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When it comes to barrel racing, it’s more often a matter of WHEN our horses will get HOT vs. IF.
Even with careful development and maintenance, it’s likely that at some point we’ll be challenged to have perfectly clear communication and emotional fitness from our horse when we need it most under high pressure circumstances.
Speed and anxiety seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. To the barrel racer, however, it’s not a very enjoyable combination.
Before we can REALLY help resolve our horse’s tendency to become tense, anxious and impulsive, let’s take a close look into WHY this happens to begin with.
Consider horses in nature – usually they don’t run full speed UNLESS they’re (believed to be) in serious danger, or must outright flee to save their life. When a horse’s feet really get moving, things start to change within their body biochemically, including the release of adrenaline.
Some horses, due to their innate characteristics, tend to be more concerned with their safety than others, and these horses are likely to unravel emotionally more quickly, more deeply, AND take longer to become “level headed” again.
This doesn’t necessarily make them less any desirable as barrel horses (it’s largely a personal preference). In fact, in my book, this mental/emotional sensitivity often translates into a naturally heightened physical sensitivity as well, which to me, IS desirable. Whichever type of horse we end up with or choose, it’s our job to find a balance that brings out each individual’s greatest potential.
Speaking of level headed, have you also ever wondered why so many horses raise their head with they get emotional? This also has everything to do with safety. In addition to the fact that horses raise their heads higher in order to see more clearly through the lower portion of the lens in their eye, a horse with his head low to the ground is in a vulnerable position – a perfect target for a predator (or a perceived predator).
Does this mean that your aged rodeo campaigner is scared for his life when he’s all jazzed up? Not necessarily.
However, these behavior characteristics that are based in fear can become learned behaviors, brought on by triggers. Horses catch on to patterns quickly. When you start saddling up at a competition, it doesn’t take long for them to understand what happens, before what happens, happens!
It’s our responsibility as horse lovers to better understand where our horses are coming from, and WHY they behave as they do. This gives us insight into how we can help them, and how we can work together to bring out the best in them AND reach our performance goals. Not only that, but in return for all they do for us, I feel as though the least we can do is make their lives as high level competitive athletes as stress free as possible.
There’s no avoiding the fact that barrel horses get excited. However, there IS a difference between fear and excitement (it can look very similar), as well as a difference between “riding the emotional/right brain edge,” and going over it. Riding the edge will bring your horse to his peak performance, going over the edge will inhibit your performance, as well as negatively affect your horse’s overall well-being.
Most riders aren’t advanced enough to ride the edge because they don’t have the awareness and skills to bring a horse back that has “gone over.” Making competitive (and repetitive) runs with our barrel horses is usually enough to bring us as close to that edge as we’d ever want to be. So developing the ability restore calmness and reestablish connection is something we’d all benefit from focusing on even more, due to the nature of timed speed events.
Although understanding how and why certain behaviors occur is extremely helpful, I will say that pointing the finger at others, dwelling in the past, or even blaming yourself excessively will NOT help your horse progress. It doesn’t matter whether your horse came to you as a ball of nerves, with tendencies to become excitable, non-responsive, distracted, tense or anxious, OR whether YOU had a part in developing his undesirable behaviors. People DO better when they KNOW better. The important thing is that we move on and do our very best to help our horse change for the better from this point on. To do so we must put our focus where it belongs – in the moment.
Many of us though, take the “helping” too far. At the barrel race, we stay as far from the gate as possible until the last minute, we hand walk our horses instead of ride them before our run, we “check” our horses with the reins repetitively and generally overuse them to “help” our horse find relaxation and better posture.
Using these techniques isn’t all wrong, you may even seem to be effective. In fact in those moments prior to a run, I encourage you to do whatever it takes to set yourself up for success – for your horse to be in a good place emotionally and completely focused on you. What’s critical, is that we understand that when we take ALL these measures on a regular basis, it’s possible we’re actually enabling our horse to continue to be an emotional basket case.
It could be that your horse seems to need support, because he’s never been taught and held accountable for “getting himself together.”
It’s time we stopped “helping” horses be more relaxed through micromanaging and going out of our way to avoid high energy environments, or avoiding established triggers, and instead learn how it’s possible to EMPOWER these sensitive horses to manage their OWN emotions, rather than just “get by,” or in ignorance, believe that there are no other options.
I realize these ideas may seem deep, but consider for a moment that when we micromanage our horses, or inconvenience ourselves to keep them quiet and calm, or feel as though we have no choice but to warm them up in a way that isn’t ideal, that in the process, instead of helping, in the long run we may actually be enabling them to continue with the behavior.
You may have noticed that here at BarrelRacingTips.com, I believe in creating independence in barrel horses. I believe it’s possible (and to our greatest benefit) to develop horses that are empowered to take responsibility for the training that has been instilled in them, while at the same time remaining open and accepting of our guidance.
I believe that horses should have responsibilities, starting at the simplest level with maintaining gait and direction. It’s NOT our job to continuously ask our horse to speed up or slow down. Ideally, we ask them, they step up to the plate, and we give them relief by leaving them alone. The same is true for the direction we ask them to go and even HOW – the shape and posture in their body. Sounds great, right? At high levels, this is considered self-carriage – the horse isn’t leaning on the rider, or driven into the bit and held into a frame with the reins – they take and maintain responsibility for carrying themselves with quality posture and collection.
The same idea applies to our horse’s emotional fitness. So are you ready for YOUR horse to take responsibility for maintaining more of that on his own?
Click Here for Part II to start EMPOWERING your horses to manage their own emotions.
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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