The “Lazy” Barrel Horse – How to Build a FIRE in Their Feet!


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Ask yourself this – what’s your default response like when faced with a challenge?

When it comes to problem solving (in any area of life), I’ve personally found changing my perspective to be highly effective.

Take my verrry laid back gelding, Pistol, for example…

On one hand, I appreciate his easy going tendencies. He’s confident, comfortable and content in nearly all situations, and I can haul all over the country without him becoming overly stressed, losing weight, etc. He handles the pressure of speed event competition like a champ.

Of course, I’d like to take a little credit for him being so solid, however I have to admit it has a lot to do with how he’s wired by nature.

Pistol as a youngster, relaxing with friends.
Pistol as a youngster, relaxing with friends.

It’s probably accurate to say that the majority of barrel racers don’t have a problem with “lazy” horses, but yet perhaps you’ve had moments when you’ve needed more electric energy and quickness from your horse.

There’s no doubt having a burst of energy available in the split second you need it most can dramatically affect your success!

It actually took me quite a while to effectively and authentically motivate Pistol.

You see, he’s not really “lazy.”

He was just unmotivated, in large part because I wasn’t very interesting.

How’s that for a change in perspective?

While horses like my husband’s gelding, Dot Com (who is Pistol’s polar opposite), are comforted by routine, and desperate for leadership, Pistol isn’t as insecure and he gets bored more easily.

Looking back on the times the perfectionist in me drilled Pistol over and over and over, I can imagine he was screaming on the inside – “What is the POINT of all this – I’d rather cut my suspensories with a hoof rasp than trot one more circle!”

Bless his heart. Although he didn’t show a lot of enthusiasm, Pistol never argued either. Perhaps if he’d been less tolerant, I would have gotten a clue sooner?

What I’m getting to, is that there are some super effective techniques for “building a fire” in a horse. Unfortunately however, the majority of the horse world neglects to consider the state of a horse’s MIND in addition to their body. That’s what I missed with Pistol for so long.

Below I’ve shared understandings and techniques for “building a fire in your horse’s feet” that a very small percentage of the horse population understands, but I’m here to tell you from experience – they WORK.

Although sometimes our horses need more refinement in their understanding of “go and whoa,” what an unmotivated horse needs is NOT what you might think…

Get the brain engaged and the body will follow.
Get the brain engaged and the body will follow.

What these horses really benefit from is a rider that challenges them MENTALLY – one that presents them with fascinating and riveting things to do (or WAYS of doing things) that get the wheels in their head turning FIRST, before expecting their physical wheels (feet) to move with quality, precision and speed.

It’s much the opposite effect of how we get through to a horse mentally (one that is distracted, can’t focus, etc.) by moving their feet first – which you may already be familiar with.

We simply turn that idea around to motivate the FEET and build genuine desire by “moving” the mind.

Do I have YOUR mental wheels turning yet?

You might wonder what this looks like, so here are some tips…

First off, I try to start my rides with Pistol by doing something fun and different that will keep him guessing, and capture his interest and attention.

Instead of leading him in from the pasture the same way each day, I might back him to the gate, or even ask him to trot in half circles in front of me as we make our way to the barn.

After saddling up, we might go for a short ride around the pasture first, which naturally motivates him since we’re getting out of the arena and into the wide open spaces. This alone frees him up immensely.

Think about it – would you rather jog repetitive small circles, or head out down an open road? How long would your motivation last in either case? Small circles in an arena “shorten” a horse, straight lines and wide open spaces “lengthen” or free up an unmotivated horse.

I also do my best to think of creative ways to give Pistol a purpose in the work he does. He LOVES working cattle because it’s an actual job that engages him mentally. Even riding to the end of the driveway to get the mail can be your purpose.

Happy and motivated with a JOB to do.
Happy and motivated with a JOB to do.

Last winter my husband and I worked several weekends in a row to cut down and clean up 12 large, dead trees in our pastures. Guess who was super enthusiastic about dragging the heavy logs all over the property to use for jumps and cavelettis?

Performing a “point to point” exercise where you go in straight lines to a certain point, then stop and rest actually has purpose to it as well – even if that purpose is to just go somewhere, arrive there and rest – that alone is motivating to a “lazy” horse.

I also like to challenge Pistol mentally by asking him to touch things with his nose or feet. We sometimes play a little game on the ground before we ride where I direct him to an object. When he touches the target I have in mind, I bring him back to me and give him a scratch, a rest or maybe a treat (“lazy” horses LOVE food!).

It gets him thinking, asking me questions and wanting to please me. If you could only see the priceless expression on his face when we do this!

Teaching tricks is another excellent way to challenge a horse mentally. Pistol gives hugs, kisses and bows – it’s just another way to mix things up and challenge him MENTALLY to build the “fire” I’ll want to have during my rides and runs.

It’s not that Pistol refuses or hesitates to go when I ask, but I was finding that he seemed to need regular tune-ups to keep him really responsive. These little exercises lessen the need for them. Sounds silly I know, but if you’ve ever had a hard time building and keeping the “fire & desire” burning in a certain horse, like me, you’ve probably been ready to try about anything!

Now I certainly don’t do ALL these things every day – that would get predictable, repetitive, borning, AND take a lot of time! The key is to mix it up and do the unexpected. Again, I don’t typically use these strategies with a horse like Dot Com, who has plenty of motivation to move his feet already, AND who is actually comforted by repetition and routine.

At the same time, always remember to “ride the horse that shows up” – which can change day to day (even if it’s the same horse)!

When you use these strategies you’ll tend to notice a subtle difference in your horse right away, and then you’ll continue noticing an increase in their motivation the more you do these things on a regular basis.

Everyone needs a PURPOSE in life.
Everyone needs a PURPOSE in life.

Just be careful you don’t allow the pendulum to swing too far the other direction – because that happened to me and before I knew it, my horse that always had more “whoa” than “go” had much more “go” than “whoa,” even without directly working on it.

Before I made this connection, I used to feel as though I had to give Pistol what my team roping husband calls a “nylon massage” pretty regularly. He would respond and GO, but his motivation wasn’t genuine, consistent, and lasting.

It was a little bit like starting over every day. There were always very subtle delays in his response times. Any chance to stand still would put him in a deep sleep. He would make assumptions and go through the motions rather than stay mentally engaged and truly connected to me and ready to do anything in an instant.

He always seemed willing, but under the surface he thinking resistant thoughts and not truly dialed in to me. Although he had the illusion of a perfectly obedient horse, I knew that those microscopic delays had to be eliminated, but I have been particular about HOW I went about it.

When it comes to balancing our “whoa and go,” both our horse’s education AND emotional state plays a BIG part. However, once a horse fully KNOWS and is capable of “whoaing and going,” yet still get off balance toward one extreme or the other, then we must take a deeper look at specifically WHY they don’t WANT to “go” or “whoa” and take intentional action for turning that around – which often takes us back to their MENTAL/EMOTIONAL state.

Fancy footwork (and SPEED) starts in a horse's MIND!
Fancy footwork (and SPEED) starts in a horse’s MIND!

Pistol has a high level of education and any lag time in his response was very subtle. By no means was I EVER kick, kick, kicking and not going anywhere. His hesitation was barely noticeable.

However, quality movement is crucial to training barrel horses and genuine impulsion is crucial to quality movement! As you know, in our sport there is NO room at the top for even the tiniest delays, and there’s no room at the very top for a horse who’s not putting his heart and soul into his job.

As you’re employing these techniques, also consider that the “fire” our horses display on the barrel pattern CAN have a lot to do with their feeding program, as well as degree of “fire” within the rider.

The bottom line is that I want Pistol (and ALL the horses I ride) to have plenty of connection, positive energy and LIFE in their body – it’s necessary for collection, high level barrel racing, and any athletic equine endeavor.

The difference is that now days I am more choosy about the SOURCE of that energy and HOW I go about creating it.

I want it to be generated out of DESIRE rather than AVOIDANCE (as in “OK, I’ll DO it to avoid another ‘nylon massage'”).

Although it may not be obvious to the untrained eye, there IS a difference, and it WILL separate the WINNERS (and happy horses) from the rest of the pack.

I hope these “outside the box” understandings and strategies will help YOU create the same TRUE enthusiasm in your horses, as they have for mine – and ultimately help you achieve “out of this world” RESULTS as well!

Now I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts and experiences with “lazy” horses in the comments below!

31 replies
  1. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    I love this. I just got a new barrel horse (Pria) and I was telling my family it just feels like she isn’t running like she should, she just isn’t trying. This makes so much since and I cant wait to work on new stuff with her 🙂
    Thank you!

  2. Kelsey
    Kelsey says:

    I recently got a 4 year old who is all cow horse, and while she is quick and very athletic she is exactly as you described your horse. I keep telling my husband she isn’t going to truly run the pattern for me until I have her wanting it. I quit working barrels and have since been riding the ditches and roads and am planning to start her tracking steers this week. This just gave me reassurance I was on the right track!
    Thank you

  3. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    My barrel horse is very, VERY lazy. But, when I’m doing barrels, or poles, or whatever event I’m doing, my horse is distracted and isn’t running to her full potential. She doesn’t pay attention to me and she doesn’t wait for my signal for turns. For example, on key hole, she turned too early and almost flung me off. I am going to use this advice and I’m 99% sure she will drastically improve.

  4. Lindi
    Lindi says:

    Last summer, I started riding my sister’s 14 yr old barrel horse. She sat out in the pasture for atleast 5 years. I have spend a lot of time getting her back into shape and these last few months have been pretty great, going to jackpots and playdays. She has no problem moving (she is probably more antsy than anything) but she doesn’t seem to have the WANT TO. Thank you for these tips! I am definitely going to start trying these things and see if I can get her heart back into it and maybe we can start becoming more in tune with each other. 🙂

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    This speaks to me. I especially like how you say they were subtle lag times. Until a good friend pointed out how lackluster Cool was responding, I hadn’t realized how we had lost that responsiveness. Now, to work on these…. Thanks!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Glad it was helpful Sarah. Those little split second delays are sure to show up on the pattern, and competition is just too darn tough these days for ANY delays. No matter how seemingly microscopic or insignificant they may seem, we need to be aware they exist then take action to dissolve them, preferably without creating resentment in our laid back horses – which is what this is ALL about. Have FUN with it!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Yes, try “pumping with your seat” through the turns. If you get more animated and add more life to your own body and really encourage her forward, as long as she is already correct in her form and reasonably tuned in to what your body is doing (most horses are naturally at least a little bit, but can be more so through training), then you should have some good results with this! 😉

  6. Kari Scott
    Kari Scott says:

    My horse conagher is very laid back!! And I always wanted to get a little fire under him but Bo matter what he always try’s for me !! I’m gonna use these tips thank you !!!!

  7. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    I love your advise! I live in Stephenville Texas and have 2 horses that are EXACTLY like Pistol and Dot Com, my mare is my laid back, easy going Cadillac and my gelding is the high strung “blown up” barrel horse,as soon as I put the saddle on him his head is up and you can see the whites of his eyes. I believe he has a lot of pent up anxiety from previous owners and he’s come an extremely looooong way since I’ve gotten him. I wish I had access to a pasture full of cows so I could take him and leisurely push some cattle with him but I don’t have such luck. Have you thought of putting on an open clinic at your place in Texas that some people (myself included would be there in a heartbeat) can come and work with you and learn one on one some of the exercises and information you provide too help us and our barrel horse better understand exactly what you mean? I, for one, read what you write and sometimes it clicks and sometimes I sit here kind of left wondering exactly what you meant and know that, for myself at least, would have it click if I could see what you’re talking about in person or have you show me on my own horses. If you ever thought of doing a clinic, whether at your personal home or somewhere within reasonable driving distance of everyone, I would LOVE to attend and get the one on one help I think would benefit me and my horses tremendously! Thank you for all your help and advise!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Would love to come ride, teach and do a clinic in Stephenville, Stefanie! In fact some special plans are in the works right now for 2016 (possibly sooner). Please add your email to the form I have on the Ride With Me page to stay in the loop and I’ll let you know when I’m ready to set one up – look forward to it! 😉

  8. Martha
    Martha says:

    I have a 6yr old mare that I raised, who is kinda lazy. Like you said she is slow to responding to pressure and my cues and when we are doing slow work, I think she falls asleep while walking around. I don’t use spurs, but am thinking about trying them. I do use the “nylon massage” sometimes. I’m going to try some of your ideas and see if I can get a little more fire in her. Thanks! (If you ever do a clinic up her in South Dakota, I would love to attend one.) 🙂

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Martha, I’m originally from ND and have some good “barrel buddies” in SD. Would be glad to do a clinic up there! I’m not against using spurs, in fact they are a good idea if used properly, but the goal is always (even with laid back horses) to not HAVE to use them. When we have refined their responsiveness we should be able to lay a leg on them like a feather and have them move/yield, etc. I also don’t use a lot of leg for go necessarily, more on that in “How to Use Body Language to Go and Whoa.” Have fun with these “fire building” concepts – they are POWERFUL! 🙂

  9. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    This came at a perfect time! I am just starting my 2 year old colt, and he is calm, and quiet – which I love…but I’m quickly finding that his quietness comes from an overall laziness and lack of work ethic. He’s still a baby, but do you have any advice how to inspire and instill energy in their feet as we are still progressing through the early stages of training? Tips,or drills that could be fun. I don’t want him dreading the boredom of arena work, yet we need that time to build a solid foundation. Thanks! Love your writing!!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Morgan, I think with a horse that young the focus should be on making sure they don’t get into a learned habit of having “sticky feet.” I would really focus on keeping them free and also put some extra focus on teaching him to respond appropriately to your body language to get up and go so that you never “run out of gas” as you go forward! Check out my “whoa and go” post for more on that. 😉

  10. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    This does help quite a bit! I can’t wait to try this with my horse. He’s 19 years old and has never acted like it. I’ve had so many people assume he was 8. Lately he just hasn’t been showing motivation like he used to and doesn’t want to pick up speed. I have felt like every time we go out to ride it’s a chore and all he wants to do is run to the gate so he can be done. I want to fix this problem and I also don’t want to bore him either

    • Joey Owens
      Joey Owens says:

      Maybe he is just getting old, I had the same problem with my old Barrel Horse. Turns out he was just getting old and didn’t have the energy and didn’t care anymore. Or he was trying but couldn’t get enough out of himself anymore.

  11. Joey Owens
    Joey Owens says:

    I have been barrel racing my whole life (I am 14) and never once has my horse ever shown that he wants to REALLY get moving when we are in the arena. Is there anything I can do to change that?

    Also, when we are running, it feels like he isn’t pushing at all, or even trying for that matter, what can I do?

  12. Yvonne
    Yvonne says:


    Thank you for the tips. I believe they are going to work. I have a horse like Pistol. And I thought he was lazy, although I was not entirely sure. Now I am going to look closer and try more, to motivate him mentally.

    In the Netherlands we don’t have barrel racing. But as you wrote, it’s always good to have a horse that loves his work. Whatever that may be.

    So, thanks again!


  13. Rachael
    Rachael says:

    This sounds identical to my horse, and his name is even Pistol! I hope this will help and am excited to try this. Do you have any advice for a horse that gets “stuck” on the backside of his turns?


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