Strip Away Constraints to Deepen Communication and Heighten Barrel Racing Success

Strip Away Constraints to Deepen Communication and Heighten Barrel Racing Success

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The taller a building, the more sturdy the foundation must be.

The more tension on a fence, the deeper the post holes must be.

Ever wonder why the vertical part of a cross is longer than the horizontal part?

Because it must go deep to stand strong.

If you’re serious about achieving big time barrel racing success like I am – you’ve gotta be willing to go deeper than most people go.

This year, I challenge you to go further than you’ve ever gone before.

When my gelding got hurt in 2012 I didn’t realize then just how serious his injury was, and how long his recovery would take, OR where it would take me.

The two week “project horse” I took under my wing turned into two years. was still fairly new then. I actually wondered for a moment – how I could possibly help barrel racers with my good horse sidelined?

As it turns out, getting sidetracked was the best thing that could have ever happened to my own barrel racing, and YOURS.

Of course, I don’t expect you to take things to the lengths that I have demonstrated in the video below. But I know without a doubt that you and your horses would be better for it if you did.

When I decided to take on the challenge I’ve shared in today’s video, I knew there’d be a lot of value to gain from the process. Little did I know just how much and what type of value.

Even team ropers dig liberty!

While my husband and I’s horse’s educational foundations are more solid due to it, it’s our own foundations – emotionally and as individuals who make our lives teaching and communicating with horses, that has benefited the most (yes, my team roper husband has traveled this journey as well).

So why exactly does liberty training hold so much value for performance-minded folks?

First, I’ll say that it’s because there’s WAY more to it than “training.”

If you’re not showing up as a person your horse wants to be with and perform for, it’s sayonara to you!

Talk about a reality check.

Of course, not everyone is ready for the truth, OR willing to go that deep.

But when you rip off the band aids and take off the halter, it’s the only thing that’s left.

It will teach you a ton IF you’re ready and willing to embrace it.

It takes a secure individual to peel back what is superficial and reveal what’s underneath. It takes an even more secure person to embrace what can be rather ugly in the name of creating something more substantial, solid, and beautiful.

Even if you’re not one to specifically go around masking problems with mechanics – ropes, lines, reins, even saddles – any kind of tack has a way of standing in the way the truth, whether we realize it or not.

As we step into the new year, I invite you to consider how this concept applies to all areas of life.

Part of the meaning behind Christmas for example, is that we can be made new.

I’ve experienced a fair amount of success with my gelding, Pistol. But the years have not been without their challenges too.

Last summer, in one of those “deep” moments, I realized that while I was trying to remain neutral about applying pressure in a way that was firm yet fair with the goal of achieving more consistency, I came to terms with the fact that I was dragging the past into the present moment.

When Pistol was a split second late in responding, I realized that there was a tiny extra little rolling of my spur that occurred. It was an emotional response – residual baggage from years of subtle challenges with him.

I resented his delay.

But I learned that as long as I was bringing even a tiny bit of emotion into the conversation, his level of mental connection and therefore responsiveness was not going to improve in way that was consistent or lasting like I was looking for.

It can all be different, of course, but only if we are different.

New Years is a time to celebrate beginnings, we can start fresh. But starting fresh is also a choice we can make in every single moment. We don’t have to let what happened yesterday impact what happens today.

And we are always at choice – we can play it shallow, or play it deep.

We can open our mind to the truth behind our horse’s behaviors, our behaviors and our corresponding results, and take responsibility for changing them, OR we can keep going through the motions by skimming over the surface.

I encourage you to take the high road by letting go of resistance, old habits, patterns and guilt and instead accepting possibility. Leave behind what you (and your horse) have been, to embrace what can be.

You wanna know what changed Pistol’s life? I mean really changed him from the inside out?

MY attitude. My thoughts. My intentions.

When I changed who I was from the inside out, he showed up differently. When I “put on a happy face” my positive expectation completely transformed him.

It has the same power to transform everything in our life!

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
– W. Dyer

Greeting me at the gate.
Greeting me at the gate – expression is everything!

Pistol looks for me now with ears pricked forward, and even nickers sometimes. I can assure you, he’s never been a “problem horse,” but he had also never quite been an “enthusiastic” one either. His potential had never been tapped into the way it’s beginning to be now.

Even when I must be very firm, I can do it with a smile, and when I do it dissipates any resentment. He tries harder next time, instead of trying less and disconnecting.

Some people might think that a horse either has “try” or doesn’t.

But we have so much more influence over them than most of us realize. It’s like getting the combination to a lock figured out. It’s a little different for each horse.

There are two very different horses in our pasture for whom my husband and I now feel as though we hold the keys. It’s helped me to understand more clearly what the keys are for other horses.

I even look at ‘ol Frosty, “the bulldozer” (my hubby’s retired rope horse) with new eyes. Now that I understand him, he’s not the horse I thought he was.

I’m looking forward to returning to the barrel pen this year, and my liberty experiences have no doubt helped me see all horse’s TRUTH more clearly – which will certainly give me an unlikely edge in competition as well.

I hope this video will give you things to think about, that ultimately help you do the same.

Keep reading below for a list of practical tips for going deeper yourself – this year, and beyond!

You may not realize it, but you are already working with your horses at liberty on a regular basis! The two primary opportunities you have to interact are when you halter them, and at feeding time – so make the most of it!

Instead of “catching” your horse, instead catch his attention, THEN halter your horse. Learn more about the way I go about it here.

To deepen the relationship and respect your horse has for you, have high standards for feeding time behavior. We’ve started a new policy at the Smith Ranch where the boys are expected to stand at their assigned stall for their evening nom noms. Once we give the hand signal, eating may commence.

Remember – the alpha mare determines who eats and when. If your horse has a demanding attitude, is pushy about getting to his food or resistant about being moved off food, that’s a sign that he does not see you as the head honcho.

Lines, ropes, and a stick & string definitely have their place in developing a horse at liberty. I educate my horse on line and in smaller spaces before they graduate to liberty in larger spaces. Otherwise we risk the horse being “too wrong for too long” and learning things he doesn’t need to know. Electric fence tape can be used to section off portions of your pasture or to build a portable round pen.

It's helpful to develop a horse's education on line first.
It’s helpful to develop a horse’s education on line first.

Tools can accentuate and facilitate training when they are used properly. When you use them to make or force things to happen however, you’re sacrificing the learning process for your horse (and yourself). One of the best “tools” for teaching, isn’t really a tool per say but the total and complete release of pressure. Allow your horses this when they make good choices. Use tools subtly and when necessary to guide them in the right direction.

Don’t be afraid to be firm, but do so without attaching emotion to it. Horses bite each other, and even kick each other to get a message across. A stick & string is an extension of your hand, the length allows you to “bite” your horse in the hind end even while standing at the front end. Keep in mind however, that a true leadership and refined communication is so subtle that at advanced levels a stick and string, excess or exaggerated movement, etc. should no longer be necessary.

Keep this in mind as you use a halter and stick. You can simulate liberty any time you lead your horse from point A to point B by pretending there is no lead rope. I never want my horses to take the slack out of the line – if they are responding to my body language and following a “feel” (possible even with a belly in a line or rein), then I am preparing myself for liberty.

Just because your horse has a halter on, doesn’t mean to have you use it. Just because you have a stick in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to use it, either. If you’re effective when you DO need to use these communication tools, you need for them will lessen.

One of the main elements of liberty outside the round pen is where the horse mirrors your movement and walks, trots, stops, backs, lopes, etc. along side and in time with you. Start this with a halter (again so your horse doesn’t repeat any undesirable behavior) in a smaller space by positioning your horse between you and a wall or fence. Use the halter rope and stick and string to add pressure as needed to encourage your horse to get in sync with you. Reward efforts with a good, long rest break! Every time you lead your horse, be conscious of your own footfall – can you stay in time with your horse’s?

Keep liberty sessions short, sweet and successful. Because of the high degree of mental connection required, it’s easy for a horse to get “brain fried” in short order. Don’t wait until your horse stops wanting to connect before you moving on to something else. Less is especially more at liberty. Plus, it’s FUN, so it’s tempting to keep going – quit before you want to! This way you’ll be further ahead tomorrow and won’t have to back track to rebuild your horse’s desire to connect (which, depending on the horse can take a while to rebuild if lost).

Remember trust takes time to create but can be destroyed in seconds. The same goes for connection.

What is allowed will be repeated.
I want my horse to know the best, most comfortable place to be is with me.

Don’t allow your horse to run away from you more than twice in a row. When in doubt, put the halter and line back on and work on line. Just like in barrel racing, once the same problem has occurred on the barrel pattern twice, it’s at risk of becoming a habit. When your horse leaves you, even just a few seconds of comfort (the peace he experiences between the time he’s run away to the time you catch up to him) is enough to motivate him to do it again.

In this case, also consider moving to a smaller space where it’s not as easy for your horse to find comfort by leaving you. In a smaller round pen, for example, you can add some pressure or encourage your horse to keep moving then make the choice of connecting with you for relief. This emphasizes that the most comfortable place to be is with YOU. At the same time, be careful not to deliver too much discomfort when a horse leaves you (by vigorously chasing them away, for example), otherwise they may not want to consider connecting again. Connection is everything – they have to WANT TO!

These do’s and don’ts should give you a good head start for implementing and benefiting from liberty work in your own program.

There’s no doubt that Pistol was put in my life for a reason – which has and will continue to be to facilitate my personal growth – and YOURS!

I hope you’ll embrace your horses (even the challenging ones) with the same attitude, and that you’ll see them with new eyes, and achieve a new level of success as a result!

Let nothing hold you back in the new year.

As always, I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts or questions in the comments below.

Also enjoy these additional resources to elevate your liberty training – AND everything you do with horses!

8 replies
  1. Kim
    Kim says:

    Hi Heather – this has got to be one of THE Most Inspirational video and article so far, for me. The video as you’re working with Pistol (who is so Handsome), brought tears to my eyes. My mare, Kitty, will do this with me even though she’s the right brain horse. We’ve always had a connection. Nick on the other hand, my introvert thinks he’s all that and is way out of my league. He makes no bones about letting me know that too. He’s recovering from a stifle strain so we’re having to spend a lot of quality time together. He’s becoming more talkative and watches the house for me to come out the back door. I’m keeping this article and video for a reference tool in order to continue to develop a deeper, more permanent bond with each of my horses with the intention of developing more commitment from each of us that will translate into the barrel pen.
    Thanks Heather – Happy New Year.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Thanks so much Kim. I have certainly realized that Liberty will never exactly be Pistol’s “strength,” but taking him to an advanced level has certainly helped ME advance as a horseman. There is just no limit to the benefits of it. He’s more educated, we’re more connected, I understand him better, I know how to genuinely motivate him, my awareness, feel and timing has improves, etc. The list goes on! It’s amazing when I think of the perspective change I had from developing Dot Com and then Pistol – phew, what huge difference and a HUGE, valuable learning experience! 🙂

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    Wonderful article! So true about liberty and your horse. I am up for the challenge, but am at a standstill with my mare. She does everything on the ground I want, but we have not started riding yet. (think splat not bounce!) Do you have guidance for training a newbie horse? (as in not been ridden yet?)
    Please continue with the honest articles and wonderful training! You are AWESOME!

  3. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    Great article! I spent a lot of time with one of my horses and got her to a point of working at liberty, it was so much fun! And I plan on doing that with all the rest. I have one “band-aid” myself that I have never gotten rid of, but plan on working on this year….the saddle. When I ride bareback I worry so much about falling off that everything else falls apart. I know I have good balance and have spent a lot of time refining it in a lot of different events, but take my saddle away and I feel lose and wobbly!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Chrissy, there are definitely pros and cons to riding bareback. For example, I’m not able to have as good of timing and be as “sharp” which can make my already not-so-sensitive horse a little dull. And a person has to have pretty well-established balance just to stick with some other, more sensitive horses. You might think about a suede bareback pad to sort of bridge the gap and give you some security without the actual stirrups and seat which as you know, can just give us artificial security. Also, I plan to dive into the subject of rider development in the coming months – stay tuned!

  4. Cruzer
    Cruzer says:

    I loved this article! Thank you so much for writing it and sharing your story! Have you heard of the “join up” method? I was just wondering what your thoughts were of it? And if you had tried it? Thank you so much?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I believe the term “Join Up” was coined by Monty Roberts. I read a book of his years ago and I would imagine that some of the ideas and methods are similar. I have been working with horses at liberty for quite a while now, but PNH (Parelli Natural Horsemanship) has been a great resource and is one I recommend for diving deeper into liberty. Their liberty DVD pack is reasonably priced when you’re a member.


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