Daily exercise and attention to your horse’s warm-up routine go hand-in-hand to produce success on the pattern.

People have the notion that practice makes perfect, which I don’t argue, but I see cases when people expect perfection so they make run after run through the barrel pattern. They might run their horse through the pattern five or 10 times. What I’ve seen in my job is some blown up horses that end up at my clinics needing a new routine. Blown up barrel horses are generally the result of too much work on the barrels and too much picking at every little detail. With people who tend to be perfectionists, it can be hard for them to stop overworking a horse.

A good routine will produce success, but it takes patience and discipline. You’ve got to trust the process. Barrel horses in general do not do well with being nit-picked and overworked. So how do we make our horses better?

It’s very important to remember how big a deal it is to have your horse well broke. And, of course, people have different definitions of what broke means. For barrel horses, I’d say we’re not after the sliding stops or spins, but we need collection, rate and responsiveness to our subtle cues. A horse with a good handle to me is a horse that is framed up, soft in the bridle and not rattled about being asked to run and rate down. You develop this by being committed each day to the process, because making a solid open horse takes a long time.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Your day-to-day riding is all about instilling skills, and a lot of times that happens away from the barrel pattern. Riding outside and also finding other jobs like roping or following cattle are all ways to get a good handle on your horse. Some horses just don’t like loping lots of circles in the arena so you’ve got to add some variety, which helps keep a horse’s mind fresh. Put yourself in the horse’s place. What would you like? Would repetition or lots of runs make you bored or resentful? It would me. Remember, the same approach doesn’t always work for every horse.

Horses need reinforcement that everything is OK. My thought is that a happy—not to be confused with spoiled—horse that hasn’t been worried or intimidated into working is best for the long-term. This leads right into how you establish a productive daily routine, which takes commitment of getting out there every day and riding. Make sure your horse is in shape physically as well as being mentally prepared.

In Your Hand

Make sure when you’re riding, whether in the arena or in the pasture, that your horse is in your hand from the moment you step on him. You can develop a softer horse without the horse really even knowing you’re working him by sticking to keeping him in your hand. It’s so important that a horse knows to respect pressure and bridle up. If this is a foreign concept to you, there are a lot of great learning resources and trainers out there to help.

A Safe Place

I like to make sure my horse thinks of the barrel as a safe spot. So many horses I’ve gotten on at clinics are worried about the barrels for a variety of reasons. Be disciplined in your riding to make the barrel pattern a good place for the horse. Let them rate down and relax near the barrel sometimes. This goes back to controlling your emotions, which is true not only as a horseman, but also in work, sports, and virtually everything.

So how many times is OK to work through the pattern? If I’m riding five days a week, I might slow work through the pattern at a walk or jog three times in one day. I’m not generally one to make a lot of fast runs at home. Of course, this depends on the horse because they are all unique in what they need. My advice is to have some different drills to incorporate as well. You might slow lope around a single barrel, or learn my three-barrel drill. Take into account who your horse is personality-wise. Adjust your barrel work accordingly, because horses are all individuals and some take a little more barrel work than others or a little more time during the week than others.

Warm Up Well

Be sure you’re riding during the week and not just that day at the barrel race. Some horses work great when they’re fresh, but others definitely do not. If you have to ride for a couple of hours at a barrel race before you feel like you’re ready to compete, that’s probably too long and might mean something needs to be addressed. Generally, if you’re preparing for an hour to a half hour, I think that’s adequate. Have your routine planned out in advance. Make sure your horse’s muscles are warmed up and that your horse is soft, relaxed and in your hands.

On the topic of riding a horse a lot, I will say that I think some of the best horses are made when they’ve worked for a living on a ranch or feedlot, and a lot of times those horses are ridden a lot of hours in a day. This is the type of background I’ve seen produce some really nice horses.

Something else to remember is don’t just work on your horse, work on yourself. Be objective about your riding and ask yourself how you can improve. For instance, we can all work on better balance and core strength. To that end, you might take your feet out of the stirrups and trot a circle each day. You’ll be surprised how much that small effort helps. Work on quiet hands and using your feet, moving them subtly to drive your horse into the bridle.

Cool Down

With everything we’ve talked about leading up to a run, don’t forget to cool your horse out afterwards. Take their protective boots off. I see a lot of people leave splint boots on for a long time, but you have to remember it’s hot and sweaty underneath. Loosen your horse’s cinch and let him breath. Make sure he gets a drink of fresh water and a chance to roll before you load up to leave. The cool-down period is a great opportunity to monitor your horse’s breathing and recovery time—it’s a chance to notice if something is a little off. Remember to take notice of your horse’s legs by feeling them before and after a run for any heat or inflammation.

All the little details are so important, but if you invest the time into developing good habits, you won’t be sorry.

This article was originally published in the January 2020 issue of Barrel Horse News.