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Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)man, Part II

The Naked Truth - Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)man

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #83 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, TuneIn or Spotify.


In 2013 I turned my barrel horse gelding out, and turned my husband’s rope horse “loose.”

In Part II of my three-part Becoming a Horse(wo)man Series below, I’ve shared what that meant, and what it continues to mean in my own life and that of every horse I touch!

When I say I “turned him loose,” I mean that I focused on developing him at liberty.

Now before you go scratching your head, know that what may appear to have nothing to do with barrel racing, just might have EVERYTHING to do with barrel racing, and anything we could possibly dream of doing with horses.

To be “at liberty,” essentially means that the horse is at liberty to leave at any time – with no reins, lines or tack to stop them. As it turned out, this was a challenging area for both of us. In fact, I was having serious doubts just before one major breakthrough resulted in finally mastering flying lead changes – the epitome of my goals for us.

I will say that working at liberty and even riding bridleless had always intrigued me. I’ve always felt as though doing so really spoke for the horse/rider relationship.

Having enjoyed working colts free in the round pen, I was naturally drawn to learning more (and admittedly a little over-confident). Accomplishing my goals with Dot Com at liberty ended up being one of the most challenging (and rewarding) things he OR I could ever do.

“Every positive change–every jump to a higher level of energy and awareness–involves a rite of passage. Each time to ascend to a higher rung on the ladder of personal evolution, we must go through a period of discomfort, of initiation. I have never found an exception.” – Dan Millman

As a finished pro-level head horse, Dot Com came to us in need of some mental/emotional balancing. Even as a reserve world champion team roper with very quiet hands and great concern for his equine partners, my husband struggled with him in the box. However, our intention was not to just “get by,” but really acknowledge his issues for what they were – and completely work through them.

If you’ve been following BarrelRacingTips.com for a while, you may already be familiar with Dot Com’s impulsion and anxiety issues, as they have been the subject of several articles on creating relaxation and quality movement.

In this article, I’m excited to share more about what’s involved with working at liberty, why it’s beneficial to both horse and rider, as well as details about my humbling mistakes, our victories, and what we learned along the way.

Understanding the benefits and purpose of working at liberty starts with understanding that horses very naturally seek connection. In nature, their survival depends on it. A herd of horses behave similarly to a school of fish – there is comfort and safety in groups. To mirror the feelings and actions of their herd members is part of how horses are wired. When they aren’t feeling threatened, it’s very natural for them to show interest in connecting with humans.

Heather and Dot Com at Liberty

Horses communicate with each other through body language – we can learn to read them and communicate better with them (even in the saddle) by paying close attention to how they position their bodies, right down to the intricacies of their facial expressions. The better we learn to “speak horse,” the better we’ll be able to do EVERYTHING with horses – including (and especially) barrel racing!

One of the most natural ways to “speak their language” and communicate with them is on the ground – just as another horse would. It’s a great place to build and refine the foundation that carries over under saddle.

My intention for developing Dot Com at liberty was not only to deepen my own horsemanship skills. I also figured that if I could create calm connection and responsiveness without any lines, ropes, reins or tack in a wide open pasture, then perhaps it would help him in becoming more mentally centered in general – especially when we did have the support of such tools. In addition, I firmly believe that any type of cross training is beneficial to the speed event horse, but especially one like Dot Com.

Before I go much further, in order to bust any potential misconceptions, I’ll say that when it comes to liberty (or anything we do with our horses), that there is a difference between operating with feel and having your horse just respond to a cue. In all reality, we really need both. Without feel, you have a trick horse – a horse that may be able to do some neat looking, fancy stuff, however without a true connection there will always be something lacking.

For example, there is likely to be a slight delay in response at times, or a horse might start offering what he’s been trained to do, whether he’s really been asked for that or not – in other words, take over. If you have feel, but no education, a horse won’t really build up the movement patterns and physical and mental conditioning to perform certain maneuvers with complete confidence, power, ease and athleticism.

One reason why I’m not automatically impressed with any ol’ demonstration of bridleless riding or liberty is that a lot of it portrays an illusion of feel. It’s possible to have a “circus horse” operate and respond with FEEL, and a highly developed western performance “trick horse” that doesn’t.

It’s easier and more common than you might expect, even for barrel racers, to fall toward the “trick horse” extreme. When we do this, we’re barking orders at our horses more so than having a two way conversation. There is so much more to horse training, than “horse training!” It’s not so much WHAT we’re doing with our horse, but HOW.

When playing at liberty with feel for example, it’s possible for me to draw my horse to me, or drive my horse away from me quickly and smoothly in a split second just by changing the energy in my body and leaning my torso forward or back – which is not a trick, but a horse that’s been developed to respond to me via feel. (I want my horse’s to respond when I raise or lower the life in my body while in the saddle also.)

It can all look very similar, and there can be a fine line between the two at times, but with feel, you have a horse that is connected to you and willing and able to move anywhere you ask, at any time because you’re engaging in a real-time two conversation, you’ve built a language rather than having a mechanically “trained” horse waiting for a certain cue. With feel, there is greater opportunity for harmony and unity, with harmony and unity there is greater opportunity for precision at speed.

In a sense, horses are born knowing how to communicate like this but unfortunately, a lot of people inadvertently teach a horse NOT to “Feel of, feel for, and feel together.” – Ray Hunt

To learn more about my journey with Dot Com toward higher level horsemanship visit:

Would you like to build more connection with your barrel horse?

If so, you’ll enjoy the articles below:

Train Like an Athlete – WIN Like a Champion! Fitness Tips from the Top 15

Train Like an Athlete - WIN Like a Champion!  Fitness Tips from the Top 15

In today’s video (filmed live at the NFR!), I’ve shared a summary of tips the top 15 barrel racers offered when asked “How do you stay physically and mentally fit with all the difficulties of rodeo life?

There were definitely some common threads in their answers, however I felt as though Shada and Sydni’s every word on this topic were also worth sharing in print…

SHADA BRAZILE: “Physically, I have pretty much been adapted to the rodeo lifestyle. I run every chance I get, I run bleachers. We spend a lot of emphasis on horses physical condition and it’s equally important for us to be in shape, and have a strong core to ride them the way we need to.

As far as mentally I thought I understood the mental pressure of competing watching Trevor, there are so many ups and downs I really didn’t understand how to compete when you had to win. I really don’t think you can understand it until you have been there. What really helps me is to go to the arena before I run and envision my run.”

SYDNI BLANCHARD: “I stay gluten free, which allows me to cut out wheat, barley and rye and allows me to eat more meat, vegetables and fruit. Physically, I work out every day; we have a gym at the home and I try and keep the same schedule on the road which gets hard.

I make sure I do cardio every day, so I will either run stairs or run the bleachers at rodeos or I have a jump rope that I keep in my tack compartment, so every time I open my tack I will jump rope real quick.

Just things like that you have to do, it’s hard, you are an athlete and you have to treat your body like you are one. You just have to ask yourself, how bad do you want it?”

Read more

Principles for Performance – Horsemanship and Barrel Racing without Limits!

Principles for Performance – Horsemanship and Barrel Racing without Limits!

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #82 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, TuneIn or Spotify.


In my mind, there isn’t a group of equestrian disciplines that the principles of natural horsemanship apply to better, than those of timed-speed events. They are THE ultimate test of horse and rider!

When a person really dives into, studies and understands these principles, deciding to put the ideas into practice becomes a no brainer. While nothing we do with horses is technically ‘natural,’ it just makes sense to work with their instincts vs. against them if we want to train and compete with these animals as harmoniously as possible.

What natural horsemanship offers, is an opportunity to learn and develop ourselves – both what we must understand in a mental sense, and the habits we must acquire physically, so we can really understand, and then optimize our horses.

When we’re able to bring out their best potential in this way, we’re essentially putting the odds more in our favor to be successful in competition!

Matthew Bohman.

We must do our part to inspire the horse to stay with us mentally and physically, take responsibility for moving with quality without being micromanaged, and even responsibility for managing their own emotions (at high speeds and under the stress of hauling and competition, no less).

Sound too good to be true? It’s not!

Horsemanship instructor and clinician, Matthew Bohman helped a handful of students and I do just that. Although I stepped in as a part-time teacher at the Principles for Performance clinic, my dedication to never-ending self-development had me also playing the role of student.

In this article, I’ll be sharing five of my personal takeaways from the event, in hopes that you might learn or benefit from the insights, until YOU have an opportunity to ride with Matthew and/or I yourself! Read more

How to Start Your Rides and Runs Right!

Start and Finish Your Turns Tight & Right

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #44 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.


You may already be well aware of how important the start of any barrel racing run is.

When I interviewed World Champion barrel racer, Mary Walker she explained that the reason for her tipped second barrel in the fourth round of the 2012 National Finals Rodeo was a positioning issue – in the alley.

You read right. She felt as though Latte tipped the SECOND barrel, because of a positioning problem in the alley.

But what if your success in a run, or a ride, started EVEN before that. What IF it started before you even laid eyes on your horse?

In the height of the competitive barrel racing season especially, I know that if I’m not very intentional and specific about planning my rides in advance, I’m less likely to stay on track.

Sometimes, when the busyness of life gets the best of us, planning might take place after we’re already on the way to the barn, but rarely do I throw a leg over my horse without first giving thought to my intentions for each ride and what I am aiming to achieve in the long run.

Your ride starts well before you lay eyes on your horse.
Your ride starts well before you lay eyes on your horse.

At the same time, if we become too strict with our plans, we risk getting out of touch with how our horses feel and what they need in the moment.

This is so critically important, because let’s face it – than can change from one day or one minute to the next!  We may find that we need to focus on something entirely different than what we planned on.  In these cases, it’s best to be flexible and allow our horses to guide us.

Once you’ve made some notes (even mental notes) of your intentions for your ride, your second opportunity to set yourself up for success comes when you set foot toward your horse to halter him.  Notice I said “halter,” and not “catch” (there is a BIG difference)! Think of it this way – you want to “catch” your horse’s ATTENTION, then halter your horse.
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Fit Rider Interview with Barrel Racer and Author, Heather Smith

Fit Rider Interview with Barrel Racer and Best Selling Author, Heather Smith

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #37 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.


The interview below was featured in the Success in the Saddle Fit Rider Newsletter.
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What prompted you to increase your fitness?
I’ve always been interested in fitness and nutrition but in the past few years I’d started learning more about how our riding can benefit from gaining core strength and how stability and balance in the saddle can be increased through specific exercise out of the saddle.

Being a dedicated student of horsemanship for many years has taught me that horses really are our mirrors. The way a horse behaves, moves and performs is often a reflection of their rider.

Heather & Pistol

I don’t think it’s fair to ask our horses to have a level of fitness that we’re not willing to achieve ourselves. So expecting them to give us their best in competition is a matter of giving them our best every day as well.

What is your fitness routine?
I’m not a person who’s ever been obsessive about exercising, but I am committed to maintaining my general health and have noticed differences in how I think and feel when I make movement a priority. Read more

Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement

Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement

Just like humans, horses are born with naturally occurring tendencies, characteristics and personality traits.

Some tend to be more high strung, some tend to be laid back, some are more naturally confident, some are more fearful.

What many riders don’t realize though, is that there is a TON we can do to help our horses achieve balance. When we do this, we’re likely to experience the benefits both in the barrel racing arena and in our horse’s over all physical and mental well-being.

Because I love horses so much, I feel a great personal responsibility to instill in them the education and emotional fitness necessary to successfully handle the challenges that come along with life as performance horses.

Quality movement helps reveal your horse's greatest potential!
Quality movement helps reveal your horse’s greatest potential!

Most barrel racers will deal with some tension or an over abundance of “go” in a horse at one point or another. It’s often a byproduct of the speed that’s required in our sport. Speed releases adrenaline, it creates anticipation, and unlike other slower paced equine sports, speed adds even more pressure to the competition environment.

Some horses who are confident and have been carefully developed, may genuinely experience excitement in anticipation of running, but often, what WE would like to perceive as “excitement” is actually worry, impulsiveness, anxiety, tension and fear.

Whatever labels we assign to their behavior, it’s important that our horses remain connected and responsive to us, and that we do our best to keep their association with the barrels as positive as possible.
Read more

When Things Go South with NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell

Post Title

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #17 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes, subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Play.


In 1995, Molly Powell decided to leave behind the cold weather, hard ground and few & far between barrel races in her home state of Montana and head south to Texas. She immersed herself, not only in studies at Vernon College but also in an environment that would be more conducive to her career as a professional barrel racer. As a 10-time NFR qualifier, you could say that the transition proved to be a good one.

10x NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell
10X NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell

Sometimes, however, things “go south” with our barrel horses and when they do, it’s NOT a good thing. When this happens, we distance ourselves from achieving barrel racing success at any level. Many barrel racers sense when something doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps their horse is out of position, they may feel stiff, or lean to the inside. A horse might be extremely hot or nervous, or unresponsive to what the rider is asking. Riders may recognize these road blocks, an even have a clear idea of what they do want, but the challenge often comes in knowing exactly how to get it.

As humans, most of us are direct-line thinkers. We are wired to just keep trying until we reach our desired result. Barrel racers especially, are a determined crowd – we’re taught to practice perfect, to persist and persevere, to never give up! This way of operating creates a potential problem, however, when it comes to training barrel horses. If things are “going south,” and if we keeping doing more of the same, our horses – who are very sensitive to patterns and learn easily through repetition, become much more likely to repeat those undesirable ways of being.

At a recent clinic in Lander, Wyoming, Molly demonstrated that when we find ourselves in one of these ruts, we must find a way out – and quick! It doesn’t always matter if you don’t know exactly what to do, or where to go, as long as you do something – anything different, to break the cycle. You could refer to this policy as “rut prevention.”

During the clinic, one mare was too nervous and anxious to use her body properly and focus on the task at hand, which was performing Molly’s smaller circle exercise at a forward, even, but relaxed pace. Read more

How & Why “Buck, the Film” Relates to Barrel Racing

How & Why “Buck, the Film” Relates to Barrel Racing
The early years in Wyoming – fortunate to be influenced by Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman.

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #16 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Play.


I’ve often said – “There’s a lot more to barrel racing, than barrel racing.” 

This understanding is a big part of why I chose to offer a copy of the award winning documentary movie, “Buck, the Film” to those who purchased the Secrets to Barrel Racing Success Pay it Forward Package during the book’s initial launch.

If you don’t get the “a lot more” part, your barrel racing will always be lacking.  That’s where Buck Brannaman comes in.  An early protégé of the legendary late horsemen, Ray Hunt and the Dorrance Brothers, Brannaman has dedicated his life to “helping horses with people problems.”

After having called Wyoming home for nearly 15 years, I’ve jumped at opportunities to be in the presence of these legendary horsemen and learn from them in person. I chose to offer the DVD as a free gift, because it brilliantly displays a message, actually many messages, that have been instrumental in my barrel racing success. In this article, I wanted to share more about how and why, these horsemen and this movie, have shaped my horsemanship and barrel racing path.

If you follow “Buck, the Film” on Facebook, you’ll see they regularly post images with quotes.  One of my recent favorites was this…

“My daughter’s all grown up now compared to what she was, but I used to say, I’ve got to have my horse to where if she’s leading my horse somewhere, and she’s got a big armload of Barbies and drops something out of her hand, that son of a buck ought to stop and respect her while she’s gathering up all her dolls and not to walk on her or take advantage of her. And if I’ve done my work right, by gosh, that’s what they’ll do.” – Buck Brannaman

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