This month, we’ll discuss hitting barrels, switching bits and concerns such as shoeing, dentistry and conditioning.

The point of this two-part column has been to discuss why handing difficult situations that might arise with your barrel horse in a disciplined and careful manner is so important. Last time, I gave some examples of situations I’ve seen where rough or’ excessive schooling can create a frustrating and unfair situation for the horse.

I would like to reiterate that it’s important to avoid people who want to jump on your horse and go to schooling that horse in an effort to get a “fast fix.” One tuning session can really do a lot of damage to the horse mentally and even physically. Some people that want to fix a horse know better than to get into a big rush or big fight, but some don’t, so exercise caution when seeking help and advice.


Something that happens quite often is that a horse’s teeth become bad and no one catches it. If he tries to put his head down in a position where he correctly breaks at the poll, the sharp edges will jab him, so the horse will learn to hold his head up and out all the time. Consequently, the horse’s body is constantly in a hollowed out position, and he isn’t able to stay collected.

Eventually, this horse will go to dropping his shoulder and slicing the turns. He’ll tear his front end up because he’s always turning on the front end with no power from the hindquarters to drive him through the turn. After a while, he’ll adapt to running like that, but will continually get worse as a result of the soreness caused by using himself incorrectly.


Just like you want to keep close tabs on your horse’s dental situation, it’s never a good idea to let a horse’s feet get long between shoeings. When you see horses that go eight weeks or longer between shoeings and get really long toes, they often develop tendon and ligament damage when they’re ridden and asked to perform in that condition. Some horses don’t come back from that, so be sure your farrier is keeping that toe pulled back and the entire hoof well balanced, or soreness is bound to develop.

Hitting Barrels

Oftentimes, when a horse starts dropping in and hitting barrels, turning incorrectly and not shutting off the clock, a rider will really go to working that horse and spurring him with an inside leg pretty forcefully to get that horse to move away from the barrel. It can escalate to where there’s a constant battle going on between horse and rider, and the horse is getting terrorized. The rider really needs to look at his or her own body position and work toward improving upon that first.

When you leave the first barrel and don’t already have your depth perception set at where you need to ride to, which is about 4 feet off the second barrel, then you’re probably not guiding to the correct position, and the horse is going real fast, but unsure as to where it should be.

Another rider habit that results in hitting barrels is riding with your weight tipped to the inside. The horse will fade in because they move in underneath your weight, and the rider will, in turn, pull the horse off in an attempt to hold them out off the barrels. Then, by the time the horse is trying to turn, he’s forced to make a sharper, harder turn. The horse has to drop the front end to get around the barrel. He is turning all on the front end and loses all power from the hind end.

This month, we'll discuss handling difficult situations like hitting barrels, switching bits, shoeing, dentistry and conditioning.
BHN File Photo

This is very similar to what we talked about last month. It’s crucial to maintain position over each axis point through the turn in order to keep your horse balanced and confident. Just think—they have four legs to keep track of, so you don’t want to confuse or scare them when you ask for these hard moves. It all has to do with keeping the horse’s hind end up underneath him, propelling him through the turn, and the front end pulling him through.

This is the same reason that looking down the inside of the horses neck and pulling the inside rein across the neck toward your opposite shoulder doesn’t work. When the nose is turned in too much, the horse will lose his balance.

On the other hand, it will work to take your hand and pick straight up on the rein in the turn because it keeps a slight arc in the horse’s neck and ribs and keeps the front end elevated just enough without over bending and jerking him off balance.

Horses can’t travel in a straight line with their head over bent to the inside.

Switching Bits

It’s pretty easy to get in the trap of just switching bits instead of backing off and going to the root of the issue with your horse when a problem develops. You can especially see this happen with a green horse that’s adding speed because they’ll be doing pretty well, and then they’ll get to going a bit faster, and something will fall apart in the turns. So the rider will really begin schooling the horse, switch to a harsher bit, and it’s a scenario where if they would have kind of backed off and gone back to some basics, the problem could have been resolved without adding as much stress on the horse.

Bits are great tools for each individual horse’s needs, but if you keep going to a stouter bit and lose control of the horse both mentally and physically in the process, pretty soon there won’t be a bit left that’s stout enough. (There probably won’t be much left of the horse’s mouth either.)

Every horse’s mouth is a little different, too. If the rider is taking the inside rein and lifting across the neck to their opposite shoulder, no bit will work. At my clinics, I do run into a lot of problems with how bits and bridles are adjusted. We see bits that don’t fit or are on upside down or backwards. We see some tight curb chains that are really digging into the horse’s skin and creating a lot of discomfort.

Some horses absolutely do not like a solid mouthpiece, whereas other horses don’t respond as well to the snaffle bit variations. It goes back to getting to know your horse and selecting a bit that he’s comfortable and responsive in at that particular stage in his training.


When a horse is not properly conditioned, and you go out and make a hard run, the horse is more susceptible to injuries and soreness. Conditioning is critical to avoiding injuries, so whenever you are bringing a horse back from a long break or an injury, just be dedicated to taking the time to get them into good shape, and you’ll be way better off in the long run.

When horses know that the physical effort they put forth is going to hurt them, they will quit putting forth that effort, so good conditioning and soundness go hand in hand and are absolutely key.

Summing Up

A lot of hours in the saddle, dedication and education are the keys to long-term success with you and your horse. Part of that education is knowing when your horse is sound and feeling good enough to work to its full potential. Being aware of the things I’ve addressed here will help when and if you run into difficulties and will help remedy the situation without inciting a harsh tuning session.

This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Barrel Horse News.