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When it comes to training barrel horses, it seems like everything can change when we add the pressure and challenges of competition. If you’ve been barrel racing long enough, you’ve probably had experiences where it seemed like everything felt perfect – until your horse found a few more gears. Or that you could make an awesome run at home, only to have it all fall apart in competition.
While some horses have more ability to efficiently maneuver their bodies at speed than others, our job as riders is to help balance out their natural tendencies. We want to polish up what’s good and better develop the weak areas. But what about when we feel like we’ve done EVERYTHING, and things STILL come apart at speed or in competition?
With one of my horses in particular, I felt like I had left no stone unturned when it came to developing a foundation that would carry through to our performance on the pattern. But for years, we would miss the mark. It was insanely frustrating!
In this article I’d like to share WHY I think things tend to fall apart at speed, as well as how my horses and I have overcome the challenges that speed presents. As with many issues that come up on the pattern, they are often only symptoms of deeper issues. I feel as though understanding the “why” gives us insight into “how” to successfully troubleshoot. I’ll also be sharing a few exercises that have been valuable to me for ensuring there are no disconnects between my horse’s slow work and speed work, that I think will be helpful for you as well.
One of the first reasons our runs go downhill at speed is because we, OR our horses, resort to old habits that are not efficient or no longer serve us!
Let’s say a horse was initially trained to use follow a certain path or use his body in a certain way on the pattern and it’s become habit, or maybe the rider inadvertently allowed the horse to develop his own (not so efficient) way of moving and didn’t really notice until it became a problem over time. Eventually we realize we need to fix something, but even when we try to retrain the horse, they revert back to those old, known ways of using themselves at speed.
This happens to horses and humans because of how our brains operate. In a high speed run there is little time to think, only react. Establishing new habits takes conscious effort at first. Through careful repetition, new neural pathways can be created that tell our bodies what to do (like muscle memory). Until then however, the neurotransmitters in our brains resort to firing on the pathways that are already well worn – meaning the horse (or human) will fall back in the same “rut” or habit, especially at speed where there’s little time to consciously think about making a change.
It certainly doesn’t help our horses when we’re riding them the way we rode a horse we had years ago, or if we constantly forget to sit deep before the turn or have a habit of using our hands erratically, etc. Developing new neural pathways, and therefore new habits as riders is possible, but it’s not necessarily easy. It takes some dedication to overcome ways of doing things that no longer serve us.
When you’re able to establish new, positive movement patterns that become your baseline reactions in a run, you can transition from hindering to helping your horse. To support you in doing so, I wrote “Kick Bad Barrel Racing Habits Goodbye,” which will take you through a step by step process for completely retraining your mind and body and help you say “Sayonara” to any bad habits you may have as a rider – that only show up at speed! (More on retraining our horses below.)
A second reason our horses are “different” at speed or in competition, is because the WE, as riders, are different at speed/in competition.
If you really became aware of how you think/feel/react in an exhibition vs. a competition run, you’ll probably admit that it’s just DIFFERENT. The pressure, the energy, the nerves, etc. What IF you could be the same, mentally cool self in your run as you are in an exhibition? What if you could be the same calm and collected self you are at home as in competition? It IS possible through mental training. We can develop our minds and build our mental muscles just like we build strength at the gym or condition our horse’s muscles. It’s important that we make efforts to master the mental game of competition to ride correctly and consistently under the pressures that speed and competition present.
Again in this area, it also helps to understand what blocks are in the way of mastering our mental game. That’s why I wrote an entire chapter on the “Inner Game of Barrel Racing” in my book “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success.” If you’re serious about getting out of your own way, and clearing a fast track to barrel racing success, check it out!
There will always be certain aspects of the exhibition environment vs. the competition environment that you don’t have control over. However, you do have a choice when it comes to BEING the cool, calm, consistent rider your horse needs you to be under any kind of circumstances. Certain things you just can’t change, but improving your ability to mentally focus, block out distractions and get in the zone, whether you’re at a local jackpot or trotting down the alley at the NFR is something you CAN do something about!
A third reason a disconnect occurs at speed or in competition is that the mental, emotional, physical and educational foundations are not firmly established.
Speed is the most honest communicator we’ll come across. It tattles on us. We can be developing a horse where everything seems to be coming along great, but then the addition of speed reveals “holes” in our horse’s foundation. Issues we may have overlooked suddenly become glaringly obvious! We can have everything PERFECT until speed is added and then suddenly the training we thought was so solid can go right out the window.
To achieve success in barrel racing the mental, emotional, physical and educational foundations must be solid under any kind of circumstances. If there are any exceptions to what and when your horse will willing do what you ask, then there is a weak spot in your foundation. If your horse is nervous or distracted, if he refuses at the gate or ignores your cues in a run, etc. then there are areas in the foundation that need to be better developed. There are a lot of solid “well broke” horses out there who are not broke at all – AT SPEED!
As we’re training, it’s easy overlook potential problems developing, or think that little issues that occur away from the pattern don’t relate. If your horse gives you even a little inkling that his foundation is weak in any way, under any circumstance, vow to nip it in the bud instantly! How we do some things, is how we do other things – same for horses. When you see a potential problem area, explore it, dig deep into it, take the time it takes to completely work through with your horse so it doesn’t become an issue.
Even if we feel like “we’ve done EVERYTHING!” to ensure our horse has all the necessary pieces in their development to have it all come together on the pattern – if we become REALLY aware, and look deeper, we’ll often find that we really HAVE NOT done everything or that those issues occurring at speed ARE indeed happening in slow work, we just don’t notice it.
I guess you could say in this case, that it’s OUR foundation as riders, that needs more development. Figuring out where the weak spots are means developing an open mind, becoming a detective, breaking free of old habits and patterns, and being committed to self-development. Ride with some new friends, watch some DVD’s, have someone you respect and admire ride your horse and see what they feel and or see. You can also enlist the help of a pro, as with my Power Hour Video Coaching. You can’t fix what you can’t see and/or feel. We all get stuck sometimes, it’s our choice whether we STAY STUCK or not!
Below I’ve delivered an action plan for closing the gap, and ensuring that your perfect slow work transfers over into perfect runs.
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that one of the reasons there’s a disconnect that occurs at speed is because our horses have developed habits – inefficient ways of moving and using their bodies in a run. What we do away from the pattern does affect what we do on the pattern in a big way, and further solidifying the foundations is the answer so many problems barrel racers experience. However, to completely create new, positive movement patterns we need to rewire the neural pathways in our horse’s brain and build new habits by…
1. Interrupting the old patterns and,
2. Bridging the gap between slow work and speed work.
I took action recently and set up TWO barrel patterns in the arena. (Click here for a printable PDF diagram of the “Double Pattern.”) I did so because I had realized that my horse would move with quality around one barrel or two barrels in a figure eight, but when he realized we were doing “THE pattern” the quality of his movement went subtly downhill.
I’m sure this was realted to ways in which I had inadvertenly allowed him to move in the past, thus creating a habit. To help my horse establish new, more efficient ways of using his body I had to mix it up, almost fool him into thinking we weren’t doing the pattern (only we were – sometimes), and then just mesh the two until he was moving with quality ON THE PATTERN.
(If you need to find more barrels, you might call your local heating & air conditioning business or car wash – they often have extra barrels they’ll give you for little or no cost!)
Think about the specific issues you have and integrate fixes into this double pattern. On the first barrel, where my horse would lean and get a little strung out, I’ve been stopping and rolling back in the approach, to remind him to square up and not lean to the inside… on the 2nd and 3rd, where he would lean and start turning too soon, I’ve been really reiterating bend, and sometimes counter arcing out, forward and away (with true bend through the rib cage – without this you’ll just create more stiffness).
With all these barrels in the arena, I would continuously work around them in all directions, speeds and patterns, while requiring that my horse move with quality at all times. As I was doing so, I’d sneak in the actual barrel pattern. If my horse anticipated and reverted back to his old habits, I would correct the instant the mistake occurred.
It was usually at speed when I had to make these corrections (where the bad habits tended to come up more often) and in those moments, it’s not exactly pretty. However, I needed to put a road block in front of those old neural pathways/habits! Horses learn good and bad habits through repetition, so every time your horse is allowed to make a wide turn, lean into a barrel, go by, etc. they are just learning to do that even better!
Another exercise for achieving a similar effect for example, is if your horse just isn’t moving with the quality and “life” you want around the barrels – hustle him to the fence and do a roll back, then hustle to the barrel, do a roll back, repeat and then circle the barrel, it’s a way of saying…
“Hey buddy, you know that awesome move you made on the fence? Well you need to get your rear in gear around the barrel too, see the correlation!?”
If your horse needs more relaxed, forward movement around the barrel, you might make a circle near the barrel first to get the quality of movement you want, go back to the barrel so they learn that what you’re showing them also applies on the pattern.
One of the keys to success with this “Double Pattern” exercise is that you’ll want to introduce some high end speed as you progress. Remember, you’re working toward closing the gap so your horse doesn’t revert to his old habits in competition. That means turning up the speed to more closely resemble how fast you’d go when competing. I think some problems occur with speed because barrel racers make too big of a jump from a high lope to mach 10, while never testing the gears in between.
Also keep in mind that if your horse has spent years establishing the habits he currently has, that completely changing them doesn’t happen overnight. It usually takes 4 – 7 days for a horse to learn a new “pattern,” but completely reprogramming their muscle memory so that it holds up at speed can take a month or more. Be patient and don’t hesitate to enter once you’re confident you’re headed in the right direction. It’s a good idea to “test” what you’re doing, because unfortunately it’s possible to inadvertently create a new set of problems when you’re trying to fix others!
I hope this article helps shed some light into solving the frustrating problems that only seem to come up with speed. In the comments below, feel free to share what your challenges are at speed or any insights for fixing these issues that have proved helpful for you!
Here’s that link again to the downloadable “Double Pattern” exercise!