Photo by Megan Parks
Barrel races don’t come to you. You have to go to the races.
Selecting the events in which you and your horse will participate is just the beginning of your actual competitive efforts as a barrel racer. The fact is, your horse can have mastered the pattern, and you can have perfected your horsemanship skills, but there is still the possibility of getting lost, figuratively and in actuality, between your barn and the barrel racing venue.
Hauling your horse to an event and caring for him once you get there is an exercise in patience and in remembering details. If you think traveling will be as simple as loading and unloading your partner, think again.
Cowgirl Hall of Fame barrel racer Kay Young stresses that there is more than meets the eye when hitting the road with your horse—and that a horse’s safety, comfort and health while traveling should be a top priority for every rider.
“I can take one suitcase for myself, but I need about five for my horse,” Young says, laughing. “I think there are a lot of things people forget or don’t consider when they’re out on the road with their horse, but the way you handle everything is important when you’re away from home.”
Your horse will probably rely on you more when traveling than at any other point in his schedule. So, the question is, are you ready for life on the road?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re going 30 minutes or four hours away from home, preparation is going to be the key to your travel enjoyment.
In order to haul a horse, you need, of course, a horse trailer. Horse trailers can range from those that are plain in design to all-out living quarters extravaganzas. However, Young says if you’re investing in a trailer, you should concentrate more on the safety it can provide than on fancy extras.
“We all have to live within our financial boundaries,” she explains, “but my biggest thing is that it has to be a safe trailer.”
According to Young, a safe trailer is one that does not offer any opportunities for a horse to get hurt while loading or traveling.
“A safe trailer will have no sharp edges,” she says, “no rusted pieces for your horse to cut himself on. And you should make sure it has a high enough ceiling that he can’t bang his head if he lifts it.”
Trailers that provide a comfortable ride should also allow for plenty of fresh air to come in, lessening the chance that your horse will become ill during your trip.
“If I had to pick one necessity in a trailer,” Young says, “it would have to be that it’s well ventilated. I have seen so many trailers, and I’ve even had one with slats on the side, that you put horses in there, and even moving, there’s not enough air flow.”
After you’ve chosen the safest possible trailer, you can then concentrate on your horse’s travel nutrition. Most riders will naturally remember to pack saddles and other tack when they leave home, but they often forget to bring along the foods their horses are accustomed to eating.
Drastically changing a horse’s diet from one day to the next can cause health complications, including colic. While some owners take a chance that they’ll be able to find the same type of grain their horses eat at home near the race, Young believes this is too big of a gamble to make when traveling.
“I take everything with me,” Young says. “I see people at races, and they’re in the feed store buying grain. Why would you not take your own grain from home, so you know they’ll be getting the same thing they’ve been getting? We know changing feed is not good for them.
“There are times when I haven’t been able to haul enough hay with me, and I’ve had to buy grass hay, but if you can take the grain you’re feeding at home, that’s great.”
Bringing along water from home is also a good idea. Horses are often very sensitive to the taste of new water—and water does taste differently from town to town. If the new taste bothers a horse too much, he may refuse to drink, and a dehydrated horse is ripe for health complications, especially if he is being asked to perform athletically at the same time.
“Even at the local jackpot where I’m not traveling far, I’ll take five gallons of water from home in my trailer,” Young says. “Sometimes, water in a different city won’t taste as good to the horses, so it’s pretty handy to have the water that they’re used to with you.”
Packing buckets to put water and grain in and nets for hay is also vital.
Of course, the best way to forget all of the above items is to get in a rush. That is why Young’s central preparation suggestion is to give yourself enough time to pack and to get to the venue without the pressure of running late.
“Know what time you plan on leaving the house, and make sure you’re organized enough so that you have time when you get there and aren’t rushing,” she says. “You should also allow enough time for something to go wrong, like if you have a flat tire or your horse doesn’t want to load in the trailer that day.
“You definitely don’t want to have to speed to get to your destination.”
Speeding is just one of the many errors owners can make when hauling their horses. You should always take into consideration that riding in a horse trailer is not the most luxurious experience your horse will ever have—no matter how nice your trailer is. That is why Young feels drivers should make it easier on their four-legged friends by navigating safely, slowing down to turn corners in particular, and by keeping in mind any stress from noise your horse may be experiencing.
“The best thing I can recommend is to get in your horse trailer and have somebody drive you around the pasture,” Young says. “Then, you’ll have a different perspective on how your horse feels.
“I see so many people spinning around, not cornering safely, and it makes me really mad. It’s like, ‘Do you not know how hard it is to stand up in there?’ It’s really difficult.”
A horse that is having problems or is uncomfortable when riding will usually let you know—if you pay attention. Feeling a lot of movement in your trailer as you’re driving is probably a sign that you need to pull over and see if something is wrong.
“If you have a horse that is wiggling or pawing, they’re telling you something,” Young says. “For example, I have horses that get claustrophobic, so dropping down a front window or door on them will usually make them less fidgety.”
Hungry or bored horses can also shift around a lot during a trip. To curtail these problems, Young keeps hay in front of her animals if she is traveling more than two hours from home.
“I know there are some people who don’t like to feed when they’re hauling horses because they’re afraid the horse will choke, but I keep hay in front of mine,” Young says. “Horses are meant to eat 18 hours of the 24 hours in a day. They’re meant to have something in their stomachs digesting at all times.
“We hear so much about ulcers. If they have hay in their stomachs, it absorbs the acid. They don’t have the acid levels they would if they weren’t eating.”
The position a horse must ride in when traveling is something Young takes very seriously, as well. While many people don’t, she ties her horses when they are in her slant load trailer.
“If you have a manger in front of your horse, it’s not a big deal if you don’t tie them,” she explains. “But if they don’t have mangers, and you’re in a slant load trailer, if they’re not tied they can get their heads down under the dividers between the slants and that can be a disaster, so I tie mine.
“You don’t want to tie them too short, but you want the rope short enough that they can’t get their heads down.”
One of Young’s pet peeves is seeing horses, tied or not, riding down the road with their heads or tails sticking out of a trailer door or window.
“All it takes is one little bit of rock to hit them in the eye or for their tail to get caught in a tire,” she says. “That would be disastrous.
“Tie your horse’s tail up if you have to, and, while it’s still not as safe as it could be, make sure you have bars on your front windows if you’re going to drop them down, that way the horse’s head stays inside the trailer.”
Young recommends stopping to check on and watering your horses at least every four hours if you’re driving long distances, and again, always pay attention to any movement in your trailer.
Unless you’re going to an evening jackpot or one-day playday, you’ll have to have overnight accommodations for your horse during an event. Usually, there will be stalling available at whatever venue hosts the race. If you’ve entered early, you will already know if you’ll have a stall for your horse when you arrive.
“Most races have a stalling arrangement, and they will charge you extra money on top of your entry fees for a stall,” Young says. “It’s how they make extra money. A good portion of the prize money at most races comes from the stall fee.”
Stalling at a venue is like stalling at home—times 10. You still have the same considerations: safety, horse compatibility and cleanliness, only you’ll have a little less control of the situation.
In terms of safety, it is absolutely vital that you perform a “stall check” before releasing your horse into his temporary home. Stalls at venues tend to be well-used, meaning they might have holes or jagged spots in any wood and leftover bucket and banner hanging devices, including nails, from past inhabitants. You’ll want to rub your hands over any rough spots and remove any hazards, so your horse won’t cut or hurt himself.
Another difficulty with venue stalls can be the flooring. Most public barns have cement floors. Cement floors make it easier for workers to keep the barns clean after an event has moved out, but standing on concrete can be hard on your horse’s legs.
Because of this, Young encourages riders to utilize such helpful items as shavings and soft ride boots.
“Many facilities have rules that you can’t bring your own shavings,” Young explains. “It’s another way they make money, and you’ll have to find out prior to leaving home if that’s the case. But if you can bring your own shavings, bring them. It will probably be cheaper that way.
“I put a minimum of five bags of shavings in each stall because when your horse gets up, he’ll push the shavings around, and it has to be deep enough to withstand that.”
Additionally, Young makes sure her horses are wearing soft ride boots at least on their front legs if they have to be stalled on cement for a long period of time.
“I believe soft ride boots are the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “They cushion the horse’s feet and legs and keep them from getting sore or stiff. I put them on the front legs especially because when a horse is standing in a stall, the biggest weight is on their front ends.”
However even if you can control a horse’s safety inside his stall, peril could still be lurking in the next stall in the form of an ornery neighbor.
“I’ve been in stalls where the neighboring horse has kicked through the panels to my stall,” Young says. “Or is constantly trying to bite my horse through the panels.”
If you end up in a situation where the horse next to your horse becomes threatening, you should, first of all, remain calm, and secondly, ask event management to move your horse to another stall.
“Sometimes, you can’t move your horse, and you have to tough it out,” Young says, “but if you have a horse that is throwing a fit or kicking, pretty soon, yours is wanting to do it, too.
“Usually, though, the management will do their best to accommodate you.”
You should also be considerate of others by planning ahead for your own horses. If you know you have a horse that is aggressive, or if you have a stallion or a mare who is in season, let management know when you send in your entry, so that stalling can be planned accordingly.
“I tell them if I have a kicker,” Young says. “Or if I have a stallion, I’ll ask to be on the end of a row, so there isn’t anything next to him. If you have a mare, you sure don’t want her stalled next to a stallion, so it’s a good idea to let them know ahead of time what you’re going to be dealing with.”
Horses who are “buddies” can put a kink in your plans, as well. When you have a set of horses that are used to being around each other, keep them from becoming stressed by requesting that they’re stalled across from one another.
“If they’re across from each other, they can see the other one,” Young explains. “That seems to pacify them more than being next to each other because then they have to strain to see each other.”
After your stalling arrangements are settled, it’s up to you to maintain your horse’s lifestyle. Safely hang the buckets and hay nets you’ve brought with you from home, and make sure your horse always has access to fresh water. And if the barn is too hot or not well ventilated, hang a fan in your horse’s stall to keep the air circulating.
Finally, Young’s number one rule of thumb when stalling is to clean, clean, clean. Dirty stalls can create a suffocating ammonia smell from urine, and manure can keep your horse from having a place to lie down and relax after running his heart out for you in the arena.
“I’m a stall cleaning fanatic,” Young says. “If I’m there, my horses’ stalls are cleaned every hour on the hour.”
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