STOP Enabling Your HOT Barrel Horse and START Empowering – Part II

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After I had turned a corner and made a lot of progress with Dot Com, it was still easy to fall into the rut of micromanaging him.

In certain high pressure environments, if I didn’t use the reins to cause him find relaxation and better posture, if left to his own devices, his emotions would ramp up and it wasn’t always a pretty picture if I didn’t subtly step in. If I had given him a completely and consistently loose rein when he was emotional, it seemed like in a matter of seconds we’d be the next county – that’s how impulsive he can be, and this impulsiveness is especially triggered in certain environments.

Winding down into a small, energetic circle.
Winding down into a small, energetic circle.

How’d he get this way?  Again, it’s a combination of his innate characteristics and his learned behavior.   But again, that doesn’t matter so much to me at this point. What DOES is what I’m doing in the moment to resolve that.  I’ve made it my mission to no longer “help” him, and instead empower him. IF your horse struggles to lope a calm, connected circle on a loose rein under any circumstances, then the exercise I describe below may just impact you as positively as it has Dot Com and I.

Most times, when we keep competing and training in smaller arenas, we don’t realize how impulsive our horses are until we get into a really large arena or a wide open field.  In one such especially large arena lately, Dot Com felt like a bottle rocket with the fuse lit.  I’d ask him to lope off on a loose rein (and was trying hard NOT to micromanage), I could feel him gaining speed, and getting more emotional and impulsive as we went along.

In the past at times I have felt as though I HAD to use the reins consistently to keep his big motor rated down. This is a very common situation for barrel racers to be in, but don’t let common become “normal” or “good.” The problem comes in the lack of awareness for how much we’re micromanaging AND what we’re allowing to continue with our horses.

Super sensitive horses like Dot Com are also especially easy to “enable” because they DO honor the limits we set for them – whenever I would “check” him, or encourage a more athletic position, he would respond, and it would help, albeit temporarily.  He’s very respectful of the “box” I set for him (my reins and/or legs), so by most people’s definition he’s not a “runaway” or “out of control,” because he doesn’t blatantly push against pressure.

It's Dot Com's responsibility to manage his emotions.
It’s Dot Com’s responsibility to manage his emotions.

But the truth is, without the support of my physical “box” he was completely unraveling from an emotional standpoint.  It’s easy to skim over the surface of this issue because of his sensitivity and obedience – physically he stayed with me and responsive but mentally and especially emotionally he was a goner.

The effect his emotional imbalance has on the way he uses his body most definitely negatively impacts his athleticism – so empowering him to manage his own emotions was something I KNEW would contribute to his success when he returns to roping (and when I finish him on the barrels!).

The solution for his impulsive lope started with winding him down into a very small circle, while expecting him to stay in a lope. I used the energy in my body to communicate what I wanted.  Without concern for “how” he was moving physically, I made no effort to ask him shape his body. I used the reins as little as possible and only for guiding him in the circle (of course don’t hesitate to use them if you get in a bind!). I did NOT drive with my legs but DID get really animated in my whole body to match his energy and then some.

When he realized he wasn’t so interested in keeping up with all that hard work, he relaxed and slowed down a bit.  I then gradually broadened the circle.  He stayed in a nice relaxed lope until the circle got really big and the impulsiveness was baaack!  No prob, we just wound down to a small circle again until he changed his MIND and I felt a definite shift on the impulsiveness scale. (Small circles also great for shortening “long” horses with plenty of go, as straight lines are great for lengthening “short” horses who lack motivation.)

After doing this back and forth a few times, it was becoming Dot Com’s decision more and more to choose a relaxed lope.  I was making the right thing easy, and the wrong thing difficult.  I was taking his excess energy and channeling it in a way caused him to make a different choice – but it was still his choice. His consequence was loping a very small, energetic circle (hard work), and his reward was the option to lope relaxed in a bigger circle. Allowing horses to learn like this makes for lessons that really stick.

Again I was careful not to DRIVE him with my legs and instead used very animated energy in my body to keep him loping. Although it’s ideal to maintain gait, a couple times I accepted his idea to transition down to a trot, because he was relaxing as he did.

As I performed this exercise, my timing was important to make it clear where the consequence and the reward was.  Establish in your mind where the “impulsiveness” line is, be specific about the quality of lope you expect and don’t allow your horse to become racey and disconnected later or tomorrow or next month – be consistent.

When the emotions go up, the circle gets smaller again.
When the emotions go up, the circle gets smaller again.

At this point, again, I wasn’t obsessed with his lateral and longitudinal shape, because that will come later, AND come much more easily when his emotions are balanced.  In fact, much of the physical part will fall right together naturally the more he starts to OWN relaxation as it becomes his new “default” way of being.

Of course, don’t forget how important it is to be aware of what you’re doing in your own body. If you’re constantly “buzzing,” your horse will find it difficult to ever really relax. On the other hand, some horses have learned to disconnect from their rider to such a degree, or are so extremely emotionally troubled, that our own relaxation doesn’t impact them as it should – which is a perfect time and place to apply these concepts.

This exercise is so powerful, because instead of using our hands or reins to micromanage our horses to slow down, instead of saying, ”Don’t speed up, don’t speed up, don’t speed up,” or “Calm down, calm down, calm down,” with our hands or body, we’re showing them a better way of feeling and moving that they get to #1. CHOOSE, #2. MAINTAIN ON THEIR OWN and #3. GET REWARDED FOR.

Therein lies the difference.  Remember that just because a symptom disappears for a while, doesn’t mean the problem still isn’t there.  Whether we’re overusing our hands, or going out of our way to “help” these horses, in many cases it either only gives them a calm LOOK and disguises the issue, or only provides relief from the symptom – which is not a permanent solution.

It WILL take some patience and persistence for Dot Com to completely reroute his habits because they have become ingrained very deeply over many years. Enabling a horse to continue being an emotional mess is an easy rut to fall into, especially with sensitive horses like Dot Com, especially for speed event competitors, AND especially perfectionists such as myself!

Balanced emotions must come before perfect shape and form.
Balanced emotions must come before perfect shape and form.

When something isn’t happening fast enough, or something doesn’t FEEL perfect, or LOOK perfect, we tend to want to MAKE it that way ASAP.  As humans, we also tend to want to use our HANDS to do so because we are a very hand oriented species.  Often we find that when we do, the change doesn’t last, and the lesson doesn’t sink in through the whole horse from the mind to the feet (like it does when we allow them to CHOOSE vs. MAKE), and we end up creating only a superficial change instead. 

Of course, there’s always a time and place that we must do whatever it takes to restore calmness or control in our horses. The big picture however, is that if Dot Com’s emotions weren’t truly brought into balance, if he only had the “look” of a horse that had it all together emotionally, or if the relaxation I created was only temporary, then his athletic potential would always be limited. Not only that, but moving with tension is very physically damaging to horses as well.

Here at BarrelRacingTips.com, I’m all about offering lasting solutions using horse psychology that are based on principles vs. techniques.  If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is!

Here’s to holding our horses accountable, for treating them with dignity and respect and empowering them to make their own good choices, and to having high expectations for them to honor their responsibilities. May we ALL gain the awareness and open mindedness it requires to bust out of OUR OWN ruts, so that we may reveal the true potential of the equine athletes under us, who have been patiently waiting there all along.

In case you missed it, Click Here for Part I to learn why empowering vs. enabling our barrel horses is so important.

Encouraging a horse to manage their OWN emotions may be a completely new concept to many barrel racers.

What do YOU think about the ideas presented in Part I of this article?

Let’s hear it in the comments below!

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