In part one of this two-part series on the danger of quick fixes, we’ll talk about some scenarios that, if not handled properly, can be very detrimental to the horse.

When you encounter problems with a barrel horse working correctly, discipline and care as a rider need to be taken to recognize why the horse is doing what he’s doing. Even more time and effort are needed to correct the problem without compromising the horse. This month we thought it would be beneficial to look at a few common scenarios that I’ve seen that create trouble for the horse and rider.

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.” Some of the things people do in this situation can be very detrimental to the horse, even in just one tuning ses-sion. Some people that want to fix a horse know better than to get into a big rush or big fight, but some don’t know better; so think it all the way through before you go down a bad path or let the wrong person on your horse.

We talked about this last month, but I want to reiterate that awareness as a rider is key because all of us are constantly learning. It’s so important to learn and be constantly aware of what signals your hands and feet are sending the horse. Keep in mind that there are virtually no quick fixes to the problems outlined here. It takes a lot of riding, dedication and discipline to apply the right methods.

In part one of this two-part series on the danger of quick fixes, we'll talk about some scenarios that can be very detrimental to the horse.
Charmayne James and Cruising On Six (“Cruiser”), her 2002 World Champion mount. Photo by Kenneth Springer

Running By

Something I’ve seen a lot of, and something that can escalate into a major problem, is when horses start running by the barrels. In an effort to quickly fix this problem a lot of riders will run to the barrels, set the horse real hard and jam him in reverse with a lot of force. This becomes a humane issue in my mind.

Say you have a person relatively new to barrel racing or new to the 1D level who purchases a nice 1D horse that is winning, but all of the sudden, this horse goes to losing his rate and running by the barrels. When the person first got the horse home, they were winning, and then before they know what happened, they’re getting by one or all of the barrels, and it’s progressively getting worse.

Oftentimes onlookers will make comments like, “set that horse,” “pull that horse in the ground,” “he’s not trying,” or “that horse should know better than that.” So often, the rider then kind of panics and starts taking everyone’s advice and is running up to the barrels, jerking on the horse’s face and slamming the horse in the ground at the barrels.

The next step when this still doesn’t work is to take the horse back to the person who trained the horse, and that individual is able to get on the horse, and without a whole lot of excessive tuning, the horse starts working again for that person.

These types of scenarios play out prove often. The trainer is more than likely an experienced rider who prepared that horse to turn correctly. Positioning the horse to be balanced through the turn achieves such overwhelmingly better results than ramming and jamming.

Many times a novice or less experienced rider will have their hands and body up and forward the whole time. That tells the horse to go forward. Their hands are often straight forward instead of elbows bent and guiding through the turn. You’re effectively telling the horse with your body language “go by, go by, go by,” and so of course, he does. Then after episodes of getting slammed into the ground with quite a bit of force, the horse gets confused about his position. He has to go back to the trainer, he starts to work again, and there’s a cycle that develops there.

It’s so important for the young or inexperienced rider who wants to take their barrel racing to the next level to learn to sit for the turns, bend the elbows and guide the horse into position at high speeds, or the end result will be the horse getting on the fight out of confusion and frustration. Instilling confidence is so important for the horse, so the mindset that the horse is a machine and has to work, regardless of if the cues he’s given are incorrect or inconsistent, won’t yield positive results.

Excessive Schooling

When schooling a young horse, I’d say never run that horse more than a time or two in one session. A horse that’s adding speed, the second run you make on that horse, they’re going to be more freed up. So, if you make a bunch of consecutive runs, they are going to get to where they take the bit and take off. Too many runs is very, very hard on horses, especially young horses. They get scared, nervous and rattled, especially if you’re not riding them correctly at speed, getting them off balance or out of position. It will shake their confidence.

In certain horses, one day of that can put things into the horse that will be there forever. You can’t ever get them over some of that when they re overexposed to the speed by doing too much too soon. For me, it’s critical to take the horse faster gradually when he’s ready. A horse will get solid and consistent after correct exposure and knowing the pattern well. For any horse, young or old, too many runs is not a good thing. Ultimately, after you start overworking them, they get sore, too, and then they really don’t want to work. It kind of takes the heart and try right out of them.

Be Fair to the Horse

The last scenario I want to talk about is something I’ve seen happen with rope horses, but I feel that it correlates well with exactly what we’re talking about here. Say a nice, solid heading horse is purchased by a novice rider who really tends to stay up and forward on the horse. Consequently the horse will start running by cattle, not rating and totally losing position.

Eventually the owner of the horse is not having much fun and decides to go have an experienced roper get on the horse to fix him. The more experienced roper slams the horse down in the ground and goes to jerking on him, but the thing is that in every run with the novice rider prior to this episode, the horse was basically cued to keep forward motion, to not rate and to run by. The rider wasn’t rating the cattle either, so how then could the horse?

To me, it’s very simple—in order to be fair to the horse and humane in the training process, you have to take some time. I think taking a few days teaching the novice rider to sit down, help the horse achieve a collected position and to rate the cattle, that’s a more humane approach to the process than a “quick fix” for the horse. You just can’t blame every single thing that goes wrong on the horse.

With my horses, if I ask them to move their hind end over by applying leg pressure, and I don’t get a response, then the next time, I’m going to apply some pressure with my spur. If I still don’t get a response, I’m going to use some more pressure with my spur, and then provide release once I get the desired result. It’s not about punishing its just simply gaining knowledge about riding well and
applying that knowledge.

The same theory applies when you ask a horse to stop. Set your hands, and when the horse stops, release him and give him relief rather than pulling and jerking continuously. The stop will improve without the pulling and jerking. Punishment can always be avoided through good horsemanship.


If your time in the arena is spent fighting with your horse, it’s time to take a good, long look at yourself. Are you jealous or mad? Do you love the job of riding? You have to love it because it’s hard work. Most people I know who are the most successful at whatever they do in life really love their job. You want to take a look at your life and what might be causing you to take the fight to the arena, if that is in fact the case.

When you apply patience in your training, your horse will come to trust you. The horse will like his job and like running for you because of the confidence you instill in him through the training process, rather than imposing punishment with the fast fix approach.

Always try to be more positive than negative because a negative attitude affects everyone and everything around you. Try to spread good vibes, not bad ones, and definitely avoid carrying around a lot of negative baggage.

I returned recently from a clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., where people were trying to make some big changes, but some of them were very frustrated with themselves and just being very hard on themselves.
When you’re really learning and looking at what changes in your riding need to be made, just remember that it doesn’t all happen in one day, so be objective and stay positive, rather than being too harsh on yourself or over critical.

You can just about bet that during the training and seasoning process you’re going to take two steps forward and one step back. Every single horse is different, and each individual will respond a little bit differently. Some horses need more riding, and some need less. They’re all just a little different. What makes a good horseman is recognizing that each horse is an individual and knowing what that horse needs from you that day.

Next month: we will discuss hitting barrels, switching bits and concerns such as shoeing, dentistry and conditioning.

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