Dena Kirkpatrick focuses on the core muscles of her own body and the horse’s while working away from the barrels. She asks the horse to travel in a frame using her legs and hands while engaging her own stomach muscles, bringing her belly button toward her spine. Photo courtesy Dena Kirkpatrick

To get the best performance from yourself and your horse, it is crucial that you are both in the best shape possible. You don’t have to be a marathon runner, and neither does your horse, but meticulous conditioning will reap immeasurable rewards. Three veteran competitors shared their routines, philosophies and advice on helping you reach peak fitness for competition.

Ryann Pedone

The Horses

Futurity trainer Ryann Pedone of Sunset, Texas, knows the value of a horse in top condition. The multiple slot-race winner, pro rodeo money earner and futurity and derby finalist has guided many horses to success, and Pedone says a fit horse also has a better chance of staying healthy—particularly reducing pulmonary bleeding.

“I think it’s very important for your horse to be in good shape,” Pedone said. “Being fit keeps them more sound. I think horses that have a problem with bleeding might not be fit enough—I do think fitness plays a huge part in it.”

Pedone has a track of prepared ground, and she takes every one of her horses out on it to work. She starts with one lap at a trot and one lap at a gallop each direction, which amounts to about 15 to 20 minutes of relaxed conditioning work. She’ll then move to the center of the track and work on loping circles, body cues and slow work. Pedone does this routine about four days a week, and she rarely works her horses on the barrels.

“My older horses, I usually don’t have to work them on barrels, so they go a little bit longer on the track,” Pedone said. “I might breeze them out a little bit once in a while.”

Ryann Pedone at the 2017 LG Pro Classic
Photo by Kenneth Springer

Pedone takes her horses to local jackpots to run them in an exhibition or enter a class periodically to keep her horses sharp and fit for major events. While her horses are in good shape year-round, she gives them the occasional break.

“Every once in a while, I will give them some time off,” Pedone said. “Especially my futurity colts in the summer—I usually give them about three to four weeks off in the summer.”

The breaks are important, Pedone says, because building back up gives both horse and rider time to recharge.

“I think it’s important for the horse to slow down and relax—go back to the basics—and the rider to study videos to go back and do slow work on what they need to work on,” Pedone said. “That might be lining up into the hole, making sure you’re sitting square in the saddle. You can’t fix things during a run. It should be instinct at that time—so you correct things during slow work.”

Pedone’s horses get free-choice grass hay and alfalfa twice a day. She keeps her horses on Platinum Performance, OxyGen supplements and Triple Threat Race Day paste. Especially when competing, Pedone’s horses get checked regularly by a performance veterinarian.

Rider Fitness

Pedone says the rider should be even fitter than the horse, because a weak rider— particularly one lacking core strength— will interfere with the horse’s performance.

“If you look at racetrack jockeys, they are super fit and sit right in the middle of their horses,” Pedone said. “I don’t think it’s about their weight as much as sitting still and being strong. There are a lot of men and women out there who outweigh me, but they sit still into their turn— they’re not flopping around the barrel, and their core strength is really good, which allows them to catch up and pull forward and give that release.”

Rider fitness is a priority for Pedone, because she plans to barrel race for the long haul.

“I hope if I keep up with my fitness, my core strength, maintenance such as hyaluronic acid, and I eat really healthy, I’m doing the most I can to extend my career as long as I can,” Pedone said.

Pedone worked with a personal trainer for years, and she continues to do the exercises she learned under careful tutelage. She recommends finding a good fitness app, such as Workout or Nike Training Club, to help you plan your exercise program. Pedone stresses the importance of seeking instruction if you’re inexperienced so you can master proper form and how to use equipment.

“I really recommend to people who are starting out to get a personal trainer or someone very knowledgeable to teach you how to lift weights correctly,” Pedone said.

Pedone prefers lighter weight, high repetition and lots of cardio exercise. She doesn’t do excessive running because she wants to protect her knees, but she focuses a lot on balance and core strength. She works out with a friend four to five days a week for 60 to 90 minutes, focusing on one body area each time, and the core muscles—abdominals, back, glutes. These workouts are scheduled first thing in the morning so Pedone can finish and go on about her day.

Diet-wise, Pedone focuses on eating healthy, without resorting to extremes.

“I cut out sodas and drink more water,” Pedone said. “Choose healthy breakfasts— I like Ezekiel bread with raisins and cinnamon, found in the frozen section. I put almond butter and blueberries on it. I keep boiled eggs around. If you need something fast, choose some 90-second quinoa and brown rice packets—they’re a good source of protein.”

Fallon Taylor

Rider Fitness

2014 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Barrel Racer and seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Fallon Taylor has always turned heads in the barrel pen. From her eye-catching outfits to her bright helmets, the Whitesboro, Texas, resident makes a statement every time she steps into the arena with her horse, 2013 American Quarter Horse Association/WPRA Barrel Horse of the Year, Flos Heiress.

Fallon Taylor before and after
Fallon Taylor and Flos Heiress have undergone a physical transformation thanks to diet changes, cardio and strength training. Photos courtesy Fallon Taylor

Over the last few years, she’s attracted attention for a different reason—both horse and rider are extremely fit, more than they’ve ever been before.

“I realized I looked different than what my perception was of myself,” Taylor said. “I felt like I wanted to overhaul my body. I wanted to see if I could improve myself and ‘Babyflo’ and what kind of impact that could have.”

Taylor decided to change her lifestyle in October 2016. She says riders who have issues with fear and confidence will benefit tremendously from prioritizing rider fitness.

“Most of our fear [when we’re riding or competing] is because we worry we are going to fall off or the horse is too powerful,” Taylor said. “Once you get stronger, that is no longer at the forefront of your mind, and you will raise your standards for your diet and lifestyle.”

Taylor decided to set a lofty goal for herself: a bikini fitness competition six months in the future. She’d never competed in these types of competitions before, so she started by enlisting the help of personal trainer Daniel Sullivan.

“I set a goal, I found a mentor and then I became a robot,” Taylor said of her lifestyle change. “I have no idea what I’m doing, so I’ve been training with people who do. It’s like being shot out of the alleyway at the Thomas and Mack and never having seen barrel racing on TV. It’s been interesting for me for sure.”

Fallon Taylor lifting weights
Fallon Taylor spends time almost every day at the gym strengthening muscles and increasing her endurance. Photo courtesy Fallon Taylor

Taylor started with diet. In addition to taking MAN Sports supplements, Taylor’s trainer gave her a meal plan. They found companies to prep meals and send them to her, wherever she is in the country.

“I can go anywhere with an ice chest, microwave and refrigerator, and maintain my diet,” Taylor said.

The next step was cardio. Taylor began with walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes at a time, six days a week, for three weeks. Diet changes and cardio helped her lose 25 pounds in that time. She’s lost a total of 35 pounds and continues to do a lot of cardio. She also does strength training at the gym with her trainer four days a week.

“We are just forming the muscles on my body—it’s kind of like sculpting,” Taylor said. “It’s really cool—you work different parts and you can see results every single day. It’s super rewarding.”

Taylor’s life is extremely regimented for exercise—both for herself and Babyflo— and she knows exactly what she needs to do every time she goes to the gym or for a run. She says her new lifestyle has given her a craving for the endorphins released when working out. Adequate sleep has also become a priority for Taylor—but it wasn’t a natural change.

“My trainer follows me on Snapchat, and he was like, ‘You never sleep,’” Taylor said. “Cortisol levels are controlled by your sleep and how much stress you go through. Women are affected more than men, so when you don’t get a lot of sleep and you are super stressed out—which all of America is—you gain belly fat and you can’t get rid of it. It makes you plateau and you can’t lose weight as easily. I had to really get it in check, start planning my life and say ‘no’ to a lot of things to really take care of my health.”

What does all this mean for Taylor’s barrel racing? She says she’s never had the core strength she has now.

“You need every edge you can get,” Taylor said. “I have never been more balanced; I can ride a lot quieter.”

Taylor recommends setting tangible goals for yourself and getting a trainer or coach to help you learn how to achieve them safely and more quickly than if you tried alone.

The Horses

Taylor says she focuses on the health and fitness of Babyflo to keep her sound.

Fallon Taylor loping a horse
Fallon’s horses are worked on a specific training schedule that involves trotting and breezing for set distances. Photo courtesy Fallon Taylor

“Limiting injury is my big reason for keeping Babyflo in the best shape of her life,” Taylor said. “There’s no horse that can go up and down the road 90,000 miles a year making 90 to 100 runs without being in absolute, amazing, out-of-this-world shape.”

After overhauling her own fitness program, in November Taylor re-examined how she was conditioning her horses. She researched racehorse programs and other training programs to create a plan for her horses. Just like Taylor has a fitness and diet program for herself, she now has a blueprint with everything mapped out for her rides each time she gets in the saddle.

“I set goals for Babyflo: I want her to gain endurance, I want to feel a push off at the barrels that is harder and faster, and I want her to move her feet faster around the barrels,” Taylor said. “Those three things Babyflo and I can improve on together.”

Focusing mainly on cardio, Taylor uses a GPS to track long trotting and loping in a pasture for what is now three to four miles three days a week. She started with building up to 13 minutes at a long trot and then began breezing as well. She avoids tight turns to reduce impact on the hips and joints during these endurance-building rides.

Fallon Taylor counter-arcing a horse
Rather than work the barrel pattern, Fallon guides all her horses through drills in each training session. Photo courtesy Fallon Taylor

“I’m just trying to build overall fitness so I don’t have to run to the veterinarian or the chiropractor every second,” Taylor said. “I want to make sure I’m making my horses healthier and not grinding away at their joint health.”

Two other days a week, Taylor works on drills. Her favorite is the barrel burst. She has one barrel set out in the arena, and she points Babyflo at the barrel from any direction, turns the barrel and makes Babyflo leave the barrel as fast as she can. After letting the mare catch her breath, Taylor repeats this from several different approaches—focusing on the push off from the barrel.

“You can only do that drill for two or three minutes, but it’s a major workout,” Taylor said. “Your horse will start to understand that it is definitely a timed event and they need to master leaving that barrel.”

Babyflo’s diet consists of top-quality feed and supplements and free-choice alfalfa. Taylor worked to prevent ulcers through diet before she ever stepped up her horses’ fitness.

Dena Kirkpatrick

Rider Fitness

Professional barrel horse trainer and clinician Dena Kirkpatrick of Post, Texas, has been barrel racing for decades. The 55-year-old knows the importance of rider fitness but says she operates far more conservatively than in her younger years.

“There’s no way I can be in the same shape as some younger riders, because my body can’t put up with that any more,” Kirkpatrick said. “But I know the key is good riding and strong core strength—for both the horse and the rider. You don’t have to run 20 miles to be a good rider, but you do need good core strength.”

Dena Kirkpatrick turning a barrel
Dena Kirkpatrick says possessing strong core muscles allows her to sit quietly in the middle of her horse without leaning or getting behind the motion. Photo by Kierce Photography

Kirkpatrick says the lack of rider core strength causes the rider to lean around the barrel and get left behind the motion, which negatively affects the horse’s performance and slows down the clock. For a low-impact, core-focused workout, Kirkpatrick prefers Pilates. But because she lives 50 minutes from the nearest class, she often does strength training at home, relying on moves such as planks, sit-ups and leg lifts to work her core muscles.

“Pilates is best for someone my age,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everything is low impact, you’re burning your calories from the inside out and you are at way less risk to injure your body.”

For cardio, Kirkpatrick prefers a bike over running for the same reason she avoids too much jogging on mature horses—impact on the knees. She doesn’t focus on cardio as much as core strength. For diet, Kirkpatrick realizes her metabolism has slowed, so she’s more careful about how many sodas she drinks, and she’s cut out preservatives, carbohydrates and high-fructose corn syrup.

“I know for me, cutting those things out helps me maintain a weight I’m comfortable with, but I don’t have to fight a battle,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s common sense, and it’s not difficult to do.”

—> Read how Dena balances a busy lifestyle here.

The Horses

Kirkpatrick says the horse’s fitness is extremely important, and just like with her own body, she focuses on core strength. She feels a horse traveling with its head up and back hollowed out is not using its muscles properly, so she focuses on building the correct muscles by legging up her horses in frame. She does caution against over bridling your horse—having its nose tipped behind the vertical—for long stretches of time.

“A horse in frame can move its shoulders better, get its butt underneath itself better and do everything better,” Kirkpatrick said.

She doesn’t focus on the frame while doing the actual barrel pattern, but says spending time building muscle through dry work away from the barrels is key to a strong core for the horse.

Dena Kirkpatrick trotting a horse in frame
Dena Kirkpatrick focuses on the core muscles of her own body and the horse’s while working away from the barrels. She asks the horse to travel in a frame using her legs and hands while engaging her own stomach muscles, bringing her belly button toward her spine. Photo courtesy Dena Kirkpatrick

“I feel that core strength is the most important thing for your horse’s performance and health,” Kirkpatrick said. To develop these muscles, Kirkpatrick says both horse and rider can benefit. Kirkpatrick says to focus on sitting deep in the saddle on your pockets and engaging your core by pulling your belly button to your spine. While you do this, you’re helping your horse lift its belly. Using your legs and hands, encourage your horse to travel with its head lower than the saddle horn and drive underneath itself with its hindquarters.

“Eventually, the horse will be able to travel this way and engage its muscles for longer stretches of time,” Kirkpatrick says. “If you’re engaging your own muscles to ride this way, you’re also building your own strength.”

Kirkpatrick doesn’t trot her horses for many miles at a time—she believes it’s too much impact on their joints. She does focus on making the horse travel in a correct frame during their rides at a walk, trot and lope.

Kirkpatrick also employs a couple of drills during her riding sessions, one of which is called a pinwheel. At all gaits, she’ll ride the horse in a circle one direction, then guide her horse straight across to another circle the same direction. She starts with larger circles of 10 to 12 feet, and as the horse gets stronger, tightens it to work a smaller 8-foot circle. When she adds speed, she’ll drive the horse forward on the straightaway and then sit down to circle like a barrel.

“When I get my horses riding right, I will sit down one-handed around the turn,” Kirkpatrick said. “By the time I’ve done this drill a couple times, I will quit because it’s plenty of exercise. I’ll save the horse’s energy for the barrels later.”

For young horses, Kirkpatrick works on the skills needed to complete the barrel pattern properly. If a horse is fresh, she’ll put it on the hot walker for a while to avoid a bucking start to the session. Kirkpatrick does work young horses on the barrels, but she does pattern work less and less as the horse gets more experienced and seasoned.

“The more educated your horse gets, the less barrel work you have to do,” Kirkpatrick said. “Unless the horse is bad, my exercise sessions last no more than 30 minutes—from saddling to unsaddling— including time on a hot walker. I think galloping a mature horse for long periods of time is unnecessary—it’s too much pounding on their bodies. You need to be discerning about what your horse needs.”

Kirkpatrick modifies her program to suit the horse she’s working. With younger horses, she works on perfecting parts of the performance, and along the way the horse gets exercise. For more mature horses, she focuses more on exercise— walking a lot—and less on drilling.

“I don’t believe you can do a routine that is cookie-cutter for every horse,” Kirkpatrick said. “Every horse is different. Every horse’s body needs something different.”

For a horse that is weak in the hind end, Kirkpatrick takes a page from her calf roping husband’s book and will dally and drag a roped log aboard the horse for a few minutes a day.

“I’ll log the horse once a week for a few minutes,” Kirkpatrick said. “They get tired quickly doing that, depending on how heavy the log is and how hard the ground is. You’ve got to do it both directions. It’s so good for them.”

Kirkpatrick rides three days in a row and then gives the horses a day off, but this schedule also has to fit with her traveling, so sometimes she’ll ride four days on and one day off.

“I try to build up to a peak every few days,” Kirkpatrick said. “I will have a goal for the young horse that is usually going to be reached on the third day. I’ll work up to that and hope they improve each session. When they reach that goal, I give them a day or two off.”

Kirkpatrick’s horses eat good grass and alfalfa hay, as well as a variety of daily supplements from MVP Products and Renew Gold nutritional support. Kirkpatrick uses In-Sync muscle balance supplement, Gastro-Plex pellets, Exceed 6-Way and Mega Mag. She also administers GastroPlex paste before competitions.

“I don’t feed my horses anything sweet like sweet feed,” Kirkpatrick said. “Their diets are not heavy on grain. But good nutrition is everything—it really helps them look and perform their best.”

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.

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