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If you receive the BarrelRacingTips.com 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.
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.”
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…
#1 SNAKEY SERPENTINES
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.
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.
#2 TREMENDOUS TRANSITIONS
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).
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 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!”
#3 THE LONG HAUL
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.
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.
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!