Futurity champion and veteran barrel horse trainer Bo Hill creates confident horses through one-handed riding. BHN Photo by Ross Hecox

Bo Hill trains confident, user-friendly horses through one-handed riding.

By Kailey Sullins

As a futurity trainer, Bo Hill has two main goals – No. 1, to train and develop a horse into a successful futurity competitor, and No. 2, for those horses to be easy to ride and successful for their next riders. She believes in training horses that are confident and responsible for themselves from the start. She does this by being consistent in her training and starting them one-handed so they learn from the beginning how to handle their bodies on their own.

“My goal from the very beginning, from the first time I straddle one, is to make them user friendly,” Hill said. “I don’t want you to have to be a trainer to ride my horses.”

Hill and her husband, Jeff Switzer, own and operate Switzer Breeding Farm in Dodge City, Kansas, where they raise barrel prospects and stand their stallion Famous Bugs. Hill trains the futurity prospects and campaigns them in the aged events. Through her career, Hill has carved out a niche for herself by selling high-caliber 3- and 4-year-olds. She’s built a reputation for being easy to ride behind and selling happy, confident horses.

“They need to be willing to learn, and they need to be happy to learn. I like a happy horse,” Hill said. “I like a horse because he’s happy to do it for me, not because he’s scared of me or I’m making him do it.”

Hill is quick to note that not every horse makes a futurity horse, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make a barrel horse.

“Some horses just don’t understand the calendar, and if they can’t do it at that time, I sell them to somebody who wants to wait on them,” Hill said. “I won’t keep pressuring the horse and ruin him just because he didn’t understand the calendar.” 

Hill says while she enjoys the young horses, her main goal is to create horses that go on to be successful with a variety of riders, no matter their age or level of competition. A horse’s confidence plays a big role in that.

“Everybody does things differently as far as their methods, but at the end of the day we’re all trying to stop the clock,” Hill said. “That’s every one of our goals, and it just takes a special horse. My horses are pretty confident and they are responsible for their own job, and I think that is what makes them easy to ride.” 

—> Bo Hill’s Bits

USER-FRIENDLY HORSES: STEP-BY-STEP 

Hill has six components to achieving a confident, user-friendly horse with onehanded riding. 

1. ENVIRONMENT 

Hill and Switzer have a completely family-operated business, from breeding, raising and training prospects all the way to Hill campaigning them. After that, her goal is to place the horses with riders who can be successful in their individual avenues, whether that be divisional races or professional rodeos.

“They are born here, they’re raised here, my husband halter breaks them, he foals them out, he usually saddles them for the first time and often times he gets on them for the first time,” Hill said.

She stresses that the consistency in environment and handlers is what makes their program work for them.

“They are all in the same environment,” Hill said. “At least 60-70 percent [of good and bad characteristics] are learned behaviors, and in our program with just my husband and I, they are all in the same environment at all times.”

Once the colt is started by either Switzer or a colt starter for the first 10 rides, Hill is the sole handler and rider through the rest of the training process.

“I know some great trainers think they need six months of foundation training. Like I said, there’s just so many different ways of doing it,” Hill said. “I don’t have the benefit of getting 30, 60 or 90 days with a colt starter. I have to just start them on the pattern and break them as I go, and if you don’t get in a hurry it’s no harder on them than anything else.”

She stresses the importance of taking the little things seriously, like spending time with your horses to learn their individual personalities.

“I’m a one-man band,” Hill said. “I don’t have a loper and a saddler and a washer. I catch them, lead them out of the stall, saddle them, do everything myself. My ride starts when I walk in that stall to catch them. You know what they’re thinking, and when you lead them out you have a feel for how your day is going to go with that horse.”

Part of the success Hill sees in her horses is due to her routine with each horse.

“I think that is important in my program is one-on-one with each horse,” Hill said. “Nobody else handles them after I start riding them. That’s what works for me.”

2. CONSISTENCY 

Hill says the first steps for her colts are formative, because they are the same steps she expects from them throughout the remainder of their career.

“There’s no real secrets to my program; I do the same things going slow as I want my horses to do going fast,” Hill said. “I don’t work big circles going slow and then expect them to turn a barrel tight. I try not to ever lie to my horses. I try to tell them all the same, all the time. My program is real, real consistent.” 

3. STARTING STEPS 

The cornerstone of her building blocks is one-handed riding. Keeping with routine, Hill’s beginning steps with her horses are as consistent as she can make them while still giving the opportunity to breed confidence through one-handed riding.

“I start my 2-year-olds as one-handed as I can. Most people ride colts two-handed, and in the very beginning I ride them one-handed, because I’m hanging onto my saddle horn to save my life,” Hill said with a laugh. “I get to where I can control them one-handed, and then I go to the pattern one-handed. I’m not going to run barrels when they call my name two-handed, so I might as well not lie to those horses and tell them I’m going to be there two-handed for them, because I’m not. Early on in the game I let them know they have to do this one-handed and be responsible for themselves. I can’t be responsible for them.”

Hill says providing too much support by forcing a horse to frame up constantly through two-handed riding without ever allowing her horses to make mistakes teaches a horse to be dependent on the rider instead of its own body. She prefers a horse to lope circles by learning how to control its body position rather than relying on the rider to place them in a circle. Hill says it can be a long process with a lot of give and take but worth the work in the long run.

“If they don’t get in the right spot, I’ll use two hands to get them in the right spot, but then I’ll let go, because I don’t want them to get dependent on me balancing them,” Hill said. “I want them to take responsibility, early. Then you never have to wean them, because you’ve never lied to them and told them ‘I’m going to be there for you’ and then not be there when you’re going fast.”

Bo Hill
Bo Hill focuses on riding one-handed with the goal of teaching the horse to take responsibility for its body to achieve an effortless, perfect circle. BHN Photo by Ross Hecox

 4. IMPERFECT CIRCLES 

The task behind the scenes is anything but perfect. The beginning stages of Hill’s goal to lope perfect circles is by loping imperfect circles, allowing her horses to make mistakes, correcting them and allowing them to learn from the process.

“At first I lope ‘squovals,’” Hill said with a laugh. “They’ll be oval and they’ll be square and they’ll be round, but they ain’t circles in the beginning.”

It takes about 10-15 days of showing her horses how to keep their shoulders up and nose in while striving to lope a merely decent circle. She stresses the importance of not putting too much pressure on the young colts.

“I’m pretty forgiving on those babies,” Hill said. “I always say, ‘You don’t teach algebra to kindergartners.’ There’s got to be a lot of forgiveness early on, but I try to make them responsible early on as well. I try not to do it all for them so you don’t have to wean them off of it.”

Hill says the process of taking the imperfect circles and turning them into perfect circles is a back-and-forth of going from one-handed to two-handed to place the horse back into the correct position, and then going back to one hand to give the horse the opportunity to do the correct thing on its own.

“If they make a mistake, I’ll shape them back in two-handed,” Hill said. “I’m real big on legs. I like them to move off my leg, so if they fade into the circle I’ll use my inside leg to move them back out. If they fade out or shoulder out of the circle, I’ll use my outside leg to bring them back in. I always use my legs first, then my hands.”

If a colt is having exceptional trouble with traveling correctly in the circle, Hill goes back to two hands to place the horse where she wants it. When she gets the response she wants, she rewards that action immediately.

“If they just keep [pushing] around and don’t get in any kind of a circle, then I’ll use two hands for two or three circles. If they kind of get it right, I’ll try to drop to one hand,” Hill said. “In the very beginning stages if I just get one or two decent circles one-handed, I’ll quit them for the day. A lot of people think a tired horse is a working horse—I don’t. I don’t like to work tired, and I don’t expect them to.” 

Bo Hill
If the horse fades in or out of the circle while Hill is trying to achieve a perfect, one-handed circle, she’ll pick up the horse’s shoulder by using both hands and her legs to guide the horse back into the correct position. Then, she’ll return back to one hand, giving the horse the opportunity to continue traveling the same tracks she set it on. If the horse does not, then she’ll pick back up two-handed and repeat the process until the horse travels one or two perfect circles one-handed on its own. Then she’ll move on to something else or quit for the day, rewarding the correct behavior. BHN Photo by Ross Hecox

5. PATTERN 

The futurity industry is a fast-paced game. Because of that, Hill begins work on the barrel pattern almost immediately.

“I’m guilty of taking them to the pattern as soon as I can stop and turn them around a little—like 10-15 rides,” Hill said. “I’ll start them on the pattern at a walk and trot. As soon as they’ll follow my hand and move off my leg, I’ll go to the pattern. That’s the futurity game. I go to the pattern slow, but the calendar is never your friend, so I have to break them as I go.”

Keeping expectations realistic is paramount to develop confidence in young horses.

“I will let some things slide,” Hill said. “I will go around and around and around a barrel until I get them to feel how I want them to feel—even at a walk—and stay in the right place. It’s the same thing loping circles. If they keep falling out or fading in, I’ll keep loping until I get one or two pretty good circles. It’s the same way on the pattern. I’ll go up there and try to trot around a barrel, and if they step off the backside or fade in before I get there, I’ll go back around until it’s perfect and then trot on to the next one.”

Hill says it’s important to encourage and reward the correct responses.

“I don’t quit with them doing the wrong thing, but I don’t expect them to trot up there and set their hip to the inside and be perfect the first 20 times I trot through the pattern either,” Hill said. “Sometimes I have to go around that barrel three or four times before I get them in the right place, and as soon as I get them in the right place, the release is to go to the next barrel.” 

6. ADDING SPEED 

Speed is the name of the game in any facet of the barrel racing industry. Adding speed and pressure to a young horse can be difficult. Hill says the key is knowing how to gauge each individual horse’s capabilities.

“When everything is perfect at a trot, I move up to the lope. For some horses that’s 10 days, for some of them it’s 20, and some it’s 30,” Hill said. “When they start taking responsibility and doing it for themselves, then I move on. I start trying to clip them through the pattern at about 75 to 80 percent by June or July of their 3-year-old year. Some of those horses just don’t understand the calendar, and if they can’t do it at that time I won’t keep pressuring that horse.”

Not all horses possess the early physicality, speed and maturity necessary to win at the futurities. Hill won’t continue spending her time training those colts and instead finds them homes where they can develop at their own pace. The futurities are the focus of Hill’s program but not the end of the road.

“I enjoy the young horses and I enjoy the futurities, but not all horses make futurity horses—that doesn’t mean they don’t make barrel horses,” Hill said. “They just need to get in the hands of somebody who enjoys [divisional races] and lets them mature.” 

Bo Hill
Hill’s first few trips around the pattern are not expected to be perfect. She allows the horse to make mistakes and continues circling the barrel at a trot until she gets the feel she is looking for and then moves on to the next barrel. Once the pattern is perfect at a trot, Hill moves up to loping the pattern, keeping in mind the same concepts— one-handed riding, allowing mistakes and circling the barrel until she gets the desired result. BHN Photo by Ross Hecox

DEVELOPING A FUTURE 

Riding her horses one-handed and not complicating the training process helps Hill get the desired results through consistency and repetition. The end result are horses that are easy for anyone to ride and hopefully successful in the arena.

“Getting those horses confident and responsible for themselves has a lot to do with them being user friendly,” Hill said. “The less you do and still get the result you want makes them user friendly.”

The veteran trainer works diligently in developing each individual horse’s future, whether for herself in futurity competition or with another rider in a different format of competition. Her program is simple—a consistent routine and environment, consistent training, encouraging individual responsibility through one-handed riding and focusing on producing a healthy and happy horse. While Hill’s training program develops those characteristics, she says it couldn’t be done without a high-quality, willing equine athlete. 

“Probably the No. 1 quality is the desire to do their job,” Hill said. “You have to ride a horse that wants to please you.”

MEET THE EXPERT

Bo Hill creates confident, user-friendly horses through one-handed riding and six key steps in the training process.
Futurity champion and veteran barrel horse trainer Bo Hill. BHN Photo by Ross Hecox.

Bo Hill, 55, of Dodge City, Kansas, revolutionized the way barrel racers marketed their horses. Hill grew up on a ranch in Colorado, where her family was in the pawn business. She continues that in Kansas, where she and her husband Jeff Switzer have a pawn and payday loan company. Switzer, a former National Finals Rodeo saddle bronc rider originally from California, is half of Hill’s barrel-horse training business. Hill is a futurity champion and Equi-Stat earner of more than $755,000 in lifetime earnings as a rider and more than $1.4 million in breeder earnings with Switzer. She’s created a niche for raising, training and selling top-shelf barrel horses, both as prospects and champion futurity horses. Hill and Switzer are the No. 10 Equi-Stat Lifetime Leading Breeders across all ages and divisions. The highest-earning performer bred by Switzer Breeding Farm is Famous Silk Panties (Dash Ta Fame x Martinis And Bikinis x Bully Bullion), who is also the Lifetime Leading Futurity Paternal Grandsire First Down Dash’s leading grandget. Switzer and Hill are also Equi-Stat’s No. 4-ranked Lifetime Leading Futurity Breeders with more than $889,000 in lifetime reported futurity earnings. The couple owns and stands Famous Bugs (Dash Ta Fame x MS Wahini Bug x Bugs Alive In 75), their marquee stallion at Switzer Breeding Farm. Famous Bugs is Equi-Stat’s No. 26-ranked Lifetime Leading Sire across all ages and divisions, with his offspring earning more than $1.1 million. His highest-earning performer is Jezzabell with more than $65,000 in lifetime earnings. He is also the No. 23 Lifetime Leading Futurity Sire with 96 performers of more than $583,000. His highest earning futurity offspring is Sho Off with $54,159 in futurity earnings. 

Author

Kailey Sullins is editor of Barrel Horse News, and an avid barrel racer and breakaway roper. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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