Accepting help and constructive criticism with an open mind while keeping a positive attitude are some of the traits you need to be a good riding student and grow into a better barrel racer.

By Charmayne James with Blanche Schaefer

I’VE BEEN TEACHING CLINICS FOR MANY YEARS, AND MY GOAL IS TO IMPROVE EVERYBODY, IN SOME WAY OR ANOTHER. Sometimes that means teaching better riding habits, and sometimes it means better mental habits. Helping them learn new habits, apply them on the pattern and work through some issues is really satisfying. The years of experience have helped me not to get frustrated when students are struggling, but there are some characteristics of a good riding student that will help you get the most out of instruction.

Keep an Open Mind When an Instructor Suggests Change

A lot of people are very resistant to taking on anything different than what they’re doing. For myself, I take that as a challenge to help them see something a different way. I work on honing in on the fundamentals, supporting them and staying positive and helping them through that roadblock. As a student, don’t push back when someone is trying to teach you. Accept the advice and do your best to put it into practice before deciding if it works or not.

The students who have never really thought of what they’re doing with their hands or feeling their horse underneath them are usually the ones who have a harder time initially. To be a good student, you need to really step back and assess your hands, where your horse’s body is and what your own body is doing, and then take the instruction by doing your best to change yourself.

Don’t take constructive criticism as ‘I’m not worthy, I’m not good enough, I’m stupid.’ If you start thinking the instructor thinks you’re ‘less than,’ then that’s a major block to learning. I love people, I love horses, and I do my very best to not have them think ‘I’m not good enough.’

Just Give it a Try

If an instructor suggests something new or different, start thinking, ‘I’m going to at least try and see how my horse feels. I’m going to go through the process and see if my horse improves and see if I’ve gained more awareness of what I’m doing.’ When you’re doing something different, it doesn’t always feel right. A good instructor can explain it all the way through, so if you’re having a mind-block, ask questions. Sometimes what you feel isn’t always what the instructor is seeing, so it’s important to verbalize what you feel.

The other side of being openminded is not taking what anyone says as law—try it first, try to understand the process, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There are a lot of different styles out there, and it’s OK for people to do things differently. If you learn one thing from somebody that helps you, that’s a positive. Take what works and use it but remember what doesn’t work for you, because every person and horse is an individual.

woman helping girl on horse
Keeping an open mind when someone is trying to help will allow you to improve from constructive criticism rather than resisting it. Photo by Tammy Sronce
Give New Habits Time to Work

A lot of problems happen to people out of repetition from doing things the wrong way. It takes a certain amount of repetition the correct way to get it right.

Let’s say you have a horse that wants to move in early (diving or shouldering) on the barrels. The most common fix is to pick up the inside rein and move the horse away from the barrels. This is incorrect, because inside rein pressure tells them to move in harder and creates a poor angle going in with the shoulder in and hip out. Trying to fix that is a lot of repetition, and if you’re trying to fix a horse that has that habit as well, breaking it can be tedious. You need to allow some time to feel the horse keep going straight into the turn.

Try Not to Fix Too Much at Once

I have a process at my clinics where I focus on giving students one thing. If the majority of the horse’s problems were from a rider turning the barrel too tight and the horse didn’t have enough room for his hip, the No. 1 thing I want the rider to do is give the horse room around the barrels.

When you get home and are practicing or running at a race, start making change one at a time and then work on the next thing at the next race. Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to try to execute two things today.’ As you grow as a rider, it might become three things, and some days progression is just fixing one thing.

Take Notes

You’ve got to know what kind of person you are. Do you do really well remembering or do you need to write it down? When you’re trying to learn a lot of different fundamentals, taking notes is very important. You can use those notes to ask questions the following day at a clinic or at the next lesson if you’re riding with someone regularly.

When you’re trying to make changes, it’s a process of having someone video you at home, watch frame by frame, slow it down, watch your hands, look at all the things going on and really assess it. Watch top riders with excellent fundamentals like Lisa Lockhart and compare your own riding. Visualize being correct and put it into practice. With focus, people have the innate ability to find a solution for the problem. It’s a process of never giving up.