Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

Critical Concepts for Creating COLLECTION in the Barrel Horse

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #91 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
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If there’s one thing that has both bewildered and fascinated me over the years, it’s collection.

Most of us realize that there is much more to it than our horse’s headset.

However, for a long time (like most barrel racers), I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Lethargic, short strided movement with
Lethargic, short strided movement with “headset” is NOT collection.

Unfortunately, even those competitors who are quite accomplished are leaving money at the entry office by neglecting to fully understand, focus on and create true quality movement.

I’m fortunate that I got a taste of the difference it can make on the barrel pattern early on.

This has motivated me to continue studying, learning, practicing and experimenting – ALL with a desire to create movement that was more balanced and powerful, and therefore FASTER.

Even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time learning how to create authentic collection, I feel like I floundered around quite a bit before things started really coming together.

I know I’m not the only one, so below I’ve shared some theory to clarify this murky, and often misunderstood concept, as well as some tips for creating it for yourself, which I’m confident will benefit your runs – in more ways than one!
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Powerful Insights on Becoming a Horse(wo)man, Part III

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.

Below I’ve continued with the final part in my Becoming a Horse(wo)man Series

One of the most important things I learned as we worked toward our goals at liberty, was if I did something to destroy Dot Com’s interest in sticking around, I had nothing. It was obvious when it happened (even to the neighbors), due to the 1,100 lb. white streak flying across the pasture – whoops!

We tried not to practice that habit.

When working in a round pen, a horse that loses connection will tend to look to the outside of the circle – a sign that they are checked out mentally, and wishing they were somewhere else.

An extremely distracted horse at liberty isn’t quite ready to be turned loose, but would benefit from developing more positive habits online first. No matter where I work my horses, or what tools I happen to be using, I want to develop them in a way that encourages them to choose to focus on me, despite any environmental distractions.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with Dot Com was squashing his genuine desire to be with me by applying too much pressure, and expecting too much, for too long. At liberty, that desire to connect is like GOLD, and I wasn’t doing enough to preserve it.

As intense as the horse’s attention span must be at liberty, you can imagine it’s easy to burn a horse out quickly. Shorter sessions, with plenty of releases and relaxation time in between the more intense lessons, was what it took to keep Dot Com interested in the conversation – a lesson that no doubt applies under saddle as well.

The tricky part, was that a sensitive horse like Dot Com can actually check out mentally without ever leaving physically. They can even check out while working online or when ridden, without running into and putting any pressure on the rope or reins.

I learned how to recognize the truth of how he was feeling through reading his expression. I learned not to barge through the worried ears, or his blank, hard, empty stare, and how to reward and recognize the soft eye and relaxed muzzle as my green light to proceed.

The horse’s body language and expression will provide a map telling you which way to go, but only if you pay attention, realize its importance, and learn how to read it.

When he did choose to leave me, it was always a sign that I needed to slow down, get back online, or work in a smaller space to rebuild the connection that was lost.

Horses learn bad habits so quickly. One of the major sources of problems in the barrel racing world comes when a horse has learned he can successfully push through pressure.

Heather and Dot Com at Liberty

What gets rewarded, gets repeated. By running away, Dot Com was finding a few moments of peace by avoiding me. We’d all be better barrel racers if we were more careful not to allow any undesirable behavior repeat itself. We must look at what happened, before what happened, happened to cause it in the first place – and make any necessary adjustments immediately.

Like Molly Powell says, “Horses learn bad habits because they can.”

So often we don’t realize that our horses are running away mentally. Thanks to my time with Dot Com, I’m more aware of what that looks like and how I can prevent it, both on the ground and under saddle.

Again, this is where becoming a true horseman comes in. The lesson here is to always be thinking about how you can do more with less, yet always have a safety net, so that you don’t set your horse up to fail before he’s thoroughly prepared. There are usually many signs that our horse is a goner before the really obvious signs come up, but we have to be horseman enough to notice them, and take appropriate action.

An important lesson Dot Com learned was how to come toward pressure. With such a small tolerance for pressure of any sort, by default Dot Com would react rather than respond. With time, he learned to tip his nose, and with positive flexion through his body, come in to me when I directed the tiniest amount of pressure toward his hindquarters, even at a distance, and with speed.

He even learned to walk backwards and sideways toward me when I applied rhythmic pressure from a distance – another huge accomplishment for a horse whose automatic response was “when in doubt, LEAVE (fast)!” Finally, he was thinking, he was learning to respond, yield toward and away from pressure, and not make reactive, rash assumptions.

What makes working at liberty so challenging is that not only are you working with a horse with no actual physical connection, but at advanced levels you begin to communicate at greater distances and in bigger spaces. A horse that blows you off at speed under saddle, isn’t much different than one who blows you off at a distance on the ground. One of the building blocks to liberty at distance, was working online at a distance.

If Dot Com ignored my request to draw to me or drive away, move sideways, backward, move his body parts around or go up or down in gait from the end of a 45’ line, then chances of it happening from 20’ at liberty were slim. I developed all these things to a very high degree online first – which is no different from how we must develop our barrel horses well going slow, if their education and responsiveness is to hold up going fast.

Of course we did add speed to our liberty work as well, which was part of achieving our goal of performing flying lead changes. Although I used the delicate, low wall of a round pen built with unelectrified tape as a support, flying lead changes meant that I would need to rev him up while maintaining a high, even level of drive, draw AND general responsiveness. For a horse that tends to get emotional as speed increases, it was no small feat.

In fact, when I quickly stepped backward to draw him toward me at speed, he would often quickly turn away from me. The intensity of the request was just more than he could handle initially. Turning away was his form of avoidance, much like an ostrich putting his head in the sand – “Can’t do it, too much pressure!”

Helping him through this meant brushing up the individual ingredients for the maneuver, as well as plenty of building up and slowing down, building up and slowing down, in order to close the gap between speed and relaxation – no different than what we must do with our barrel horses. I also lavishly rewarded him when he did turn and come toward me, which simply consisted of a good rest – free of any and all pressure.

As we progressed, he became more and more confident about placing his feet. He learned how to position his body appropriately for the lead changes and was responding to me lighting fast without zoning me out, breaking gait or breaking the connection. It’s not just speed that causes horses to be emotional, it’s the pressure of having to arrange their feet very precisely under our direction.

After all, surrendering control of their feet goes against all their instincts. Don’t ever take a horse’s complete willingness for you to guide their feet, especially at speed, for granted. The greatest compliment they can give you – is their trust!

For a horse like Dot Com who is not very confident by nature, it’s no wonder that precisely placing his feet in the roping box, combined with the emotional anticipation of high pressure and speed, created anxiety. I’m certain that by developing calm, quick responsiveness at liberty, that we are a huge step ahead in creating it when my husband can offer him even more guidance and support under saddle.

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 posts below:

Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs

Four Ways to Solve Problems on the Barrel Pattern with Quality Counter Arcs

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #89 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, TuneIn or Spotify.

A few years ago I was having trouble with my gelding anticipating the second barrel and cutting in too closely – a common problem in the barrel racing world.

It’s even more common on the second barrel where we have the shortest distance between barrels and run straight toward a wall or fence, which definitely plays a role in our horses getting short and anticipating that turn even more.

Focusing ahead and actively riding him further in the hole helped, but I really wanted to do something to lessen his desire to drop in to begin with.

We weren’t tipping a lot of barrels YET, but I knew the issue had the potential to develop into a more major problem if I didn’t address it.

So, I employed the help of the good ol’ barrel racing standby – the counter arc.

You can imagine my surprise a few weeks later, when I tested our progress in competition. I was hustling him across the pen, and when I offered some subtle rein contact to round the second barrel, my gelding stiffened up like he had rigor mortis!

He felt like he’d swallowed a 2×4.

My almost over-bendy, soft and supple barrel horse was literally stiffer than a board in that turn – I had never felt anything quite that extreme, or that awful.

I was so shocked and confused. But after quickly flipping through my mental rolodex, there was only one thing I could attribute the change to – Read more

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 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

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #204 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

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?”

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Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Fast Turns – Part II

Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Fast Turns - Part II

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #49 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

Have you ever heard of “recycled information?” It’s just as good as new!

Who would have guessed something so simple could be so complicated (and important)? Or that it would take years of hearing the same information and already knowing how important the “perfect circle” was, before it would REALLY sink in?

It wasn’t until I heard the importance of the perfect circle stressed over and over and over by about a half dozen NFR barrel racers that I REALLY understood just how important they were – AND that my circles weren’t so perfect after all.

We can perform barrel racing drills and barrel racing exercises until the cows come home, but if there are problems in the WAY we’re executing them (poor quality circles for example), then we aren’t positioning ourselves to receive near as much benefit (or results).

Unless you’re willing to open your mind and consider that even if you’ve been riding and racing your whole life – that your circles could still stand some improvement, well then you’re quite possibly limiting your barrel racing success. exists to remove roadblocks standing in your way, which is why we explored the first four of nine steps to create quality circles and quick turns in the first post in this two part series.

In case you missed it, click here to check out Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I.

There, I shared tips for spot checking and refining these four aspects of the perfect circle:

1. Connection
2. Freedom
3. Education
4. Footfall

This week, we’ll explore the remaining five to make sure that THE most important foundational element of a barrel racing run is not just “good enough,” but EXCELLENT, which will ultimately lead to turns that are more fluid, correct and FAST!
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Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I

Stop the Clock Sooner with Nine Tips for Quality Circles & Quick Turns – Part I

Listen to this article in audio form! It’s #48 on the Barrel Racing Tips podcast.
For the latest episodes subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or Google Play.

In this month’s barrel racing article we’re going to start going DEEP, really deep into what makes a perfect circle – which is the most foundational and important element of an efficient run.

We’ll actually start with WHY it’s so critical that we focus on circles, as well as include action steps for how you can spot check and improve them, which will ultimately lead to faster turns. Basically, we’ll cover the “how, what, where and why” of perfect circles (not necessarily in that order).

Quality circles equal fast turns!
Quality circles equal fast turns!

Instead of making you dizzy, we’re going to focus on quality instead of quantity. After all, if you’re not sure your circles are correct, you just may end up getting really good at performing them incorrectly. When it comes to barrel horse training, that’s definitely NOT what we want!

In the process, you may find that circles are even more complicated than you thought. However, with the insight gained you’ll be armed with new awareness and skills that you can apply ASAP to strengthen this foundational ingredient of any successful barrel racing run.

To start it’s important to be reminded that any high level athletic maneuver is built upon a foundation of excellent basics. I don’t mean basic, basics – I mean EXCELLENT basics. I’d venture to say that the majority of barrel racers dramatically overlook and under-appreciate the importance of achieving excellence starting with the most elementary skills and maneuvers.

I can’t stress enough that I don’t mean “good basics,” but “excellent basics!”

If you’re not winning every barrel race, or if you’re not just thrilled with every performance you make (or even if you are), then there is probably room for growth somewhere. 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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