When Things Go South with NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell

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In 1995, Molly Powell decided to leave behind the cold weather, hard ground and few & far between barrel races in her home state of Montana and head south to Texas. She immersed herself, not only in studies at Vernon College but also in an environment that would be more conducive to her career as a professional barrel racer. As a 10-time NFR qualifier, you could say that the transition proved to be a good one.

10x NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell
10X NFR Barrel Racer, Molly Powell

Sometimes, however, things “go south” with our barrel horses and when they do, it’s NOT a good thing. When this happens, we distance ourselves from achieving barrel racing success at any level. Many barrel racers sense when something doesn’t feel quite right. Perhaps their horse is out of position, they may feel stiff, or lean to the inside. A horse might be extremely hot or nervous, or unresponsive to what the rider is asking. Riders may recognize these road blocks, an even have a clear idea of what they do want, but the challenge often comes in knowing exactly how to get it.

As humans, most of us are direct-line thinkers. We are wired to just keep trying until we reach our desired result. Barrel racers especially, are a determined crowd – we’re taught to practice perfect, to persist and persevere, to never give up! This way of operating creates a potential problem, however, when it comes to training barrel horses. If things are “going south,” and if we keeping doing more of the same, our horses – who are very sensitive to patterns and learn easily through repetition, become much more likely to repeat those undesirable ways of being.

At a recent clinic in Lander, Wyoming, Molly demonstrated that when we find ourselves in one of these ruts, we must find a way out – and quick! It doesn’t always matter if you don’t know exactly what to do, or where to go, as long as you do something – anything different, to break the cycle. You could refer to this policy as “rut prevention.”

During the clinic, one mare was too nervous and anxious to use her body properly and focus on the task at hand, which was performing Molly’s smaller circle exercise at a forward, even, but relaxed pace. Molly stepped in the saddle and instantly started asking her to move briskly in a counter arc. When the mare obliged, Molly released her back on to the circle, and the split second the mare got chargy again, went back to the counter arc, doing so in both directions. Did this horse really need to counter arc? Not necessarily. What she did need was a CHANGE, ANY kind of change, preferably one that would challenge her a bit, mentally and physically. She needed a distraction from her emotions, something to throw her for a loop – something to help bring her focus back to her rider. The more Molly put the mare’s feet and mind to work, the more the mare relaxed, focused and could perform what she was asked.

“Ride like a leader…

and your horse will follow.”


In Secrets to Barrel Racing Success I explain that tension is the enemy of collection. Students were reminded by the example this horse provided, that even in our high speed sport, relaxation is a key to top performance. Without relaxation – bend, lengthening of stride, and mental coordination all become much more difficult, if not impossible. If you don’t have relaxation, place your focus on developing that first, and make fine tuning the details of body positioning secondary.

Before - tense, high headed, and short strided.
Before – tense, high headed, and short strided.

After - relaxed, round and lengthening.
After – relaxed, round and lengthening.


With other students, Molly made quick judgment calls to switch bits on horses that weren’t responding properly to their rider’s cues. Again, this is important due to the fact that the more a horse is allowed to ignore us, the more likely they are to continue to ignore us, and the more likely they are to “get comfortable” and settle in to undesirable habits. We want to avoid getting in a tug-of-war, because chances are good (with the horse weighing over 1,000 lbs.) it’s going to be a fight the horse can win. If you don’t have the foundational education instilled in a horse, or the communication tools necessary to get a message though, don’t even go there! When a horse pushes into the bit, change something ASAP, so that it’s not an option, so that habit doesn’t repeat itself. That might mean driving the horse forward instead of pulling, it might mean filling in gaps in your horse’s foundation, or it might mean making a bit change to something you are confident your horse will respect.

Molly’s policy for “when things go south” was again put into place for a horse that was hot at the gate and became difficult to get positioned perfectly. Although a horse does need to learn to be responsive to us, even under high pressure circumstances, Molly feels as though in many cases like this, it’s a better option to just GO for the time being, and work on the responsiveness and positioning in practice and build on it from there. The more time you spend arguing in the alley, the more your horse learns to stall in that area. As the undesirable ways of being become more firmly established, the more difficult they become to correct. Basically, the more a horse is allowed to do what we don’t want – the more time they spend being hot, nervous or even unresponsive and lazy – the more we lose the consistency we need to win.

“Horses develop bad habits because they can.” – Molly Powell

Molly is an advocate of gentle but effective horsemanship. It’s critically important that we don’t lose sight of being effective. This is one reason why Molly suggests that barrel racers always carry an over and under on their saddle horn, whether they feel as though they need it or not. Having this tool for added reinforcement of our “go forward” cues can help nip any potential issues in the bud. Again it’s a form of rut prevention – a way to avoid a horse from ever developing a habit of not responding to us. A little tap on the rear at the first sign of sticky feet can ensure that the horse doesn’t consider it an option next time. It’s better to have an additional form reinforcement to back up our cues and not need it, than to need it, and not have it.

Molly mentioned that in times of uncertainty, learning exactly what to do to get the result you desire, might be as simple as studying the habits of other people who have horses with qualities you want in yours, and doing more of what they do.

Put relaxation first!

To create a positive learning environment, Molly advises barrel racers to avoid getting into arguments with their horses on the pattern. When things head south, even if you’re not confident that you know exactly what to do to correct the issue, at minimum make some kind of change that prevents you and your horse from repeating the same negative pattern over and over. If you realize you don’t have the tools or knowledge to completely resolve the issue you’re facing in the moment things go down hill, it might mean that you step away from the pattern for five minutes, or a week or more until the prerequisites are in place, whether that be relaxation, communication, responsiveness, etc. necessary to get, and keep, you and your horse out of a rut.

Albert Einstein once said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As barrel racers, we would all be wise to keep this quote in mind to avoid creating an “insane barrel horse!”

Remember that if things start to head in a southerly direction with your barrel horse, that it’s not necessarily critical that you know exactly HOW to get to your desired destination, but that you “change directions” (and quickly) – head east, west, anywhere but continue “going south!” If what you’re doing is not working, do something different.

Molly suggests that if your horse performs a certain exercise well two times in a row, as their reward, give them a little break and move on. If your horse struggles to perform something correctly four times in a row, it’s definitely time to make a change. Do what it takes in your specific situation to further develop you and your horses knowledge, skills and tools, so that you’ll both be better prepared when you give it another go.

Although going south proved to be a good move for Molly, it’s my hope that these tips will help prevent things from “going south” for you and your horse on the barrel pattern.

For more articles with NFR barrel racers, click here or the ‘NFR Barrel Racing’ content category badge in the right column.
After moving to Texas, Molly not only earned a degree in Computer Design, but also married World Champion team roper, Turtle Powell. They call Stephenville, Texas home, where she continues to enjoy success as a professional barrel racer, and now especially enjoys motherhood as well.

Molly has dedicated herself to helping barrel racers through her clinics and her “Secrets to My Success” DVD series. She’s also especially enthusiastic (and so are her students) about the positive changes experienced when using the quality bits she has developed with Reinsmen to specifically fit the varying needs of barrel horses.

The “freshman bit” is a popular choice for transitioning young horses from the snaffle into a leverage bit, while encouraging balanced movement and maintaining a fresh mouth. The solid run is a unique “all in one package” that offers not only lift but bend, and is well suited for the finished horse.

Molly has also worked together with Reinsmen to develop two saddle models and special fit-enhancing saddle pad. After all, Molly believes that a saddle should fit well to start with, and this pad is designed to make a good thing even better. To locate a Reinsmen dealer near you, visit www.Reinsmen.com. To find out more about Molly and the products and services she offers, visit www.MollyPowell.com.

7 replies
  1. Hillary
    Hillary says:

    I know I am having some communication issues with my main barrel mare. I know better than to lead into a turn with my inside shoulder but for some reason I’m physically having trouble changing it. The Secrets to Barrel Racing Sucess is on the way soon so maybe it will give me some insite why I may be doing this. 15 years ago I didn’t do this. Of course my slow work and what we have bee dealing with at the competions are completely different-my positions shouldn’t be. Slow work-she’s doing great. She was getting to the shows and acting like she had never seen a barrel before. I do carry a quirt when competing because she runs off-line. I tap her with it and she goes back in line. So far I haven’t been able to put any speed on her because of other issues. She is overcoming it though and it has only been through Heather’s help. I can’t wait to get the whole book! (Can you tell I’m a little excited?)

  2. Heather
    Heather says:

    Hillary, I recently figured out that my body position was different when I did slow work and when I ran. I read “HOW TO KICK BAD HABITS AND BAD I started to be more aware to do slow work for MY own body position and not just for the horse.

  3. Katrinna Miller and Southeast Barrel Racing Team
    Katrinna Miller and Southeast Barrel Racing Team says:

    Do you have any feedback for us attempting to put ourselves out on the rodeo circuit and work our way to gaining sponsors? What can we do as a select barrel racing team that has teamed up to attempt to work our way to a national level, and to gain money to be able to achieve our goals? That is why we are requesting a sponsorship (not for free). We will do whatever it takes as long as it is reputable work.


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