aren’t afraid to be effective with each other. Dot Com IS super sensitive – if I get firm with him he tends to become afraid, and he WAS a little jumpy for a bit… the key here is that we must apply pressure in levels or phases – a long initial phase (suggestion) and after the learning stage (DC was WELL past that), we must have high expectations for them to respond with quality and in a timely manner – hence the WHACK.
I don’t think of myself as someone who hesitates to be effective with my horses (Dot Com is very obedient), but I’ll admit to treating him a little like a fragile damaged flower at times. Maybe it was because subconsciously I knew that “going there” and getting him rattle, would only sidetrack us from whatever task was at hand.
Now I know, on an even deeper level, that if I have to get firm to be effective and he gets scared, it’s OK – I just need to spend a few moments coming back to neutral mentally (tossing the stick & string over his back for example so he’s not afraid of me or my tools) or simply waiting until he exhales or licks and chews – only THEN do I have the GREEN LIGHT to continue.
If I’m not willing to be sidetracked to take care of Dot Com’s emotions as they come up, then I’m just enabling them to continue. We can’t tip toe around reactivity – we must have high expectations for responsiveness even from sensitive horses. The key is in being aware and flexible enough to take the time it takes to reestablish relaxation when we lose it (remember isolate, separate and recombine – mentally, emotionally AND physically), before going forward again. From that point on, Dot Com was dialed into me like a laser, ears perked forward and ready to please – with respect, not fear.
5. THE PROBLEM IS OUR PERCEPTION OF THE PROBLEM – I’ll wrap this up with some thoughts inspired by Matthew’s introductory lecture on horse behavior and psychology. As a student of this subject, it’s still unbelievably riveting to hear someone describe their ideas and understandings on the topic (yes, I even took notes).
When in a herd environment, a group of horses that are being attacked by predators will all push toward the center of the herd for safety. The weaker ones on the ouside will be in danger. When your horse pushes against you, whether on the ground, under saddle, in the alley, at home, even just subtly, or resists what you ask in any way, EVER suggests that they “NO, can’t do it,” then the TRUTH is that YOU are not yet a PERSON that has educated the horse and PROVEN to them, that it’s to their benefit join you, yield to you, that YOU are their comfort zone, that SAFETY is found in staying between your reins and legs and by staying mentally connected to you.
When WE have not created that education and inspired that understanding and connection – it’s NOT the horse’s PROBLEM, it’s OUR PROBLEM.
If we become really aware, even those of us who readily agree that MORE PEOPLE OUT THERE should understand this, the truth is that we ALL need to. We’re ALL guilty.
When you DO build this up in horses, it changes their lives all-around. They actually take it with them… a horse that is a joy for you, is more likely to be a joy for another rider. When YOU give a horse confidence and help him develop habits of moving with quality, it can change how they interact with other horses, and even how they move in the pasture (no kidding!).
Horses are all different, have varying “horsenalities” and our particular compatibility with them will vary. However, a once insecure and nervous horse, or even a pushy renegade, CAN find confidence and relaxation, but only when the HUMAN finally steps up and becomes the person they need to BE, to offer that horse what they desire most – safety and comfort.
As barrel racers, we expect our horses to “turn it all over,” to us while traveling at high speeds – that’s a BIG ask! I mean HUGE! The ultimate compliment is for a horse to say “YES!” to our requests under all circumstances – to take responsibility for their jobs, yet allow us to guide them with precision in any moment, and be happy and content doing so, without exceptions.
When you REALLY understand how horses operate, how their minds work, what they value and need, that they can have (and actually appreciate) responsibilities, suddenly every challenge you were ever faced with, or struggle with now – AND the solution, becomes glaringly obvious.
When the WAY we look at, and think about horses changes (and is reflected in our actions), the way THEY look at and think about US changes, and is also reflected in their actions.
It’s humbling, because it’s not about the horse my friends, it starts with US.
Not everyone can handle, or is ready for the TRUTH. However, it’s my hope that this inspires you to BE better, so that you can bring out better things in every horse you touch.
They say that learning and development takes place in stages or layers, and I have no doubt found that to be true. It’s amazing how it’s possible to take something “I know already” and deepen my understanding and application, which then just takes my results to a WHOLE new level.
In the Principles for Performance clinic, we dove deep into the very things that are necessary for success in any western performance or speed event.
Although the students were advanced riders, I felt as though we were merely touching the surface at times. However, I have complete faith, that when we get the things we worked on REALLY good that we’ll have it ALL – barrel racing success, with NO LIMITS!
If you enjoyed this article and are ready for MORE, click here to learn about special learning opportunities to take YOUR barrel racing and horsemanship to a new level as well.
For more articles inspired by Matthew’s teachings, check out:
- Create Soft, Round Movement for Sharp Turns and Fast Runs
- It’s All About the Ribs – Flex and Elevate Them for Ultimate Athleticism & Power!
Matthew has done his share of cowboy work, roping and branding over the years in addition to starting colts with Martin Black and Bryan Neubert. He’s made a living training horses since age sixteen and has ridden more than 1,100 young and challenging horses.
A specific passion for reined cow horses has led him to spend time with renowned reining horse trainer, Clint Haverty, as well as World Champion NRHA, NRCHA and AQHA trainer Jay McLaughlin, cutting horse trainer Doug Jordan and numerous other high-achieving and well known professionals.