Two professional barrel racing trainers weigh in on readers’ training questions.

Joy Wargo. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Joy Wargo and her husband, Trent N Wargo, are located in Collinsville, Texas. She is a Barrel Futurities of America futurity reserve champion, she’s earned multiple American Quarter Horses Association amateur and open reserve world championships in barrel racing and she is a two-time semifinalist for RFD-TV’s The American Rodeo. She was the Oklahoma City Summer Shootout 1D champion, the American Novice Horse Association Shootout 1D champion and the Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Horse Classic Open 1D Champion. She’s trained top 1D horses including Smokin Koa Lena, Cashin On The Bayou and Vegas Firefighter.

Nisa Berry. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Nisa Berry has been training horses for many years. Berry and Erin Zoucha operate Triple B Performance Horses in Stephenville, Texas, and Sutton, Nebraska. Berry won the 2011 slot race at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championships, as well as being a Diamonds and Dirt Derby champion and a Lance Graves Sale Futurity champion. She’s qualified for the AQHA World Championship Show and has qualified to RFD-TV’s The American Semifinals. Berry has earned more than $200,000 in open and futurity competition.

Question: My barrel horse gets nervous at the gate going in to run barrels. He never refuses but prances and sometimes goes a stride by the first barrel. Any suggestions on how to keep my horse calm? I run a few times a week and don’t do much slow work on the barrel pattern, because I am not sure how to work him. I’ve owned my horse about a year, and he ran 1D times when I bought him but is 2D with me.

Joy Wargo
: If a horse is nervous at the gate, I’m going to start by working on relaxing myself. In which case, I will sit on my horse in the holding pen or near the alley and take some deep breaths, and I will even say the word “breathe” and spell it out loud to myself, and then take another deep breath until I get my horse to actually take a big, deep breath to help relax him and get his heart rate down. That helps me a lot if I’ve got one I think is a little tight and worried.

I don’t necessarily worry about one being too prancey, because I think the more we run them the more they get that adrenaline, and they get excited about running. So as long as I can still control them in the alleyway, it doesn’t necessarily worry me much. Now, if they are grabbing the bridle and taking off, we have a problem I’m going to correct.
If your horse is running a couple times a week, I would still suggest slow work during the week, even if it’s just a walk or trot through the pattern.

For a horse that is nervous at the gate, Joy Wargo first focuses on relaxing herself and her horse with deep breaths. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

The goal is to keep the horse quiet and relaxed, doing things correctly. If I’m not sure how to slow work a horse, I may contact the person who had the horse before me or the one who trained the horse and ask them some questions. In most cases previous owners want to help you, because we want the horses that pass through our hands to be successful.

If I have a horse that gets a stride by the barrel, especially if I run in the same pen a couple times within a weekend, if they get by on the first run, then the next run I’m going to make an adjustment and make sure I either set them sooner so they can get gathered up to make the turn, or set them a little bit harder to make sure they are slowing down when I ask. If you’re asking for a horse’s life on the way to the first barrel, I might back off a little until I can correct the horse running by the barrel.

If I have a horse being unruly in the alleyway, taking the bridle, walking on their hind legs and taking off whenever they see fit, to me that is unacceptable. There’s a difference between one that is bad in the alley because there’s an issue, and one that’s being disrespectful. If it’s a kid’s horse that gets a bit strong and quits listening to the kid, to me it’s unacceptable. If they hit themselves going through the holding pen to the alleyway, or they catch that child’s leg on the fence, there’s so much damage that can be caused. It’s very important that those horses are respectful. In those cases, I will exhibition one and treat it like a run—I will try to get the horse amped up a bit to give them the opportunity to be bad. And when they are, I’m going to shut it down. If it takes the whole length of the alleyway to get the horse stopped and backed up, that’s OK. If I had to take 10 exhibitions to make my point, that’s OK. I will say no until they understand.

Q: My gelding responds really well to leg pressure off the pattern, but despite a very slow start since he is fragile-minded and nervous, if I use any leg on him with a barrel in sight, he thinks it means speed up rather than move his hip or shoulder. I’ve done all types of flexing and bending drills off the pattern and he responds well. It’s only when a barrel is around that he locks up his ribcage and is preoccupied with the forward motion. Are there any exercises to relax him and help him see how the same motions need to apply on the pattern as well as off?

Nisa Berry
When you have a problem where the horse is anticipating, your horse is allowing anxiety to take over. I have tons of fragile-minded horses. I want you to know that I think the great ones all seem to have a tendency to be a little fragile. My biggest thing with this kind of issue is transitions. We can do this off the pattern as well as on the pattern.

If we’re loping, I like to do my transitions a lot with figure 8s. If you’re going to the left, lope a few circles, transition down into the trot and then go to the right. On a figure 8, transitions are great because you’re not only working on your transition from speed, but you’re also working on body control. That’s what it sounds like is happening with your horse. He sounds like he’s approaching a barrel and losing all body control, just taking it away from the rider.

Professional barrel racing trainers Joy Wargo and Nisa Berry weigh in on readers’ training questions and offer suggestions.
If your horse is fragile-minded and gets worried around the barrels, Nisa Berry recommends working on transitions through a figure 8—on and off the barrels. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Also, a figure 8 is something I would do on the barrels as well. So on your approach to the first barrel, let him turn the barrel and then come back and go to the left and start your figure 8.

It’s a common drill, but that’s what comes to mind to me. A figure 8 can be done on the barrels and away from the barrels. The transitions and body control will be helpful to help your horse relax.

Q: My 3-year-old barrel prospect has a naturally straight and square way of going. I have about 10 months of riding on him; he is very broke and advancing through training well. Lately we’ve been working on small circles, and he wants to plant his hind end, cross over with his outside shoulder and roll back around instead of moving fluidly through the circle. I like that he is a snappy mover and that I can place his shoulders so easily, but he needs more forward motion from behind. He has a big stride and moves out well until I dial him down to smaller circles. What suggestions do you have for keeping his hind end engaged and driving through a circle?

I would start with either walking or jogging a very tight circle—about the size of a barrel, if you are touching a barrel all the way around. Squeeze with both legs and drive the horse forward. Make sure you can feel all four feet moving forward—not just stopping the hind end and bringing the front end around. Work on this until you feel like your horse is really reaching with the front and still driving up behind. Once they understand how to do that at a walk and trot, then do it loping in circles. For loping, start bigger and get a little tighter until the horse is really driving up under himself from behind. Squeeze your glutes to drive him up under himself and keep things moving.

Professional barrel racing trainers Joy Wargo and Nisa Berry weigh in on readers’ training questions and offer suggestions.
To encourage a horse that loses forward motion in the hind end, Joy Wargo advises riders to drive the horse in a tight circle at a walk or trot to teach it to move with its front end while driving from behind. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

I don’t mind one that wants to set a leg and come back hard in a turn, but I need to make sure they keep forward movement through the first three-quarters of the turn. Otherwise, you will start to drag down barrels. But a lot of times I would just drive them forward during dry work at home. If I have to keep contact with both my legs to drive them in a circle, I’ll do it, but I’ll make sure I keep all four feet moving.

You can even reverse arc the horse some and drive him forward by squeezing with both legs. I push them in big circles at a reverse arc, where they have to place all four feet.

Make sure you ride these kinds of horses deep into the turns. Go deep toward the fence, on the backside of the barrels toward the fence.

Q: I have a 3-year-old prospect that is pretty broke and progressing well. She’ll move forward on a loose rein and frame up when asked, but where I’m having trouble is that she gets overly bendy in the neck and face. Any pressure with the reins and she bends her head down to almost her knees when backing up, or if we are traveling in a circle any pressure to the reins will make her bend her head way down and bend too much to the side of rein pressure. For instance, if I’m asking for a right circle she’ll bend her nose all the way around and down almost to my knees, which makes her lose collection and float to the outside. I have to encourage speed, restrict movement with outside (left) rein and try to drive her hips forward to get her head back up and collected, but then she just keeps increasing with speed, because she’s not fully understanding what I’m asking. What I’m doing doesn’t seem to be fixing the problem, because it’s still happening frequently. What suggestions do you have to fix this?

A: This is a hard one, because it sounds like it was created from a training problem. My personal preference, I don’t like a horse that’s going to over-correct, and if someone starts a 2-year-old that way, it’s really, really hard to get that out of a horse. I think at this point, you might revisit your tools—a bit change could help. Look for something to square that horse back up. She’s floating around because she’s hiding her face and then you lose the shoulder control, and then the body control.

Professional barrel racing trainers Joy Wargo and Nisa Berry weigh in on readers’ training questions and offer suggestions.
For a horse that gets overly bendy in its head and neck, Nisa Berry suggests changing up your bit and curb chain and keeping closer contact with your reins. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

For a horse that folds its face down too much, even if the horse likes to ride
in a snaffle, I would put a chain curb underneath to keep that horse’s face elevated rather than hiding it, which is evasive. Anything without a curb will be too soft and the horse will go against it. Try a mullen mouthpiece bit, because something that’s not breaking across the horse’s tongue has a tendency to level the horse up and out a little more.

Next, everything you do on your horse for a while, do it with more contact—not so much on a loose rein. Riding around with tight reins is not the problem. With a chain curb underneath and a horse that wants to fold and hide its face a lot, I ride those horses around with contact, but I’m constantly picking my hands up to elevate the face and square up the shoulders.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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