Three Steps to Being Your Own (Part-time) Barrel Horse Bodyworker

Three Steps to Being Your Own (Part-time) Barrel Horse Bodyworker

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You already know it’s more than a full-time job being a barrel racer – it’s MULTIPLE full-time jobs! Including, but not limited to – stall cleaner, nutritionist, truck driver, scheduler, horse trainer, equine behaviorist, Vet., massage therapist, and the list goes on!

When you’re (understandably) feeling spread thin, it’s hard to find motivation to go deeper in a certain area without risk of neglecting others. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing why it’s so critical that we take our understanding of how our horse’s bodies work, and how we can best support them, to the next level.

Even if we would prefer to leave all the health and therapy mumbo jumbo to the professional equine bodyworkers or Vets., investing in our own education and skills is a great way to take what’s good and make it even better.

Below I’ve outlined a critical prerequisite, plus the areas that most deserve our time and attention (with links to resources), AND how to fit it all in amongst all the other demands of barrel racing!

Harmless swelling or a serious injury?
Harmless swelling or a serious injury?

Let’s start by considering specifically WHY we should go to the trouble to start with.

When we empower ourselves with education, we can become better advocates for our horses. When YOU – the person who knows your horses best as individuals, also knows A LOT about the internal workings of their bodies, then you’ve amplified your power to support their longevity, soundness, health and performance.

For example, we can know whether our horse has a little fluid in his tendon sheath vs. a possible tear, and whether he needs extra therapy to support him through his runs for the weekend or whether we should draw out, avoid risking a serious injury and schedule an ultrasound for Monday morning.

When we do need professional assistance, we’re better able to sort out who really are the very best Vets, or who is the most educated and effective bodyworker, regardless of who’s popular (because they are not always one in the same).

And of course we not only save money, but of course as another added bonus – when our horses are feeling good, they’re more likely to work and CLOCK well!

If you’d like to dig deeper and reach further in this area and ultimately run faster and climb higher on your personal ladder of barrel racing success, it all starts with:

#1. CARE
One of my mentors says “Horses don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

All the knowledge in the world isn’t going to serve our horse’s health and our barrel racing dreams if we don’t truly value their well-being. Even with access to the most expensive and powerful therapy options, a horse that isn’t appreciated or valued is less likely to hold together than one that is truly cherished.

Never forget WHY you started barrel racing.
Never forget WHY you started barrel racing.

Are you taking care OF your horses, or caring FOR them? There’s a difference!

I think we all got started with barrel racing because we loved horses, but it’s not uncommon for our motives to get skewed. Unfortunately when this happens, horses pay the price. At the same time, with a lot care and only a little knowledge, folks can literally love their horses to death. There has to be balance.

What it comes down to is that taking responsibility for more closely overseeing your horse’s physical health and therapy isn’t as likely to be as successful if we don’t genuinely love them first – otherwise no matter how good our initial intentions are, there’s not going to be much motivation and consistent follow-through.

I certainly don’t just walk around CRAVING to massage horses, but I do it because I feel it’s part of what a healthy, successful barrel horse needs to be at their best. I don’t study anatomy for FUN, but I embrace it as an integral part of the bigger picture.

I choose to do things that aren’t always easy or fun, or convenient, of course because I want to win, but mostly because I’m particular about the terms I do so on – which is knowing that I’ve given my horse the best opportunity to shine in the arena and thrive in general, now and into the future.

If you don’t have access to high dollar therapy equipment or equine spas, know that it’s what’s in your heart and mind that matters most – and we all have access to education.

We also ALL have the same 24 hours in a day. The playing field isn’t as uneven as it seems – believe in what you can offer your horse and offer it with your whole HEART. Of course, hefty financial backing helps, but ultimately it takes a lot of genuine care, concern and commitment.

Learning is never cumulative.
“Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of
knowing that has no beginning and no end.’ – Bruce Lee

If you’ve been following me a while, you know how enthusiastic I am about never-ending personal development. If you’re reading this right now, I can assume that you are too!

Our education can come from a variety of sources, whether it be from a college class, a professional equine bodyworker, a clinic or course, online study, books, DVDs, magazines, etc. Most important is that we take everything with a grain of salt, and none of it as if it’s “The Bible.” Certain resources will resonate more so than others of course, and in the middle of it all will be timeless, unwavering principles, but even as I share what I know with you today – this doesn’t mean it’s not going to change in a year (of course I’ll keep sharing as I keep learning)!

Even the most trusted research studies sometimes conclude years later that their initial findings were incorrect. That’s one reason why learning and personal development must be never-ending, because everything is always evolving, nothing is static.

While it’s easy to develop a narrow mind as education is gained and we become confident in what we know, I feel as though it’s ideal to continually pursue education in a way that keeps us curious and asking questions.

For example, just because a certain practice or way of addressing a certain issue has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the only, safest, or most effective way! Offering the very best of everything to our horses doesn’t always mean following the crowd, latest fads or marketing.

The best place to really focus your education as a starting point, is the area of anatomy. Before we can know what the best options are for treating our horse’s body, we must intimately know their bodies.

When we know exactly where the specific joints and muscles and soft tissue are, and what they look like and feel like, how big they are and how they operate, we can more easily recognize, detect and treat problems. We’ll know what to watch out for and the specific areas our horses need consistent maintenance in.

Of course, there will always be a little bit of mystery involved because horses don’t speak English, and because we can’t actually SEE inside our horses, but the only way to get as close as that as possible is through education and awareness. The ability to visualize what’s under our horse’s skin is a valuable one.

Once we’ve gained some ground in this area, it’s ideal to dive into some safe, simple but straight forward techniques for supporting our horses. For specific resources I recommend to advance your anatomical understandings and brush up your bodyworking skills, see the bottom of this post.

Delightfully dirty after an intense massage.
Delightfully dirty after an intense massage.

#3. TIME
The ability to support my horses effectively has certainly grown over the years, and yours will too. In the ignorance of my youth, I didn’t appreciate the soundness my horses I had, and should have done more to support them.

There are some things that once lost, cannot be regained. When we experience this, we become much better about educating ourselves and taking preventative actions. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually look back and see where we could have done things differently.

One of my personal goals is to create and support a foundation of health and soundness that stands firm on it’s own and isn’t dependent on too many artificial things that produce the illusion of health. If something is amiss, I don’t get in a hurry to mask it. I want to know what’s going on and what I must do to correct it from a foundational level, and that often takes trial and error. I don’t just want a horse that LOOKS sound and healthy, I want the real deal.

I have found that taking this approach – combined with the genuine care and commitment necessary for furthering education mentioned above, is only possible with a significant investment of TIME. Like I mentioned, it seems as though this is something we’re already short of, so some real honesty and radical action is usually necessary.

A huge roadblock in the way of my success over the years has been constantly feeling rushed and short on time. For many years now I’ve been on a mission to simplify. Most days I spend the morning riding two horses, with a portion of that that spent on pre and post-ride body work. The horses are happier, healthier and more progressive than they’ve ever been, and I genuinely enjoy every moment of it and feel as though we’re giving each other our best.

When certain aspects of our lives become neglected, it’s often because we have too much on our plate. Most folks have a full-time job and family on top of the multiple full-time jobs involved in being a barrel racer, and then some. Less can be so much more. With less quantity, there can be so much more quality.

When we’re spread thin, our awareness and our focus is dispersed in ways that cause us to overlook the subtle details that can lead to BIG wins. Most of us make choices that set us up to fail from the beginning by taking on more than we can handle, both with our horses and in other aspects of life.

Relaxed bodywork leads to more relaxation in general.
Relaxed bodywork leads to more relaxation in general.

We can only have consistent follow-through to support our horse’s physically, when we have the time to do so while not letting other areas of our life become neglected and out of balance. Even when others appear to be managing it all, don’t hesitate to make adjustments that feel right for you. Stop any cycles of frustration, neglect or guilt – if something’s not working, change it!

So there you have it – being your own barrel horse bodyworker requires genuine care and concern for your equine athletes, a never-ending desire for continuing education and hefty time commitment. With these three elements, you’ll not only sharpen your edge in competition in the short term, but you’ll support your horses career and well-being in the long run.

On top of that, spending time doing forms of relaxing body therapy will cause your horses to associate you with positive interactions vs. just hard work, and it really adds to the relationship!

When it comes to further educating ourselves on therapy options, there’s a lot to choose from out there. Some are pretty simple and straight forward and some require more of a learning curve. Some require nothing more than your presence and hands, some are “set it and forget it,” and some require expensive equipment.

It’s overwhelming no doubt, and all can have pretty drastically varying levels of effectiveness, despite how they are marketed. It’s tough to truly know where and how our time is best spent.

As I’ve mentioned, I feel as though even the world’s top competitors can greatly benefit from understanding anatomy with more depth.

Here are a few recommended resources to do that:
Horse Anatomy for Performance book by Gillian Higgins

The Anatomy of Bitting DVD with Dave Elliott and Deb Bennett, Ph.D.

Horse Anatomy 3D App for your Smartphone

Horse anatomy posters and models for your barn or tackroom

Also enjoy this video I came across detailing the underlying skeleton and muscle structure on live painted horse:

In addition, here are some bodywork resources to advance your education, technique and skills:
Beyond Horse Massage – Masterson Method DVD

The Basic Principles of Equine Massage DVD by Mike Scott

Beating Muscle Injuries in Horses book by Jack Meagher

It’s my suggestion that you include a few minutes of pre and/or post ride bodywork with each ride/run and that you include a longer, more in-depth (1 hr.) session at least once/week.

Do YOU have any questions or resources to add to this list? Share below!

For even more related resources, visit:

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