Solve (and Prevent) Barrel Racing Problems at the Source for Lasting Solutions & Success

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Recently, on my final exhausting walk from the barn to the house, the annoying sight of the crabgrass in the lawn I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get control of over the past few months was finally too much for me to take!

I stopped dead in my tracks, leaned over and started ripping it out by the root with my bare hands.

To my pleasant surprise, when I addressed this stubborn “broad leaf weed” at ground level, I realized that the big fluffy bunches of overgrown grass looked much worse on the surface. The roots were in fact, small in size and small in number, in comparison to the bushy tops.

Pulling a few plants out by the root cleared huge areas of the lawn, leaving a much more uniform, beautiful appearance. Because I enthusiastically attacked the problem at its source, I know it will require much less work to keep it that way.

It all reminded me of what it’s like to troubleshoot problems with barrel horses. If we just put everything on the back burner and with great intensity and enthusiasm go straight to the source, we might find that the problem wasn’t so bad after all.

But if we just keep “mowing over the top,” it’s likely to keep coming back to haunt us. If we ignore or neglect the problem and pretend it doesn’t exist – it’s almost guaranteed to get worse. If we just spray chemical on the weeds, it might damage other areas, or only make things look better temporarily.

It’s no different with horses.

One of the foundational messages I’m passionate about sharing, is that problem solving is never about “making your horse stop ___(fill in the blank)___.”

I receive a lot of questions from well-intentioned barrel racers asking how they can get SYMPTOMS to stop showing up in their horses.

The truth is, no matter what the problem is, it’s not about the symptoms. Instead, if we go to the root of a problem, and instead cure the cause (the “disease”) – the SYMPTOMS tend to disappear!

There are many ways horse people mask over symptoms, some of them even seem to be quite effective, but it doesn’t mean the source, the root of the problem, has been thoroughly addressed. A quiet, obedient horse can seem on the outside to be perfectly well-adjusted, but like a duck’s feet paddling fervently under the water, sometimes there is more going on under the surface than what meets the eye.

This goes for physical issues as well. If a horse’s hocks get sore, maybe one does need to get the inflammation under control ASAP, but it’s worthwhile to also dig deep under the layers and try to solve the problem at its source rather than mask it long term with anti-inflammatories.

For example, a horse’s chronically sore hocks could be connected to the way he is ridden, saddle fit, or the way he’s asked to move and use himself, etc. We can all take Ibuprophen for a fever and feel better, but it doesn’t create a long term solution if we keep getting sick because our immune system is not functioning optimally due to our diet.

If we keep trying to train and run barrels when our horse is not emotionally fit for example, until we learn how to develop and maintain that emotional foundation, we’ll always be spinning our wheels to some degree.

Browse through any tack store and you’ll see that it’s become normal to seek mechanical means especially, to artificially sooth our horse’s symptoms.

Consider how barrel racers are generally obsessed with #1. Tack and #2. Supplements. They have their place, no doubt. But a healthy, happy horse with a solid educational and emotional foundation is the very thing that has the power to cease all the desperate chasing for the extra edge that we’ve been looking for in the wrong places for all along.

We could all benefit from turning our obsession in another direction.

Instead of trying so hard to prevent a horse from tipping barrels, instead we need to think about WHY he’s doing it to begin with. Then ask ourselves “WHY” again. We might be able to pull hard enough to keep a horse off them for a while, but that’s not usually permanent, lasting solution.

By all means, certain equipment can really enhance what’s already going well, but it’s not meant to create something that isn’t already there to begin with. An educated, well balanced equine athlete doesn’t depend on mechanics (OR chemicals) to hold him together like duct tape. With a strong, all-around foundation, there is no need. Taking barrel horses to their peak, and giving them an edge, IS possible without excessive leverage, and without “artificial additives.”

Something within us needs to change first for this to happen. That foundation comes from the inside, it’s something that must come from within us that we give to our horses. It means we must take it upon ourselves to instill in them, not what is “just enough to get by,” but something so strong, that there’s no way we can lose.

We all know in reality, that’s no guarantee, but I do believe it’s how we can put the odds most in our favor. Sure, it requires an investment initially, but in the long run saves so much more.

Of course I DO use certain, carefully thought out and selected bits and equipment to enhance my finished horse’s performance. I DO support my horse’s well-being with supplements. And I will most likely end up treating the lawn with something to help keep it beautiful. I’ll be the first to admit through, that I DO need to learn more about how to keep my new Texas lawn looking great!

One thing I know for sure – there is nothing that compares to drilling down to the root and dealing with issues at their source, especially when a problem has gotten away from us, like the crabgrass got away from me. The same idea applies to developing a young horse from the very beginning, or putting little finishing touches on an advanced horse.

Learning how to lay down and maintain a solid mental, physical and emotional foundation takes a lot of study and work. It requires a big investment in both time and expense to build our knowledge and skills, but this dedication also tends to result in a HUGE leaps forward in the results we achieve.

Once you learn and experience something, no one can take that away from you. Sometimes major positive change just requires getting your hands dirty, and it might not require as much time as you expect, when you focus on solving a problem without diluting it with other things that keep putting you two steps back for every one forward.

Don’t expect to ever officially “arrive,” of course. This is an ongoing process. In fact, just this past weekend, in addition to sprucing up the lawn, my husband and I also built some fence in the pasture. My Australian Shepherd, Tess was in the back yard and barking at us pretty incessantly. Instead of just thinking “I wish she would shut up!” I actually caught myself getting curious about why she was barking?

Creating lasting solutions to challenges requires a complete shift in our perspective, which often happens little by little, with bigger “Ah ha!” moments sprinkled throughout. I’ll admit that I still sometimes catch myself wanting to ease symptoms as quickly as possible. I suppose it’s human nature.

But if we really want to be successful with horses though, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. It requires a way of thinking that puts us in “the horse’s shoes.” When we have reverence and respect for them, and do our best to understand and meet their needs, and devote ourselves to learning how to be very clear in our communication, it’s just unreal what they will give in return.

I encourage you to always seek the truth, even if it’s not easy to see, and even if there’s no guarantee you’ll always find it.

The more I dive into understanding horse psychology and biomechanics, the more things that used to challenge me, become so obvious. You wouldn’t believe the “Duh,” moments I have on a consistent basis over what used to drive me to tears in frustration, and ultimately lead me to damage the connection with my horses.

The more problems we completely and effectively we deal with, the better we get at preventing them. As the barrel racing season gets started, and you’re faced with challenges, as we all are from time to time, I encourage you to go about addressing them in a new way. Remember the difference between masking symptoms, and creating lasting, permanent solutions. Most importantly, don’t be tempted to believe that because everyone else seems to be masking symptoms, that it’s best for you and your horses.

So many people and horses are not reaching their potential because they don’t know any other way. There IS a better way – a way of developing high level performance horses that prevents a lot of common frustrations, and solves problems both quickly and in a way that is both lasting and authentic, and I believe, is in the horse’s best interest.

There WILL be times when you might never completely understand the exact reasons WHY your horse has a certain problem on the pattern, or a certain physical or emotional issue. There are some things that might always remain a bit of a mystery. But it’s no excuse not to try.

Ask yourself “How can I get my horse to stop WANTING to ___(avoid the gate, drop his shoulder, etc.)____,” instead of just getting the symptom to stop.

By all means, don’t allow your horse to keep repeating, practicing and getting better at what you don’t want, but most importantly – get curious about why he’s like that. Ask yourself “why?” then look under that layer, and ask again!

Usually there is something in their education that is missing, or an emotional imbalance – they may not be doing what they know to do, because of how they FEEL. When a horse is educated and when he FEELS GOOD physically and emotionally, he will DO GOOD.

I ask a lot of my horses, and nothing we do with them is truly “natural.” However, I feel as though it’s my responsibility to make their lives as performance horses as stress free, happy and comfortable as possible.

Get on the same team with your horse. Instead of blocking opposition with a firm hand, or meeting resistance with more resistance, figure out how you can inspire a willing partnership instead. Instead of causing a horse to choose the lesser of two forms of discomfort, present an option that actually provides some relief.

How can you cause your idea to also be their idea? Think about what it means, and what it would take, to motivate your horse to perform based on desire instead of avoidance.

Other than asking the right questions, the first action step to jump start this different way of thinking and being with horses; the place to invest your time and resources, is in your own education and skills. Make it a priority to invest in yourself.

I understand that we all just want to run barrels and WIN, but that’s the point. What I’m describing is a way to get there faster, AND achieve more consistent positive results over the long haul.

This route isn’t always easy, and it’s definitely the path less traveled. But I know with confidence that it’s the only path for me.

I challenge you to be more than a barrel racer. I invite you to join me in the journey to becoming a horseman.

This web site, and my book series are packed full of the lessons I’ve learned, and there’s so much more to come.

I encourage you to BE the kind of person that gives your horse every reason to want to work together with you.

I promise that you’ll be amazed by where it takes you, and I’m confident you’ll fulfill all your barrel racing dreams as a result.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

For more troubleshooting tips, click here to browse the Overcoming Challenges content category.

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21 replies
  1. Diane Guinn
    Diane Guinn says:

    I am working with a horse like this right now…..on the surface, he works pretty nicely, but under pressure, he panics and tries to run away. When I tried him, I only cruised through, and he worked perfectly. I have found that he did not have the correct foundation to be running the barrels. He’s crazy talented, so he could make it look good in the beginning, I’m sure, but as more speed was added, he started making mistakes, and was asked to go faster to try to force him to do what he should, and as a result, his mind is somewhat fried and he panics. I have slowed him back down and we are working on footwork in the barrel pattern…and where to change leads and when to stay on the same lead, and his anxiety level has lessened to some extent, but I can see that this is going to be a LOOOONNNG process, when it would have been so much easier to just teach him correctly in the beginning. *sigh* The horse is so crazy talented, though, that I think it will be worth it in the long run. It’s just a shame that he was rushed in the beginning, causing the problems I’m having now. He was both an emotional and physical wreck when I got him. Thank you for your articles. I look forward to them each week.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Diane! What I am finding to be very valuable is to turn up the speed verrrrryyyyy gradually, like you’re doing but also incorporate lots, and I mean TONS of transitions back and forth from slower to faster, over and over again. You start fairly slow, so you can set your horse up for success, and once you transition down from going faster, don’t increase speed again until you get complete relaxation, even if that takes the whole ride at first. Really watch for those sighs and licking and chewing and reward that with a complete release of pressure – just sit and do nothing for 5 minutes! Then transition up again, and go back and get the relaxation repeatedly with the goal being to “close the gap” between speed and relaxation. In time you should be able to transition more often, and to higher speeds with less anxiety. If the horse is already fairly educated and the problem is related to speed, it’s a good idea to put pretty much all other educating on the back burner and focus on this (away from the pattern) for a couple weeks or however long it takes, then the rest is more likely to be smooth sailing!
      A horse like this can sure make a comeback, but I think they are likely to always need some special maintenance and consideration to prevent them from regressing. I definitely think these super sensitive, emotional horses make great athletes because they are often also very physically sensitive – I’m sure all your time and hard work will pay off!

  2. Karyn Dennis
    Karyn Dennis says:

    Hi I have a mare she is 7 yrs old, that wrings her tail running in the arena and between the barrels and out of the arena, but not turning the barrels. I’ve had her evaluated in 2012 by a vet and x-rayed her hocks, found an old and healed small fracture on her right hock, and she has never been lame on it. The vet thinks this fracture happened before I purchased her. But she has always wrung her tail ever since I bought her in Jan 2011. When she is loping the barrels she doesn’t do it. The faster I ask her to go the more she wrings it. I do know she hates being kicked and has bucked with me because I’ve kicked her. Is it possible that she is doing the wringing because of being kicked? Thanks Karyn

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      It’s possible that she’s still experiencing some kind of discomfort, and it’s also possible that the tail wringing has become a learned behavior over time which was developed due to past pain. In relation to the bucking, there’s a balance here… I don’t want my horse to feel the need to respond that way ever, even if I use my legs firmly, but on the other hand, I also want to do what I can to keep my horse comfortable and happy… You could train her to respond to “fanning” your legs or a hissing noise rather than a kick, you could also really amp up the joint support/pain relief to see if that makes a difference in her wringing to make sure there’s still not some pain, you could work on getting her more accepting of your legs on her sides and try to offer more leadership to decrease the likelihood of bucking to ever cross her mind, and if she’s pretty sensitive you might consider a softer cinch and pad made with natural fibers that are less likely to “grab”… lots of possibilities here Karyn! 🙂 I appreciate your concern, it’s definitely something worth exploring!

      • Karyn Dennis
        Karyn Dennis says:

        I’ll try using voice more and change the way I use my leg pressure. I have a race coming up. I’ll let you know how it works. Then I may also take her to get x-rayed again. Thanks for you help

        • BarrelRacingTips
          BarrelRacingTips says:

          Sounds like a good plan! I wasn’t always very handy with an over & under, so I have taught my horses to RUN when I make a hissing noise. I just ask them to sprint in the practice pen, hiss, then tap their rear and they will grab a gear! It doesn’t take too long for them to learn and make that connection. Keep me posted!

  3. Nikki N.
    Nikki N. says:

    Hi Heather-
    Thanks for the great article. I have sooooo many barrel racers (and riders in general) that want to know “what bit, saddle, etc.) will make their horse run faster, stop harder, bend laterally, or whatever that it’s daunting. I can’t just say “you need to go back to the basics,” not only would I get fired, but people get offended. LOL…I have one of those very sensitive horses who even the STANDING with OUT pressure freaks her out. I have owned her now for almost a year, and I am telling you that going back to the beginning and just working on walking and “whoa” from the seat first and not slamming her in the mouth has really helped us. She now stands without spinning like a reiner or trying to leap forward (except at the in-gate for competition, but that’s what little nerves I have telling her that we are COMPETING!) she walks on a loose rein, which DIDN’T happen for the first 4 months of owning her, and we trail ride at leisure and not like it’s the Tevis Cup endurance race. I recently saw pictures that were taken of us at a playday and I can see in her eyes that she is still terrified. So I think I am going to work with a reining or cutting trainer to see what she actually knows and if my style of riding is just “not right for her” and if we can learn to work together better, even though we have made leaps and bounds. As always, thanks for the great article, and thanks for keeping us thinking about the whole horse and not just getting those seconds off the clock. 🙂

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Nikki,
      I completely understand what you’re saying. I read a quote the other day that said something like, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off!” Lol I think the key to getting through to people is really by the example you set – when you can get them to say “Wow!” most will ask “How?”
      Although not every horse is well suited for barrel racing, I find more and more all the time that my horse’s limitations are really mine, so I keep striving to BE the horseman that can create a balanced, willing partner regardless of what I have to start with and work with. With these horses it’s really so critical to address their emotions first and foremost. It’s hard to open them up to learning until they are calm and confident.
      Maybe think about your own energy with that horse especially, some people have an “electric butt” in the saddle!?
      I created a lot of seemingly “fancy stuff” with Dot Com while he was still not truly OK on the inside, but I’m closer to getting that right all the time, and it’s pretty amazing to be reaching an even higher level of excellence on the outside as a result!
      Glad to hear you noticed your horse’s expression in the photos and connected that to how she’s feeling – keep up the great work! 🙂

  4. Tara
    Tara says:

    I just got my big paint in august 2013. He is 16.1 and I have been lunging him now that the snow is gone. I got on and trotted him around and he was fine. When I asked him to move over he became a bronc. He gets like this when he doesn’t get ridden in only a few days as well. Could this be something he used to get away with and now it’s a learned habit?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      It’s possible Tara, but if he did it when you asked him to move, it could either be somewhat of a respect issue if he’s resistant or oppositional in other ways OR it’s possible if he is a more sensitive horse that he’s highly claustrophobic. Some horses were never really taken through the process of “accepting the saddle” properly when they were started, and of course, some horses also have ways of reacting that aren’t appropriate (or safe), as you’ve experienced. Those are just some ideas that might lead you to the answer!?

  5. reta howard
    reta howard says:

    Heather I value your advise as a professional and a trainer so I hope you can answer a question I have.

    I have been thinking about looking at a mare that was used in the past for gaming. She is said to be wickedly fast but then at the same time the current owner is hessitant to sell her to a gaming home. She took her off the market because of that. She said in the begining her daughter was scared to give the mare her head because she was so fast. It took them 2 years to bring her down to a level where they were able to do other things with her. I’m guessing this mare was ran so hard and punished by someone that she learned to hate gaming but I’m not a professional.

    Can a horse like this be fixed or would it just be waste of ones time? She is about 11 years old so she is not by anymeans an old horse. I believe and so do they it would take the right person to click with this mare. I have allot of patience but just don’t know if a horse like that is fixable. I would like to believe she is not broken and is fixable with the right person. I thought about asking to de a least to see if we would click. I have no issue taking her away from the arena and only doing trailriding with her to help her relax and start over once she has developed trust.

    Any words of advice would be greatly appreciated.


    Reta Howard

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Reta,
      The thing I have realized about these troubled horses, is that they require such a high level of skill and commitment to rehabilitate and bring back to competition. It can be done, but it’s not a process for everyone. A person has to be willing to put competing on the back burner, long term if necessary to develop the skills within themselves to really help these horses overcome their past. It requires so much more than just taking a break from the environment where the horse had anxiety.
      If you’d like to develop your horsemanship, and you enjoy a challenge, go for it. If you’d really just like to run barrels, then give it some careful thought. Just be honest about what your want to do, then separate any emotions from the decision, and I think you’ll make a good choice.
      Here’s a past Q&A post that might help as well – Should I Take on a Barrel Horse with Issues?

  6. Juliya
    Juliya says:

    Hi i’m jiliya Whaley and I’m a barrel racer. I have a question my barrel horse blows past the first barrel I don’t know what do to?

  7. Caryl Anne
    Caryl Anne says:

    Great article! I agree 100% that you need to figure out the root of the problem before moving on successfully. Sometimes this takes time, while other times it does not. Each element within the problem is unique, and because of this, sometimes finding the answer to the problem is harder than expected. However, once the solution is clear and the problem is fixed, the bond between you and your horse will grow and expand. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hi, I love reading your articles! Although a tip would be to shorten them up and get straight to the point. I do have a few questions regarding my finished mare who doesn’t seem to have the heart to race anymore. It seems as though I have to really push her to get her through the pattern. And turning is mechanically done by my signals rather than her giving it her all. What can I do to put the fun back into it? She is perfectly sound and built. She has full potential, she just doesn’t use it. Being a stubborn Alpha mare, she does have her own mind on things but we are a great team.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks Anna, yes this one especially was long!
      There are three areas that you’ll want to focus on with this mare (which all happen to start with “R”), they are respect, responsiveness and responsibility! Really helping you get to the bottom of this though requires more detail that I’m able to go into here – keep an eye on my schedule and I’d be happy to help you through video coaching!

  9. Linda
    Linda says:

    I’m working a horse like the one mentioned above? (Diane Quinn). I try to trot slow and lope slow in circles to get him to relax but he pulls at you.He will relax at a walk even around barrels and has a great disposition. He’s been trained on the barrels nicely. When I try to take him around a set he want slow down. He has a light mouth and can turn awesome,but I need to know what kind of bit and or a tie down to use that will not hurt him that I can control him with. A harsh bit frightens him. As soon as he goes thru the gate he gets in a rocket mode.You can tell he’s been worked all wrong. Help me get him back.


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