Quality is No Accident! How to Reveal Your Horse’s Greatest Athleticism

Since achieving my goals with Dot Com at liberty last fall, he’s been enjoying a well-deserved vacation.

Lately, I’ve been back on the little grey powerhouse in preparation for him to be featured in my new book, Barrel Racing Exercises to Develop a Champion.

It’s been a great time to start applying many of the techniques I’d learned last summer, that I hadn’t had the opportunity to put into action yet. In only a handful of rides, his progress has been amazing!

If you’ve been following BarrelRacingTips.com, you’re already familiar with Dot Com – an extremely talented horse who came to us in need of a more solid emotional foundation.

Like many timed event horses, over the years he’d developed a habit of hollowing out his back, raising his head, inverting his neck and carrying tension throughout his body. Despite being built like a bulldog, Dot Com is actually quite flexible. However, his sensitive nature combined with his previous experiences, had resulted in mental blocks that got in the way of his flexibility and contributed to stiffness.

Dot Com moving more like a reiner and less like an ostrich.
Dot Com moving more like a reiner and less like an ostrich.

You might wonder – WHY all this obsession with “quality movement?”

That’s an easy one…

I’ve been choosing to focus specifically on it, because I know that instilling habits of moving with balance in our horses is not only good for their soundness and longevity, but is essentially what creates POWER – which in turn, creates SPEED!

Any high level athletic maneuver can be performed better and FASTER when a horse gets really good and moving and using himself well!

A HUGE part of inspiring Dot Com to carry himself with good posture and move with quality, has been rewarding relaxation, as well as instilling more education.

There are many characteristics that make up quality movement, but one thing Dot Com initially needed a better grasp on was responding to bit pressure (yielding to my “feel”). I used pressure and release to reiterate and expand his understanding to lower his head and softly flex at the poll when I picked up the reins.

It’s not that he was NEVER taught to flex at the poll (he also used to be a turn back horse at cuttings), but when he would get emotional, anxious or pressured, he could no longer think or remember what he does know – and his head would come up and he would get a little resistant. It’s certainly not a very nice looking posture, but most importantly, it’s NOT a very athletic one!

Having a horse’s head come up slightly is one thing (when getting ready to run, for example), but raising it dramatically while inverting the neck so that the top line is concave vs. convex, and doing so on a regular basis, actually creates this same inversion through the horses back.

Once that happens, the chances of our horse performing athletic maneuvers with the hind end engaged goes down dramatically. This is because a lifted, rounded back also creates room for those hind legs to reach under, creating the ultimate position for balance, power and quickness!

Quality on the ground - quality all around!
Quality on the ground – quality all around!

Even though the initial cause for this poor posture often has an emotional connection, these less than ideal ways moving and being can also become learned behaviors over time.

On top of that, many horses were never properly educated to being with on how to carry their bodies, or were even inadvertently taught by riders to carry them incorrectly, or at least very “in-athletically!”

For Dot Com, just transitioning from a walk to a trot was nerve wracking, so to solve this problem, last summer I spent several rides only walking and trotting and transitioning over and over between the two. Rather than micromanage him with the reins, I just used repetition to prove to him that transitions are nothing to be afraid of. When he did transition nicely, we stopped for a good, long rest – free of any and all pressure.

Now THAT is something that motivates a horse like Dot Com!

Although he’s always understood basic leg yields, their meaning was dependent on his emotional status and the context they were applied in. Working through this required me to help Dot Com understand that the default response to leg pressure was not always to squirt away like a rocket!

Quality posture, quality attention, quality expression!
Quality posture, quality attention, quality expression!

This didn’t mean I would tip toe around his reactivity, however. I made a point to get very busy with my body and legs to teach Dot Com the difference between meaningful activity, and meaningless. The difference is my intention, focus and energy in my body.

This is precisely what is often necessary to break out of the rut that these “sensitive” horses tend to keep us walking on eggshells in. Remember – there is a difference between reacting and responding!

It’s our responsibility to help our horse’s manage their own emotions! Not only is this POSSIBLE, but it’s absolutely NECESSARY to successfully rehabilitate a horse with the intent to keep their cool when returning to high pressure competition environments.

Quite a while back I started the process of refining the meaning of my legs on Dot Com’s body. Like I explained in this article, I started by increasing his willingness to yield his rib cage laterally. Just recently, I had an opportunity to ride him in a high pressure environment and it was so interesting to me how protective he was of those ribs.

The thing is, surrendering the hindquarters OR the rib cage is equal to certain death in the mind of an insecure horse. They need both to make a quick escape. In their eyes – this is something that may very well be necessary! Dot Com had progressed by leaps and bounds when it came to relaxing, softening, yielding and rounding his body at home, but he was still a little defensive and protective in certain contexts. As expected, I didn’t quite have the softness under ALL circumstances.

A rest reward for a job well done.
A rest reward for a job well done.

Rather than demand or MAKE him surrender and yield his rib cage laterally, with persistent encouragement, I kept asking until he made an effort. When he did, again I rewarded it with a BIG, obvious release – a few minutes of rest with NO pressure.

When a horse is already fearful, although it can be insanely frustrating, becoming extremely emotional or forceful with them often makes matters worse – giving the horse even more reason to feel insecure. There can be a fine line between respect and fear, but it’s important that we not make a habit of damaging the trust and relationship that a horse’s foundation of confidence is built upon.

There’s a time and place to go through something ugly to get to something better, but threatening an already insecure horse to “surrender their body parts, or else!” isn’t it. In this case, being effective meant being persistent until I felt a positive change, then rewarding it with comfort.

Yielding his ribs will help Dot Com be more athletic, but it will help him relax as well. At the same time, he won’t fully be willing to yield until he IS relaxed. The mind/body connection in horses is so fascinating!

Where I left off last year, I had just started asking Dot Com to move with more roundness over the top line. To do this, I’ve again been refining his understanding of my legs, specifically to lower his head and lift his back when I subtly “hug” them around his belly, while using the reins as little as possible. This is possible now that he doesn’t assume that leg pressure always means GO! Now that he is doing more and more on his own, contact with the bit is something I aim to use as minimally as possible for reiterating or refining what he already knows.

When it comes to head position, I don’t necessarily want Dot Com to carry it super low (which can weigh down the whole front end even more – NOT what we want), but I DO want him to relax, stretch his body, and reach forward, and really start to find comfort there. Exaggerating is often part of teaching. Once the horse has the concept, we can refine as we go to get closer to the specific position we have in mind. Dot Com had a very extreme habit of traveling inverted, so there’s no harm in swinging the pendulum quite a ways in the opposite direction at first.

Setting up to turn around with ribs elevated.
Setting up to turn around with ribs elevated.

I used to hold him where I wanted his body, and gave micro releases with my hands when it was correct, which ultimately didn’t work very well. For one, I hadn’t addressed all his emotional issues at the time (quality movement is really impossible until you do), and secondly, I’ve found it works much better to “set it up and wait” until HE finds the “sweet spot” on his own, both on the ground AND under saddle.

It’s a lot like either giving a man a fish, or teaching him to fish!

If you don’t set your horse up for success, you’ll be waiting a looooonnng time, AND helping your horse get better at doing what you don’t want!

Preparing Dot Com so that I could “set it up and wait” meant working through the majority of his emotional issues and brushing up his education so he could maintain direction and gait. At that point, if I asked him to trot around the rail of the arena for 5-10 minutes, chances were pretty likely that he’d do something reward worthy. You don’t want to make it impossible for a horse to make a mistake, but you DO want to make it likely that he will do the right thing.

The ultimate goal I’m working toward, is for Dot Com to become round throughout his body (laterally and vertically) and develop a consistent habit of staying emotionally balanced and between my reins and legs, without running into those boundaries, and moving with good posture under ALL circumstances. When you have that, you truly have everything you need, to do anything you want with a horse.

It really shouldn’t matter in the end where my hands are positioned, whether I’m riding with one hand or two, what kind of bit I’m using, or what kind of environment we’re in. I want him to have softness and roundness throughout his body, not because I’m holding him there, but because he’s taking responsibility for his emotions AND quality movement – it’s his new default way of being.

The bottom line, is that if there are exceptions to when/where/how your horse will yield/soften/respond to the cues/pressure/feel you apply, then these “exceptions” are likely to show up in some way, shape or form on the barrel pattern as well, when we add speed or in competition, for example.

If your horse is running into your reins, or legs, even subtly, take a closer look at his emotional state, and then to his degree of education, and you’ll tend to find holes in one area, or both.

Dot Com is now able to transition upward in gait, on a completely loose rein without getting emotional, squirting off with his head up, and neck inverted in an emotional burst of tension. He’s beginning to maintain relaxation and quality movement for longer and longer periods, and at faster speeds.

As this becomes his new “normal,” he’ll find it easier to maintain all of this not just at home, but in any situation.

My gelding Pistol has made some great progress in this area as well lately. With a completely different personality, and none of the baggage, inspiring quality movement from him is totally different ballgame – one that I look forward to sharing more about soon!

In both cases, it feels amazing, because I’m not holding them in an artificial positions or using any mechanical means other than feel and great timing. Not only does it put the odds for success more in our favor, it makes riding a whole lot more FUN!

With Dot Com, I dissolved the tension by rewarding relaxation and making it top priority, which allowed him to be in a learning frame of mind, and then set it up and waited for a positive change, rewarded and built up on IT, and have created habits of relaxed, quality, ATHLETIC movement that HE is happy to maintain!

Dot Com turns 14 years old this year. Most of his life was spent traveling and thinking in ways that were not conducive to high level performance, but he’s managed to be a pretty amazing athlete despite that. As you can imagine, his future is looking brighter than ever. It’s truly never too late to teach and old horse new tricks, but even more importantly, know that it’s US who must commit to learning, AND – there are no tricks!

Remember, “quality movement” is balanced, powerful and athletic, which is ultimately, FAST! Here’s hoping these tips can help you create the same kind of high performance movement with your horses.

In the comments below, I’d love to know what kind of challenges or lessons YOU have experienced when it comes to creating quality movement? Can’t wait to hear about it!

12 replies
  1. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    Heather,
    I so look forward to, and enjoy your Tuesday Email articles. I am a Pinterest fan, with a board dedicated to barrel racing articles, information and drills. Is it possible in your “Share the knowledge!” to include Pinterest?
    I am very excited for your new book to come out. My Secrets to Barrel Racing Success, looks a little like my Bible, highlighted, pages dog eared, and notes in the margins.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insight.

    Cheryl 😀

    Reply
  2. Emmie
    Emmie says:

    The above article is my older gelding in a nut shell!! He’s 17 wereboth ccoming back into work for our first season of divisional barrel racing in Australia. I’m finding the same issues. As soon as I pick up the reins or am transitioning from a walk to trot head swings up. And as soon as my legs make contact he thinks faster when I’m trying to yield him over a bit.

    He does bring his head lower when asked I’ve been working on this for a couple of weeks but as soon as we transition heads up.

    I’m wanting to engage his hinds more and also build muscle mass and finding he’s just not building it as much as I’d like in his hind and top line along his back.
    So I think this could indicate he’s hollowing his back not using it rounded????

    How can I encourage him to round better and carry himself better. Xo

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Emmie,
      Yes, sounds like he’s not relaxing and rounding his top line and using himself well. There are probably a dozen or so articles here where I’ve shared a lot about what has been effective in my journey with Dot Com. Just type “Dot Com” (with quotations) in the search bar in the upper right corner and you’ll have lots of study materials and ideas! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Kay
    Kay says:

    I have learned that sometimes we teach our sensitive horse to be terriefied. A horse trainer told me that running actually scares some horses. Think about it, the only time that a horse runs in the wild is because they are terrified of being harmed. We take a young horse that is doing well and then use the whip and say run…run..He thinks run…run… or we are going to be eaten…my rider says run…run…Therefore every time we enter the arena they think that the chute or arena is dangerous and we are asking them to run thru this terrible place again. They begin balking and begging “please, please do not make me go thru there again”. I have one now. I did not have any problems out of her until I asked her to runnnnnnnnnnn. I have gotten her to walk and trot and canter on a loose rein outside the arena. Now comes her education; educating her that the arena is not a pit of snakes and we can enter without fear of being harmed. Heather can you give some tips on how to do this. Wish me luck.

    Reply
    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      YES, Kay! You’re right on target! With an increase in SPEED comes an increase in emotions and adrenalin. It’s important to make the transition to adding more speed a gradual one, and even add a little bit then go back to get a relaxed slower gait, and keep repeating and transitioning back and forth to “close the gap” until the horse can go fast without a big emotional spike. It’s important that we deal with any emotions completely before adding more speed again.

      Here’s a past article that might also be helpful – Speed Kills – How to Resolve Issues that Only Occur at Speed

      Reply
  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    Hi Heather,
    I have been following our journey with Dot Com and my husbands rope horse is exactly the same, to the point that he now has developed a “U neck”. Last year I worked on him and he was coming along really nice but then my husband started roping on him again and everything went down the drain!!
    My question to you is…..Sounds harsh BUT do I need to ban my husband from riding/roping off him until he is solid in his new foundation?? ( as hubby is not as knowledgeable) Any progress I make just gets undone !!
    Looking forward to hearing back from you with your thoughts

    Reply
    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Karen,
      Thanks for asking, I can totally feel your pain. The good news for me is that my husband IS on board with Dot Com’s mental “rope horse rehab.” He’s not as enthusiastic about horsemanship, but to some degree he “gets it.” Craig hasn’t been competing lately due to our move, etc. but he has realized that if he doesn’t increase his own skill level, that Dot Com’s AMAZING ability will never truly be reflected in the arena. Lately he’s really been working with Dot Com with my support and making great (but slow) progress.
      My take is that even if you are able to get this horse’s foundation really solid, your husband will need to be on board to some degree or the horse is likely to still slip back into old ways of being/feeling/moving/behaving. It would be a hard thing to see/live with if your hubby is not on board, I’m sure. I pretty much had to stand up as an advocate for Dot Com’s mental/emotional/physical health and say “There’s no way you’re roping on this horse until YOU can learn the skills and become the person who can truly dissolve DC’s anxiety” (not just get him to stand in the box). Craig LOVES roping but he also LOVES his horses so it didn’t take too terribly much convincing… plus I think me demonstrating the positive difference in his horse by the work I’ve done with him has helped too! 🙂
      You might just remind your hubby that the greatest benefit of working through these things is that he’ll be able to be even more competitive, and it’s also better for the long term over-all health, longevity and well-being of the horse.

      Reply
      • Karen
        Karen says:

        Thanks so much for your comment Heather…my husband does try & wants to better his horsemanship, he is just not as patient and more heavy handed than I would like BUT he is willing to persevere, just gets a bit frustrating for him ( and myself as a coach) at times!!
        He is an awesome calf/heel horse, which amazes me considering, so I’m excited to see how much better he gets when using his body correctly

        Reply
  5. Terri-Lynn
    Terri-Lynn says:

    This sounds like my colt, identical tendicies. Hes only coming 4 this yr so we are working on foundation without as many previous habits as he came off the racetrack (only ever “track-trained”, not raced). Any suggestions for starting points prior to having as much previous “stress”? I really want to set him up with the best foundation I can so i dont have this problem down the road as well. Thanks!!

    Reply
  6. Jaycie
    Jaycie says:

    I am going through the EXACT same thing with a turnback horse we bought from another cutting horse trainer. He was taught to turn “inside out” and never taught lateral movement. My dad is guiding me with a lot of the same things you talk about (that’s how I know your not another idiot barrel racer)lol I really enjoy your articles, and respect your knowledge. Glad to know there are still barrel racers out there interested in getting a horse correct instead of using silly drills to compensate for their lack of collection and lateral forward movement. I am fortunate to ride with my dad who has trained cutters, cow horses, reiners, ropers, and barrel horses, which all require the SAME foundation! Reading your articles sometimes help me understand the same things he tells me, but in a more drawn out way. Anyway, keep up the great work! Look forward to the next one!

    Reply

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