Three Exercises for Relaxation on the Move

Three Exercises for Relaxation on the MoveExcessive tension will slow you down.

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If you receive the weekly email tips, then you may already know a little bit about the “rope horse rehab” journey I’ve been on with my husband’s gelding.

In a recent Q&A video titled Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quality Movement, I went in depth to explain the steps I was taking with Dot Com to get him calm, connected and responsive, instead of being a tense, high-headed, runaway waiting to happen.

As someone who is committed to never-ending self-development, I’ve been continuously refining my techniques, learning lessons and as a result – experiencing even more positive changes. In this article, I’d like to share three more exercises for “Relaxation on the Move,” including tips that will make it likely that you and your horses will benefit (and not make some of the mistakes I did).

First off, I’ll say that in the barrel racing world, it seems somewhat acceptable for horses to be “on the muscle,” and not just in that moment when they are mentally and physically gathering to fire to the first barrel, but in general. I think this way of being becomes acceptable because it’s so common, yet a lack of understanding exists when it comes to accepting this as a “typical behavior trait” of barrel horses.

Like I mentioned in the past Q&A, many horses that barrel racers think are “excited” are actually insecure, tense, anxious, fearful, etc. It’s NOT a fun way to feel, and that kind of consistent mental/emotional roller coaster can take a lot out of a horse (or human).

At the same time, it’s important to remember that a quiet horse is not necessarily a happy horse. Fortunately there is plenty we can do (or not do) to help our horses find some middle ground.

A whole new horse - showing a soft, curious expression.
A whole new horse – showing a soft, curious expression.

It became clear to me that the amazing athleticism that Dot Com has displayed as a performance horse was not inspired from a place of confidence and desire. This isn’t saying that this was done intentionally. Signs of insecurity can seem subtle and are often overlooked by even advanced riders. You can accomplish quite a bit in timed speed events with a horse operating in this way, but I’m convinced it doesn’t preserve the overall well-being and longevity of the horse.

I want to win as much as the next gal, but after all our horses give to us, I want to do everything I can to make their lives as performances horses as enjoyable and stress free as possible. The WAY I go about developing my barrel horses and competing with them is important to me.

My time with Dot Com is revealing his true nature, and although I was expecting positive changes, I wasn’t expecting the transformation to be so extreme – he’s truly like a whole new horse!

To achieve high level barrel racing success, we need to develop movements that are quick. These movement can come in two varieties – snappy movements where the horse is tense in their body, or snappy movements that are built on a foundation of relaxation.

Even though a horse contracts their muscles in the process of completing a high speed athletic maneuver like turning a barrel, when there isn’t a mental or physical brace in the mind/body – those maneuvers are not just smoother – they’re FASTER.

Dot Com has always been an awesome athlete, but if his performance was based more on relaxed confidence, rather than tense insecurity, he could perform better – with much less physical and mental wear and tear.

Like the old saying goes… “Horses can run faster and jump higher out of heart and desire.”

Tense is slow.Tense is awkward, clumsy and slow.
Relaxed is fast.Relaxed is balanced, athletic and quick.

In the process of exploring Dot Com’s issues, he would have moments of higher anxiety in certain environments. It’s tempting to just skim over those moments, as most people do, and consider them as just part of the game. Something told me though, that if I didn’t take the time (more time than I had anticipated) to work through his tension to the very core and establish a new, foundational capacity to relax, that in time, I’d just be banging my head against the trailer.

For example, achieving relaxation in a busy arena full of riders warming up was more of a challenge for him than at home. So many people get hung up on how their horses “are so different” in varying circumstances. This is because horses are contextual learners.

Just because you teach them something at home, doesn’t necessarily mean that 100% of what they learn will transfer over to other environments. We have to make a point of solidifying their education under distracting circumstances, or in Dot Com’s case, circumstances where behavior patterns have developed based on previous experiences.

I decided to “take the time it takes” and not only adjust our timeline and plans, but pretty much throw them out the window, and have been utilizing the exercises below as I go…


Ask for full-body bend on a circle.
Ask for full-body bend on a circle.

This exercise is excellent for taking tension out of the neck and ribs. It’s best performed at a trot and includes circles and/or bends of varying sizes in one direction, with straight steps in between and then circles/bend in the other direction. There’s no set pattern to follow, so feel free to use the space you have available. Keep in mind that the more “GO” your horse has, the more you’ll benefit from smaller circles and a more extreme degree of full body lateral bend.

Ask your horse for a forward trot, and then ask that they travel with their body shaped on a circle by lifting one rein high up in the air and forward. The bracier they are, the higher you’ll lift the rein. Look up slightly where you want to go and bend your midsection slightly at the “bra strap” area toward the inside of the circle (if you bend too much or bend at the waist, it encourages your horse to drop in). Think about riding and using your body in a way that you want your horse to use his. I prefer to weight my outside foot just a smidge to discourage leaning and create balanced movement.

As you start a circle, stay on it until you feel the ribs soften and shift to the outside, or your horse shows any sign of relaxation, such as yielding to the feel on the reins, lowering their head (even a little bit). Be sure to let the rein slide through your hands when/if they do (you don’t want to “hold” their head up high), then trot straight a few steps and start a circle the other way. If your horse responds well right away, there’s no need to keep circling – get the relaxation, go straight for a while, then bend in the other direction.

Get relaxation, go straight a few steps and start again.
Get relaxation, go straight a few steps and start again.

If you have a horse like Dot Com, who spent the better part of his ten years under saddle with his body inverted and tense, then when you get just one tiny sign of relaxation, stop completely to reward! I made the mistake early on of not rewarding Dot Com enough. We have to expect a lot, and accept a little.

Being a very driven, perfectionistic type person – I expected a lot, and then expected more. Moving with relaxation, even for a few steps was a HUGE deal for Dot Com. However initially, I didn’t make it obvious enough that that’s what I wanted. Now that I know better, I might stop and reward him for so much as sneezing/blowing out (which is a sign of releasing/relaxing), as if to say, “YES! That’s the right answer!”

A horse that is more laid back will appreciate rest breaks, but a sensitive horse with a lot of go appreciates the release of pressure they receive when you stop and take your focus off them.

If your focus is on riding barrel horses, or even if you ride colts, you might be overly comfortable with riding two handed. The other day I was asking Dot Com to follow the fence line in the pasture and it was my goal to only use one rein at a time. I was trying to do less with my “reins” so he would do more with his “brains,” as I was teaching him to respond better to my body language (for more on this subject, check out “How to Use Body Language to “Go & Whoa).

Relaxation deserves a rest reward!
Relaxation deserves a rest reward!

At one point I lifted my energy and asked him for an increase in gait, and at that moment I happened to fumble my rein, so my response time was a little late and within about two seconds we were flying up a hill at what seemed like 30 MPH. How interesting!?

This was very eye opening to say the lease. Not only did I realize how extreme his “default GO setting” was, but I was surprised by how much I had been micromanaging him with two reins, and how disconnected he was from my body language. One increase in gait, without a rein to check or stop him, and left to his own devices – we were running full speed almost instantly!

One of the horse’s responsibilities is to maintain gait – the energy in my body tells Dot Com how fast I want to go. It became even more clear that day, how much he struggled with that. Overusing the reins made the problem less obvious.

What I also realized was that Dot Com associates a rise in gait with a rise in emotions. Of course this isn’t uncommon, but if we want to take our barrel racing to the highest levels, it’s ideal for there to be a separation. This is one reason why some horses and riders struggled with handling the pressure that comes along with speed – they can’t speed up without their emotions getting out of control. Some horses can exit the arena, put their head down and walk out like a pleasure horse, those who get amped up and stay amped up, or start getting nervous well before they run, or just plain have a breakdown, are those that experience an emotional spike whenever there is also increase in speed.

So how does one create a separation? An ability to go fast, without our equine partner losing their mind? Appropriate leadership and our own degree of emotional fitness plays a huge part, but a simple technique for creating separation in this area is possible through repetitive transitions, A LOT of simple, repetitive transitions.

I like to throw transitions into my ride without being too predictable. For example, I may ask for a few minutes of transitions (walk, stop, lope, walk, trot, repeat, etc.) then go do something else, and include more transitions later. When you ask your horse for an increase in speed, and he gets wired, wait until you get a tiny improvement and go back down to a slower gait or do something else until they are completely calm and connected again. Only once they are, would you ask for another upward transition.

The more transition you do...The more transitions you do…
...the better they get!…the better they get!

The amount of speed you ask for, and how often you ask for it, depends on your horse. Asking for a lot of speed from a horse who has relatively no ability to separate the increase in speed with an increase in emotions, would only make the problem worse. Of course, it may take quite some time before you ask for a full gallop.

For Dot Com, it was a start for him to not get anxious and emotional when transitioning from a walk to a trot. So we transitioned back and forth, back and forth – A LOT (for weeks actually)! Eventually, he started to relax when transitioning upward and we progressed to transitioning to a lope and so on.

It’s important that you only advance when your horse is ready. Skimming over signs of tension and anxiety will only come back to haunt you down the road. If Dot Com couldn’t transition from a trot to a lope in a relaxed fashion, then asking him to gallop would only delay our progress.

It’s important that you don’t accept the constant, tense, anxious way of moving, behaving and being as “the norm.” Just because many other horses behave this way (even away from the pattern) doesn’t mean it’s what’s possible, or best – for your horse’s well-being, AND your chances of success.

When in doubt, keep repeating the transitions at a slower speeds, stay very relaxed in your body, encourage your horse to tune into your body language and hang in there! In time, he’ll realize that even quick, upward transitions are “ho-hum, boring and no big deal!”

Sometimes when we get stuck in a rut with our horses, we’re actually doing everything right – just not enough of it! A third exercise for creating relaxed, quality movement is one I call the “Long Haul.” It’s so simple, that it’s debatable on whether it can even be called an “exercise!”

When I think about the high headed, inverted, tense way Dot Com used to travel, it seems like a very energy-draining way to move. If we were to just keep trotting or loping much longer than either of us wanted to or were used to, eventually he would lower his head and start using his body more efficiently. I know it may seem like you’ve loped enough circles to make both you and your horse dizzy, but have you ever trotted along the arena rail for 20 minutes straight?

Of course, you’d want to build up to that based on your horse’s fitness level, but traveling with tension requires much more energy than moving in a more relaxed, efficient way. Once a horse realizes they are going to be going for a while, they begin to rate back, carry more of their weight on the hind quarters, lower their head and move in a way that conserves as much energy as possible.

This isn’t about “tiring them out,” it’s about creating a more efficient way of moving by making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. If you’ve ever put the first few rides on a colt, you know that the first time they pick up a lope, it’s kind of awkward. They aren’t accustomed to balancing a person on their back. Their movement may actually be awkward for quite a while, until they develop efficient movement patterns – they do that by simply trotting/loping A LOT under saddle with the weight of a rider. In time their movement is much smoother, and less erratic.

Starting out bracey...Starting out bracey…
...much more relaxed after only 5 minutes!…much more relaxed after only 5 minutes!

To start with you might trot for five minutes straight. Once your horse starts to move with better posture, allow them to transition down to a walk or stop for a break. While you don’t want to be “too wrong for too long,” at the same time be prepared to be in it for the “long haul” before they start moving differently. You’ll be amazed at how much smoother your horse’s gaits will become and how much better your riding will be!

“Relaxation on the Move” is an issue that needs to be looked at and addressed at two levels – we have to create new behavior patterns but it’s also important that we provide quality leadership to our horses so that they feel secure with us. Also keep in mind that getting a horse to look relaxed (by training then to respond to a “head down” cue, or using the reins or a tie down to hold them in an artificial position) might seem to achieve what you want on the surface, but it does not resolve the cause of the problem at it’s source, which is emotional.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far during this edition of “Extreme Makeover: Rope Horse Edition” is that we can do things that create an improvement, but you’re neglecting to reveal your horse’s greatest potential if you don’t get right down to the root of the issue and resolve it completely from a foundational stand point.

I realized that I had to be more realistic about what I was starting with. If your horse just started to develop a habit of moving in a tense fashion a month ago vs. 10 years ago, you’re going to get things reversed and see positive results much quicker. Initially I expected waaaaayyy too much from Dot Com and didn’t reward nearly enough. When you have standards that are too high, your horse will become frustrated and may even give up trying for you, when he feels like he’s not rewarded, or it’s not made very clear what you want.

The greatest reward is a happy horse!
The greatest reward is a happy horse!

Dot Com is a happier horse in general. The new way of moving, feeling and communicating has changed him on every level. This isn’t just my opinion, my husband reports these changes to me every day and even Dot Com’s equine massage therapist is amazed.

His expression is brighter, yet softer – he’s more inquisitive and interested in people. He’s playful and confident, yet grounded and relaxed at the same time, even when turned out with his pasture buddies. He’s no longer as withdrawn and actually trots to me when I go to halter him, as if to say “Pick me, pick me!” He’s gained weight, and he’s rounder over the top line.

It’s very rewarding to witness and be a part of such an extreme transformation. No matter how long it takes, I know that my time investment will pay off in the arena and in the form of improving Dot Com’s quality of life.

For a serious competitor who also genuinely loves horses – there’s nothing better!

Do you have any questions or comments on this article? If so, leave a comment below – I love hearing from you!

36 replies
  1. Sarah Luke
    Sarah Luke says:

    Thank you so much for this article. My current barrel horse has days that he is super tense. BTW, I love the new look to the website. Thank you Heather!!

  2. Casey
    Casey says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for all you great emails and articles. I feel they have helped me and my horse expecially the one, clocking or not clocking. The saddle fit information helped me run my fastest time so far. I resently tried your relaxing tips and found out I have some issues with my horse relaxing when doing his circles. He’s very relaxed when doing exercise #1 but he gets like dotcom in #2 when it comes to asking for a trot or lope. And he also flips his nose and jerks the rains out my hands. Thanks to your tips I know there’s some fundamentles we need to work on to make him more comfertable. Like dotcom he is an ex rope horse that has been pass around countless times and Im so lucky I have him in my life. And I’m looking forward to making him a happier horse thanks with your help.

  3. Banghart
    Banghart says:

    I am new to the barrel racing world and this article has helped a ton! It not only helped my horse relax but it made me relax and not feel so stressed as well. Thanks!

  4. jessica
    jessica says:

    Hi I am about to aquire a tb x stock horse mare that has gone on to win many barrel races but for the last 5 years has been in the paddock getting ridden every fortnight or so..
    I rode her for the first time today and she didn’t know how to walk it was all jig jogging head in the air sort of stuff.. now obviously she has been doing this her whole life and she gets very hot headed when at an event so I’ve been told so she’s always excited/anxious/tense/her ous all in one..
    Rodeos start march and she will be brought back into work around middle of january..
    Is that long enough to calm her down any?
    And what other tips should I be reading to help?
    Thank you so much for your time

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Jessica,
      I would focus on only doing things in a relaxed fashion for now without any competing/speed until you develop her ability to relax. It’s important to provide adequate leadership and that has a lot to do with making requests like moving their feet in all directions, etc. I do a lot of lateral bending and circles to help a horse that is tense relax, once she does show a sign of relaxation make sure you give her a really obvious reward, even go as far as to step off her for the day. When they have been that way for a long time, we have to really be obvious about what we want in order for them to learn. Here’s another article on relaxation that I think will be helpful…

  5. Jai
    Jai says:

    Hi, Thankyou so much for your awesome books and articles. The one above has been great to read. I have a similar horse and can finally start in the right direction to help him. One question, what are your thoughts on training him for one longer session a day or several smaller sessions a day? Thanks again, great advice!!

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Jai, thanks for the kind words, so glad you’re enjoying my articles and book! 🙂 I don’t typically work with a horse more than once a day, but more repetition is good for teaching them something as quickly as possible, just be sure to keep the sessions shorter and be really aware about when to stop/release/reward your horse for doing what you want! In the beginning stages if Dotcom lowered his head or showed ANY sign of relaxation, I’d step off and be done for the day. He is an extreme case who had a long history of moving with tension though, so I had to make this new way of being very appealing and easy for him to understand! 🙂 Hope that helps!

  6. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    I just got a new horse and he seems quite tense. I rode him yesterday and was pleased to read your article and know that I was doing things right, even down to ending up trotting some sircles and noticed that he lowered his head and I rewarded him. Thanks for building my confidence and in turn building my horses confidence.

  7. Sheryl Schweitzer
    Sheryl Schweitzer says:

    Love your tips. I read they every time they come up. This one was especially helpful as I have a mare that is having stress and emotional issues. Thanks.

  8. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I was relieved to read your article. I purchased a barrel horse last January and have fought the past year with evetthing about him. I’m at the point where I’m ready to give up and sell him. However I know he has potiential He pushes every button in every way. Started with catching him, loading… He us the one the will hide from us when the other horses are running up for goodies he is backing away. Makes me said and think he hates me. He’s even stand-off-ish when I want to pet him. Spooks from everything. Has a hard time disengaging, head held up high like a flag, roots through the bit. All amped up and hard to run the barrels, he doesn’t use his hindquarters just his front. … You know the story and he is picture perfect. My concern and question is why, how ??? I’m working on ground work, desensitizing… Trying different methods, ect. Do you have a book or video so I can get more great info?? I’m kinda at a loss. Tha k you for your time.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks for your comment Stacey! In a case like this you might consider working one on one with someone reputable, who has a lot of experience with colt starting and addressing issues like this using natural horsemanship methods. The key is getting down to all the little bits that make up the whole, and adressing them one by one before moving on. My book “Secrets to Barrel Racing Success” covers the relationship between you and horse horse and describes the leadership that we need to establish, and tips for doing so.
      Any time your horse is not calm, connected and responsive, stop there and address it as it comes up. Then REALLY reward when they do something as simple as taking a deep breath – to encourage them to relax…or give them a rest when they have focused on you or done what you wanted for only a few strides. His habits may be so firmly extablished that you may have to make it really obvious what you DO want. It’s a matter of breaking the old patterns and establishing new ones. I’d start with haltering – by getting him to face you and “hook on” first before passing go. Hope that helps!
      Here’s a link to a past Q&A that I think will be helpful – Six Secrets for Relaxed, Quailty Movement.

  9. Audrey B
    Audrey B says:

    Thank you SO much for this article! I am going to try these exercises on both of my rodeo horses. One is 14 years old and was passed down to me from my sister. We’ve had him since he was a yearling and he has always been high strung and tense. When I got him 4 years ago he had a hard mouth and horrible gate problems. Now he will walk in the gate really well and rides in a snaffle or hackamore, but he still get super hyper even just going on a trail ride! His head shoots up at the slightest contact or leg cue! My other horse is 8 years old and he will ONLY work off his hindquarters off the pattern…I haven’t been able to “apply” what he’s learned to the pattern. He also has rough gaits(he has good conformation though) so maybe he will learn to carry himself better and be smoother. Thanks again!

  10. Christine
    Christine says:

    I’m so excited to try some of this and really learn!! I’m blessed enough to be able to use a seasoned roping horse who has had training in all western events and I’m the one learning! I am figuring out how to read his body language and know when he’s tense it’s through me. I think these exercises will help me more and I want to right by him….. Some days he’s happy to see me and I walk right up to him to halter an other days its a 30 min battle. Also he uses his front end a lot instead of back end and I’m hoping these exercises will get us more in sync and flow better. We don’t have much speed but we’re clean almost every run on barrels and poles. I just wanted to say thank you for helping a beginner like me.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Thanks Christine and you’re sooo welcome! You’re so wise to start with one who can teach you as you go. I’m glad the article was helpful and I wish you and your new horse all the best!

  11. Theresa
    Theresa says:

    I absolutely loved this article. It was so informing and very nice to see you explain one of the biggest problems I see every time I go to a barrel race. I have been dealing with this type of horses all of my life. I am the kind of person that gets the horses that have been blown up mentally and physically. I love to work with these horses because in the end no matter how long it takes they always make the best horses

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      I agree Theresa, the horses that are sensitive mentally and emotionally I have found also tend to be sensitive physically, and more so at speed which means it’s easier to communicate with them in an instant – which is a great thing to have in a barrel horse!

  12. Nikki
    Nikki says:

    thank you so much for this article…I, too, am the kind that ends up with the blown-up horses that everyone else is scared of or tired of dealing with. I just recently aquired another one that will need to go back to the basics of relaxing (all anyone ever did with her was rope off her or run barrels) and like someone else, even going on a trail ride is stressful. She will run a great pattern, but I am more concerned about her OVERALL comfort and longeveity. My mother, who has ridden reiners her whole life, told me that you can tell by the mare’s face that all anyone has ever done is compete with her.
    Yesterday my entire lesson for her was to stand still, relax, and take a deep breath. It took us HALF AN HOUR!!
    I will definitely be using your techniques for this mare and when it’s time to start my 2 year old colt. Thank you! 🙂

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      That’s great Nikki, so fun to hear about your success! You’re so right, you can tell A LOT about a horse from their facial expression – it can totally change over time, I have seen it happen a lot. I have even seen horses with huge, grumpy looking eyebrows and tight, tense muzzles totally soften. You can see changes like this pretty quickly or over time – it’s so amazing to witness and be a part of that positive change. Sounds like you’re doing an awesome job – keep it up!

  13. Heather D
    Heather D says:

    Hi Heather,

    I was so excited to read the article on reacting or responding. I ran my futurity colt last year and he was doing great until he overreached and pulled his shoes off thus tripping and falling around the barrel. He was hurt for 3 months and when I brought him back he completely lost his mind. All winter I changed him going to the left and brought him back slow. He is completely sound in his body but not his mind. I even thought having someone else try him would help since I was with him in the fall. Nothing seems to help. He came to me as a scared 2 year old and it has taken me years to settle him down. Now I am back at the beginning. I have been working him around the barrels and then letting him rest at the barrels so that he can learn to be quite again. I am really excited for these new techniques. My young horse is amazing if I can just get his confidence and mind back. Thanks so much

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Wow, sounds like you’re on the right track Heather! Glad this has been helpful. Way to help your horse find “relief” AT the barrels – I’m sure that will really pay off – great job!

  14. karen
    karen says:

    Hi I’m new to barrel racing, I’ve done a few jack pots in the past year. And it seems the more I do the worse I become . Now my barrel horse is having gate issues and “I know its because of me I’m a complete stress case just before I run, so its hurting us during our run. What can I do to relax so my horse can relax. Thanks so much 🙂

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Karen,
      If you’re new to barrel racing and want to make sure you’re getting started on the right track, I recommend you get together with a reputable professional in your area for regular lessons and help. Also, I think you’ll enjoy my books as well!

  15. Dani
    Dani says:

    I have a 4yr old that is constantly on the muscle. From the time I get on to the time I get off he’s constantly trying to take off and if I’m riding with other horses he’s worse. He’s a very nervous horse too. He doesn’t spook as much as he did when we first started hauling him but he’s always very very nervous about everything. Is this him just being young or could it be more? Can bloodlines cause them to be like this? He’s very high bred and it’s all running lines. He gets nervous which in turn makes me nervous. I don’t know what to do.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Dani, your horse sounds pretty extroverted and unconfident. There is plenty we can do to help horses like this, and I do believe it takes more than just exposure and hauling (although that’s important too). My coaching spots are very limited right now, but I’d love to help you develop a very specific plan for success based on your horse’s needs! 😉

  16. Brooke
    Brooke says:

    Hi Heather,
    Thanks for this article it is exactly what me and me horse need to here right now. I actually did just purchase a german martingale, but will have totally different expectations of it after reading this article. When you started these small trotting circles with DC did you bring him back to a snaffle?
    My friend told me about your website and I’m loving it!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Brooke,
      So happy to have you here at – glad you’re enjoying the content I share!
      Snaffles are great for reestablishing basics and they are most appropriate for lateral bend, during the course of Dot Com’s “rope horse rehab” I rode him only in a snaffle. Bits are great for putting the final “icing on the cake” but I don’t rely on them as a tool for establishing foundational elements. 🙂

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