dena kirkpatrickDena Kirkpatrick teaches at a clinic. Photo Courtesy Classic Equine

BHN: If you had to pick one, what would be your single most rewarding experience training barrel horses?

Kirkpatrick: The year I won all three go-rounds on Willy Nick Bar at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity in Oklahoma City. He won all three rounds by at least two tenths. From both sides of the fence I have something I am very proud of, I mean, as a trainer I want to win. But, I take a tremendous amount of pleasure in seeing other people win on my horses. I am really proud of the fact that I’ve trained a lot of horses that other people have gone on and won money riding. That is my goal as a trainer.

BHN: Have you changed your training theories over the years?

Kirkpatrick: Yes, I have. I realized there is life after futurities. I think I am more apt to wait on a horse to come around than I used to be. I’ve never been a person to push a horse, but I have always put a lot of pressure on myself if they didn’t come around as quickly as I would have liked them to. I love futurities and feel they are a necessity in the barrel racing industry, but because of divisional competition, a late-blooming horse can easily be seasoned and proven. I love young horses, but I also love it that I don’t feel it’s the end of their career if they don’t make a futurity horse.

BHN: Are there certain bloodlines you’ve grown partial to in your career?

Kirkpatrick: Yes, typically I prefer bloodlines that yield flexible body types such as Bugs Alive in 75, Dr Nick Bar, Dash Ta Fame and Marthas Six Moons. These have proven to be successful lines for me in the past, although I ride a wide variety of horses and there are many other good bloodlines.

BHN: When you select a prospect, what conformation traits are most important?

Kirkpatrick: In order of importance: eye, shoulder, hock and hip. In the eye, I look for intelligence and lack of stress. I want the shoulder to be really big and still have a good angle. Hocks need to be clean. I go by the “yardstick rule.” You can put a yardstick up against a horse and it should touch his hip by his tail and then the hock touches it until the fetlock goes away from it. As for the hips, I like them to have a big hip but can still have some flatness to it.

BHN: Can you describe your barrel horse training philosophy?

Kirkpatrick: To make the process as pleasant and comfortable for the horse as I can. Horses need to be very well broke before I begin to work them on the pattern. I like to eliminate stress from the process as much as possible, and I like to let horses come along on their own rather than forcing them. I also try to use as little headgear as I can get by with. My goal is to strive for smoothness throughout the pattern. I train for a one-motion turn. It’s important for a horse to turn the barrels as efficiently as possible for their body type.

BHN: If you could change one thing about the barrel racing industry as a whole, what would it be?

Kirkpatrick: I wish we could all get on the same page. We all need to help each other as opposed to working against each other. I wish we could figure out how to work together to make barrel racing bigger. For example, instead of having three barrel races within a 100-mile radius in one weekend, we should try to work together to make bigger events.

BHN: Celie Whitcomb Ray was your close friend and mentor. What was her biggest influence on you? Do you have other horse training mentors?

Kirkpatrick: Celie’s ability to communicate with a horse mentally and to always do what was best for the horse. She had a talent of competing just like she was at home. She had “ice water” running through her veins. Nerves never got to her, and the horses loved it.

DenaKirkpatrickDena Kirkpatrick and Kates Always First at the 2009 Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity. Photo by Kenneth Springer.My dad, Dal Alexander, has also been my mentor. He is more old school, but he is one of the best people I know to pick a horse. He helps me with that a lot even now. He tells me exactly what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to tell it like it is.

BHN: You really like your horses well broke. What kinds of exercises do you do off the pattern to reinforce that and to keep them that way?

Kirkpatrick: I lope all sizes of perfect circles. I also like to keep them broke at the poll, especially while doing these exercises. I like to maneuver them into stops, flex both ways, side pass and be able to bridle them up at any point in time. All this must be done while being very smooth and level. I think it’s important to keep their body under control and together at all levels of speed. They must stay between my hands and between my legs.

BHN: During your clinic you said, “a fat horse is a happy horse.” Tell readers a little bit about your theory there.

Kirkpatrick: Well, I learned it the hard way. Barrel racing is a stressful event for the horse. In the past I tried to ride the nervousness out of them, because in the old days you were taught the more tired they were, the better horses should work. This may be true to some extent, but in recent years I’ve had better luck keeping horses fat and happy. I recall reading that fat can absorb some amount of stress and pain. While there may not be science behind it, I know it works. Happy horses gain weight and fatter horses are happier. To compare it to a jogger, if you are really lean you produce more adrenaline—the more you jog, the more you want to jog and the more continually anxious you become to jog. I don’t want that in a horse. I want them to be calm. Of course, I keep their muscles in shape and make sure they are paying attention to me, but I also keep hay in front of them at all times.

BHN: You’ve also talked a lot about anxiety in horses. Tell me why you think keeping that out of a horse is so important.

Kirkpatrick: Anxiety takes a horse’s mind off their business. Stress makes them unable to focus and kills their desire to perform for you. To me, if horses are experiencing anxiety you have a problem and it can stop you from reaching your goals. I try to find the problem and fix it before continuing.

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