A sound and confident barrel horse is well-equipped to face competitive demands. Getting there takes thoughtful consideration of your equine athlete’s training and soundness as well as an objective view of your riding. Photo by Tammy Sronce

Is my barrel horse unsound or untrained?

By Tanya Randall

Why is my horse not working? Is my horse unsound, untrained or a little of both? Severe unsoundness—a head-bobbing lameness, rapidly swelling tendon or epistaxis (bleeding from the nose)—leaves no question.

Sometimes unsoundness shows up in the form of behavioral or training problems. Other times it can be simply a training issue.

Is the horse refusing the gate because the rider is nervous or is it fearful of the pain to come once inside the arena? Is the horse blowing off the turn because its hocks and stifles are sore, or because the rider is using too much inside rein? Is a sore back making the horse take the turns too wide or was it never trained to collect and hold its frame?

For the non-professional and weekend barrel racer, unsound or untrained is one of the most confusing problems they will ever face. It’s a yucky question for someone just wanting to enjoy the sport. Finding the answer means admitting you might be the problem and it might be an expensive fix—either with your horse’s healthcare professionals or a trainer.

Soundness First

Most professional trainers are going to head straight for the veterinarian before the subtle stuff shows up in a run because they’re confident in their horsemanship abilities. They’ve also been on enough horses to feel the difference between a lack of understanding and pain-induced reactions.

“Most people don’t realize something is wrong until it just explodes,” said clinician and barrel horse trainer Paul Humphrey.

“You need to go have your horse checked out to make sure he’s OK, because the last thing you want to do is be working a horse that physically can’t do it.”

Paul Humphrey

Humphrey says people end up with major issues because they often times don’t know what correct, balanced movement feels like on a horse.

“If you look at barrel racing today, it’s much more common to see these career-ending injuries,” Humphrey said. “I think a lot of that has to do with preparation and making the horses bodily strong enough to do what we’re asking of them and knowing how to turn when we get to the barrel. A lot of these horses are going to turn no matter what, because they have the heart and the drive. They’re going to give 100 percent. Sometimes legs can go everywhere, and I have to blame that on the rider or the trainer because they’re not taking the time to actually train and prepare the horse how to move around the barrel correctly and keep everything together.”

Incorrect movement also causes the anxiety that comes with unsoundness.

“The horses get lost and nobody puts them back together and keeps them comfortable,” Humphrey said.

Former National Finals Rodeo qualifier Martee Pruitt has made her living by looking for “explosions” that she can fix through veterinary work and mental rehabilitation.

“I’d see these horses go and think they’re sore,” Pruitt said. “They want to work and they want to win, you just have to fix them up. People are always calling me, ‘This is my problem. What do I need to do?’ Well, my first question always is, ‘Have you had your vet look at him?’ There is almost always a problem. They don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m not going to work today.’ They want to work. You’ve just got to get them to where they can.”

Pruitt would look for affordably priced problem horses hoping she could rehabilitate them in mind and body. A trip to her veterinarian is always her first step.

“Physically you get them fixed, and then you fix the mental,” Pruitt said. “The mental takes longer than the physical, because you have to get their confidence back and let them know they can win. I always tell people you have to pet your horse a lot. I pet on them. I tell them they’re great. I spend a lot of time just rubbing on them, letting them feel like they’re special. It’s the special horses that are winning.”

horse rearing
It can be difficult to determine if performance-related issues are the result of unsoundness or training. A trip to your veterinarian is the first step in getting to the bottom of a problem. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Training Issue or Not?

When Humphrey is working a horse, he’s paying close attention to how the horse is using its body.

“One of the biggest things is you have to determine if the horse is not understanding or incapable?” Humphrey said. “Why can’t they hold that backend? Why aren’t they collecting and connecting?”

He can find answers through how a horse responds to his drills. For instance, if he has a horse that’s not holding leads behind while working a tighter circle, he’ll try to work through it.

“Usually if it’s the horse not understanding, they’ll come around pretty quickly,” Humphrey said. “With the design of the drill, there’s always a way you can make it more comfortable for them. If you make it more comfortable and they’re still not able to hold that inside, the first thing I’m going to do is look at the hocks and stifles. If there’s nothing there, we’ll go up a little higher. You see a lot of SI (sacroiliac joint issues) and stuff like that. Suspensory [injuries] are very common with barrel horses.”

The process isn’t much different with young horses, who are learning and growing at the same time. Those horses are going to get sore as part of the process. Younger horses sometimes present a bigger challenge than older, seasoned horses. Since a young horse is both growing and learning at the same time, trainers have to determine if the horse is having difficulty understanding or if something physical is causing the problem.

“When I see or feel a difference in my colts, I go back to the basics and slow them down,” said James Barnes, a leading futurity trainer and rider. “When I speed them up again, if I’m still not getting the response I was getting a month ago, I normally stop what I’m doing and make a vet appointment.”

For example, Barnes noticed one of his futurity prospects had started bouncing in his turns. The change was the red flag.

“He’d run straight to his rate point and start jarring, bouncing, when it was time for him to melt into his turn,” Barnes said. “He wasn’t dragging his hind end and bringing that inside back leg up to power around the turn. The horse wasn’t doing anything bad, but his turns weren’t as smooth as they were a month ago.”

To rule out a training problem, Barnes reinforced the basics, by going back to his “station work,” which consists of tire drills away from the pattern.

“After I did my tire exercises, he was doing it correct slow but wasn’t when I sped him up,” Barnes said. “The torque of going faster was just too much. So, I made a vet appointment.”

The horse ended up needing his hocks injected.

“I give them the benefit of the doubt,” Barnes said. “They’re young, they get confused. Have I put more pressure on them than they’re comfortable with? I take all these things into consideration before I make the vet appointment.”

Once Barnes establishes it isn’t a misunderstanding in the training, he’ll move to the next step.

“If I know they were working great a month ago and all of a sudden they’re not the same confident, consistent horse that I had, and I’ve got to go back to the basics and slow them down mentally, and I still don’t get the response I’m looking for…I make my vet appointment,” Barnes said.

Is It Me?

“Not everyone is a professional trainer,” said veterinarian and barrel racer Lauren Davang Meighen. “Not everyone can keep a horse together its whole career without help, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Using her knowledge as a veterinarian and staying regimented with her horse’s health care—keeping shoeing and dentistry up-to-date and doing periodic maintenance exams to make sure her horses are feeling 100 percent—Meighen has an advantage in knowing her horse is sound.

However, she also knows she has to send her horses to her trainer Jan Powell for periodic tuning, especially since her job prevents her from riding as much as she would like.

“I have to ask myself, ‘Am I causing this?’” Meighen said. “If I have a baseline and know she’s feeling good and things aren’t right, I know it’s time to go to Jan to see if it’s a man-made problem or just part of the training and seasoning process.”

Meighen says one of the ways you can tell if it’s a training or soundness issue is if all your horses have the same problems.

“If the same thing happens on multiple horses—all my horses anticipate the second barrel and float out going to the third barrel, that’s a sign it’s probably a training thing,” Meighen said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this me doing this? Do all my horses do this?’”

Especially telling on a horsemanship issue is when a new horse quits working after a short while. If not addressed, it can become a soundness issue as well. Generally, the problem is the original training has worn off, Pruitt says.

“You usually have a month if you go a lot, or two or three months if you don’t, before a horse’s training has worn off,” Pruitt said. “They come to you trained and tuned, so it’s important to know how to keep them that way. A lot of people don’t know how or they don’t want to do that. I always tell people to call me after a couple months. I’ll have to show you or tell you how to keep the horse working.”

With horses he’s trained personally and sold, Barnes says he often knows the horse well enough that he can tell right away if it’s a tuning or soreness issue.

“I remember things the horse did in the past that required maintenance,” Barnes said. “If they start doing those types of things again, you generally know what you need to have done. That makes it a little easier when they come back to me with an issue. Most of [my clients] have ridden with me for so long, they can call me and say the horse is doing this and I can tell them what to try and they can fix it on their own. When they can’t fix it on their own, they send it back to me. I’d say 90 percent of the time it’s a lameness or soundness issue.”

How long a tune holds can also be an indication of a soundness issue or training and tuning issue. For example, Barnes had one horse he was literally tuning on for every run. After watching to make sure the rider was correct and not causing the issue, Barnes recommended going to the vet. The horse wasn’t visibly lame but also wasn’t performing at previous levels.

Another question barrel racers have to ask themselves is if the horse is capable of doing what they want.

“Not every horse is going to be the level of horse you want it to be,” Pruitt said. “I use the analogy of a basketball player. Every little kid can play basketball and every horse can run barrels at a certain level. You’ve got your 4D horses and they’re like a junior high player. Then you have 3D horses, and they’re like a high school player. Quite a few people can still play in high school. Your 2D horses are your college players. Those guys are pretty good, but not every high school guy can play in college. Not every 3D horse gets to be a 2D horse. Then there’s the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants—the special ones. Those are the rodeo horses that are in the 1D the majority of the time, and there aren’t many out there.”

Sometimes horses are physically limited, and you have to cut back to keep them performing at their desired levels, notes Meighen.

“Take the average weekend horse that’s chasing points in a yearlong season, plus the weeknight jackpots or smaller buckle series runs,” Meighen said. “Those horses may be making three to four runs in a weekend, not even counting if they run poles. I’ll ask the owner what their riding schedule is like, how often they practice, how often they practice fast and how much they haul. I politely suggest that could be a lot for this horse. Maybe you should pick barrels or poles with this horse and not both, or maybe not commit to every series. Sometimes that’s a lot to ask a horse to do, especially if you’re not accustomed to how much maintenance a horse hauling that heavily may require.”

As a veterinarian, Meighen recommends developing an open, comfortable relationship with your horse’s vet.

“If you have a good relationship with your clients, you can have open conversations like that,” Meighen said. “Education is a big thing. If they never know what they’re doing is wrong, they’re going to keep doing it. I had one person who had done everything by themselves and just had no idea what they were asking was too much.”

Kind, positive reinforcement from the rider and going back to slow, foundational work can help rebuild confidence in a barrel horse that is coming back after a soundness issue has been resolved. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Rebuilding

Once you’ve eliminated the soundness issue, you still have to address the reasons why it happened, prevent it from happening again and rebuild the horse’s confidence.

“If you find out your horse’s back is sore, I want to know why is the back sore?” Humphrey said. “Something else can be going on causing the back to be sore. I think you need to educate yourself a bit more. These horses are athletes, and we put them in some not-so-good situations. Understanding the mechanics of a horse’s body is very important. I find that’s a big weakness in the barrel racing industry. All the body parts are connected, and you truly need to understand that to train a horse. If you do understand it, you’re going to get a lot more consistent with how and what you do. Horses learn by repetition. They don’t learn by bouncing around.”

If you’re constantly changing how you ride and what you’re doing to get a response, you’re creating confusion and anxiety for both the horse and rider.

“If you look at barrel racing, we have more setbacks than any discipline,” Humphrey said. “You see horses running off. You see them do all kinds of things they’re not supposed to. Then look at your working disciplines, and they’re pretty consistent. I think it’s those trainers being consistent and knowing how to train the horse’s body.”

A horse that’s collected and connected is also more apt to stay sound, because they stay balanced instead of overloading just one part of their body.

“A horse has to be balanced, working both sides of the body,” Humphrey said. “One of the biggest things with barrel racing is inside shoulder control. Most people don’t understand that you don’t just do that with inside rein. There’s more to it than that. It takes both sides. When you have that balance, they can go into a barrel and stay underneath you.”

A horse that loses a balanced frame will start to feel panicked and uncomfortable, which can lead to unsoundness.

“Their feet are going everywhere and it’s not comfortable,” Humphrey said, recalling watching a video of a horse that was disconnecting its hindquarters halfway through a turn and the rider didn’t realize it. “A couple runs like that and the horse is going to get sore through the back and hips. He could damage his stifles and suspensory [ligaments], too.”

Once you understand how a balanced horse feels, you can catch subtle problems before they become serious. That’s what Barnes felt when his futurity prospect started bouncing from sore hocks. Once he had the medical issue addressed, Barnes rode to rebuild the horse’s confidence rather than going straight back to the pattern.

“I gave him seven days off, and when I went back to working him, I did my tire stations in circles,” Barnes said. “I also set up one barrel, and I would lope around the arena and ask him to rate down and turn the barrel to rebuild his confidence. I did that for a couple of days. When I went back to the pattern, it was like he never missed a beat.”

Maintenance at a young age is just as important as it is for older horses, if not more so because you’re just starting to create a pattern of behavior.

“Those babies are still learning, and confidence is everything,” Barnes said. “If they’re getting sore and they’re not performing consistently, they’re going to stop being confident and start dreading their job. They’re going to look for a way out.”

As Pruitt mentioned earlier, rebuilding a horse mentally can take longer than the actual physical healing. Take one of Pruitt’s recent projects. The mare had a first barrel issue, but was flawless on the second and third.

“The first thing I did was take her to the vet,” Pruitt said. “Her right side was a mess. I got her hocks injected, and we did chiropractic on her three or four times.”

The first time Pruitt took the mare to a barrel race, the goal was slow and correct, not winning the jackpot.

“I didn’t go fast, but she wrapped her first barrel,” Pruitt said. “She won second in the 2D. I thought that was great, because now she has to get her confidence back. I had one lady tell me, ‘You could have won the barrel race if you had run to the first barrel.’ I said, ‘Maybe next time.’ We went slow because I wanted a nice first barrel, and she’s going to have a couple more runs like that. Maybe she’ll have a whole summer of runs like that. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get her confidence back.”

girl putting boots on horse while talking to friend
Beyond regularly consulting with professionals like your veterinarian and farrier, veterinarian and barrel racer Lauren Davang Meighen, DVM, recommends taking advice on your riding from a trainer or a small group of trusted friends. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Getting Help

Barrel racing may be predominately nonprofessional, owner-operator, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.

“You have to be smart enough to know if your horse is scared or green,” Pruitt said. “If you don’t know, you need someone to help you. I’m really lucky that [my husband] Troy watches me. You need another set of eyes. When you’re on the horse, sometimes the problem gets worse and worse and worse because you don’t know what’s happening, and it’s usually you. Somebody has to be honest and say ‘What the heck are you doing?’ A lot of people don’t have that.”

You need a small circle of professionals and confidants to limit the confusion of multiple opinions.

“It’s important to have a small circle of people you go to for advice,” Meighen said. “Barrel racers can be really bad about going to the internet and asking everyone their opinion. You get so many answers that you can’t try them all, and still nothing gets changed. I believe you need a trainer you go to, a veterinarian or two and a farrier or two—that you trust—and a person you can confide in, and keep it there.”

When you start widening your circle, steps get repeated and things get lost in translation. Vet hopping is one thing that can get expensive and still leave you with no answers.

“I hear it a lot—people will go and get no answers from the vet,” Humphrey said. “They start getting leery of the whole veterinary process. People will start bouncing around from veterinarian to veterinarian, but sometimes it takes months to figure out what’s wrong. We stay pretty consistent. We don’t bounce around. Your veterinarian needs to be one who will go above and beyond to find the problem, even if the horse has to stay there overnight and they have to block everything, so you can address it and move forward.”

That’s not to say that second, and on rare occasions, a third, opinion is a bad thing, notes Meighen. She also points out that veterinarians will discuss difficult cases within a practice or seek out colleagues who have expertise in certain areas.

“We’re not miracle workers, and sometimes getting to the bottom of things is a process,” Meighen said. “It works so much better when we can build trust with clients, so you can have frank conversations. Maybe the horse needs a tune-up? Maybe we need to talk to the farrier? Maybe we need to look at what I’m doing and you need to go get a second opinion. Those conversations are so much better when you have a solid relationship with your vet. The same thing applies to your relationship with your farrier.”

Most importantly, stick with the process.

“You have to see things through,” Meighen said. “You can’t be making changes every two months. If you’re always jumping to the next bandwagon fad, you won’t know what’s truly working for your horse. Like every barrel racer, I like bits, but if I’m going to make a bit change that’s usually a conversation I have with my trainer. You have to keep your changes small and keep track of them.”

This article was originally published in the August 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.

Read Unsound or Untrained Part 1 here.

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