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

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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.

An impulsion problem is an emotional problem.
An impulsion problem is an emotional problem.

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.

Know the difference between helping and enabling.
Know the difference between helping and enabling.

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, 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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22 replies
  1. mary
    mary says:

    Thanks so much for this article! I have been dealing with this “impulsiveness” in a young horse and have been working on this exact thing, letting him make the correct decisions! And it is soooooo unbelievably hard to do! I want to micromanage to a huge degree. I feel I have to work on myself almost more than my horse, and he does the right thing when I don’t micromanage! Talk about an eye opener! Thanks for the Kay Blandford article as well, prior to this one. Both have kept my eyes opened, that I am working on the “right” thing, for the success in the long run. Thanks again!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      You’re so welcome Mary! So glad this has been helpful. Believe me I know how hard it can be to stop micromanaging but you’re a huge step ahead by just being AWARE that you’re doing it – most riders are not, so give yourself lots of credit for that! 🙂 Keep up the great work!

  2. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    Hi Heather-
    Thank you for the great article!! I am dealing with this in a 16 year old mare that has been allowed to live her ENTIRE LIFE with impulsiveness. In the 4 months I have had her we have made tremendous strides in her confidence! I have stopped babysitting her and she can work in an arena with barrels or poles now with only minor issues around where you would start a run, only. My question is this: how do you keep the horses calm and relaxed in a warm-up or open arena like setting? We seem to do great working at home and our local jackpot arena, but once we get to a race elsewhere she tends to lose her cool. I am not an “excitable” rider by any means, which is why I have her- she has frustrated or scared everyone else before me. Should we just haul to as many as we can like I would for a colt…or something else?
    Thanks for all your help!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Nikki,
      When I was doing this exercise with Dot Com we were in a HUGE arena with uneven footing, which really amplified his impulsiveness – much like being in a competition environment would. Just use this exact exercise IN the higher energy environment until you get the relaxation and a positive change. You might not necessarily compete, but start out getting more relaxation under those circumstances and take small steps forward from there. Thanks for your comment and great job on helping that mare discover a new, more stress free way to BE!

  3. Darryl Deaton
    Darryl Deaton says:

    I have the perfect candidate for this exercise. Thought that I had tried everything over the last three years to get him to relax during competition. Rearing, bucking, snorting, hollow backed, head high, charging, crazy out of control and getting worse kind of horse; I was one day away from getting rid of him. Will report back if I make any progress with your method.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Darryl, it sounds like there may be more than a problem with anxiety and impulsiveness going on? hope this exercise helps make a positive change. The most important thing for me in helping Dot Com has been changing my “mindset” about his issues. Our success has had a lot to do with me better understanding horse behavior and getting some insight into WHY he behaves as he does – that’s been the key to really helping him. 🙂

  4. Chrissy Schachte
    Chrissy Schachte says:

    I just got my horse is January and we are improving so much but there is one big issue! Our ring has a Shute and he will walk in and out a hundred times at practice or even during the show. But when it comes time for our turn in barrels or any class he starts rearing ad turning away. We’ve tried everything and he’s getting worse. We go in the same ring to warm up and he’s fine it’s just when it’s his turn he knows. How can I work this out of him?

  5. michelle
    michelle says:

    My new mare is very insecure as well as impulsive. I am her 2nd owner-she’s 8- and the past 3 months I have been working on building her confidance & gaining her trust. Lots of slow work.She’s doing fantastic, and we’re making great progress. One thing she does when she gets nervous..she takes the bit and roots her head way out, wich drives me crazy! Any suggestions?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Michelle, sounds like your mare is coming along great – way to go! As for rooting her nose, you’ll want to make sure she is accepting of bit contact – does she do it when on a loose rein or when you’re riding with a soft feel on the reins? If she does it even when you don’t have much contact, considering her insecurities, you might just move her hands with her and don’t resist it. The more emotionally balanced she becomes this should happen less and less. If you think it’s more of a learned habit, or if a pushy dominant horse was doing this, I’d make sure they fully understood that bits are not for leaning on and pushing against by holding firm and encouraging them to give to that pressure.

  6. deral
    deral says:

    hi !!! i really enjoy reading what u have to say,helping me understand my horse better,just a question kinda curious your answer. does the weight of a rider effect how fast u can run barrel’s,do u think the breedin of the horse has anything to do with how fast a horse can run,from looking at pedigrees,i notice everything has founation breeding on the bottom side,long stride short stride. thx in advice have a great day deral

  7. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:

    Wow! This was an amazing article! I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my very energetic/insecure gelding getting him to calm down and not run all over the place when i ask him for the pattern. I am definitely going to try putting the techniques talked about in this article into our training.Thank you SO much!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Glad it was helpful Elisabeth! The important thing is to really get that foundation of connection and relaxation first (which can take a while to get solid), then take it to the pattern. 🙂

  8. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I love this exercise! One of my instructors uses it all the time. His is slightly different, he just has us sit there and allow the horse the freedom of the entire arena. He stresses sitting like a sack of potatoes, and acting as if you have no care in the world. Once your horse starts to pick up that your not asking him to run, that he’s acting on his own and starts to slow down we change our body into the position we would ask for a stop. Sitting as if we are going to loose a dollar bill out of our pockets, and reaching down to pet the neck if we can reach that low. Reassurance. This helps us get our seat connection incorporated for a slow down / stop as well.

    That exercise has really come in handy for me barrel racing, sitting down for my rate and sitting down deep for my stop coming home. Knowing I can get this response from my seat has really kept me off my horses face.

  9. Becca Schaffer
    Becca Schaffer says:

    This article was valuable because I just got a new horse that is considered “Hot” and he is at times and Fast which isn’t a fun combination for someone who is new to the sport. I have noticed a huge change in him in the last week that I have connected with him, not allowing him to be so on edge but reassuring him that he doesn’t have to be in race mode all the time. This tip will help me moving forward when he does start to get impulsive and a little on the bit. Helping him to relax is my main goal, and for him to enjoy his job.

  10. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Awesome article! My little mare is an ex cutter with a gigantic motor. She doesn’t push at all but her deal is she will swap leads in the rear and cross fire until she realizes she’s in the never ending circle.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Interesting Jennifer. I have found that a horse will cross fire especially when their MIND is not on the circle (they are thinking about being elsewhere), that might be what’s happening in your case?

  11. Jim
    Jim says:

    Our horse has become a mess before running barrels or to the point of loping. He crow hops and refuses to be slowed. He seems to want to now run or crow hop. What can we do on the ground? He is a good or was a good horse and now he seems ruined. I am so upset. I can’t afford to keep training and training what does anyone suggest to snap him back ?

  12. Susan Kerins
    Susan Kerins says:

    i am trying to help this barrel mare that is shouldering and not changing leads. But that isnt the problem in my opinion she will take any and all bits and throw them to the back of her mouth and she is gone she bolts and wont listen. she can be warmed up the round pen and the arena and be calm but the minute her owner gets on her she is out of control again no matter what. So before i start training her i am wanting to troubleshoot what her owner has told me for her issues. She has her in a twisted broken snaffle bit and has everytype of bit before she has to keep a tie down on her and she has been using draw reins she says for more control. So im open to suggetions as im running out of them. circling her down negative to hot for it i was there and she slams her feet even at a collected lope… so any help would be awesome please… she is a 9 year old bay mare alot of running blood dash for cash 3x man o war 9x depth charge and many more she was made to run but the girl im helping is her 3rd owner she loves her and wont give up and neither will i as i have never quit on any horse. Thanks again,

  13. McKenzie
    McKenzie says:

    This is amazing!! Exactly what I’ve been looking for! I have a 16 year old mare who is all about speed and not about well really thinking. This should help her a lot!! She also tends to not want to just walk to the first barrel so I’m really excited to try this out! Thanks for everything you do Heather!!


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