Working with many different students at my clinics, and even with my family and friends, has taught me that kids and adults, much like horses, have very individualized learning styles.

One person might look at you intently, paying very close attention, while others appear not to be paying any attention at all because they aren’t interacting with you much. I think this is a very prevalent thing in teaching, but I’ve learned that even if it seems like a person is not engaging with the process, it pays to stay the course and teach correct fundamentals, which builds confidence. Sometimes the people who do not appear to be engaged or paying attention go on to be winners. You never know what student, no matter how they act, will be the best student and end up being successful. Every person has a different way of communicating and no one is the same, you just never know. What wins in the arena, inside or outside, everyone has a place for who they are.

Horses are like that too.

Charmayne James and her two world champion barrel horses, Cruisen On Six (“Cruiser”) and her beloved Gils Bay Boy (“Scamper”). Photo by Megan Parks

Charmayne James and her two world champion barrel horses, Cruisen On Six (“Cruiser”) and her beloved Gils Bay Boy (“Scamper”). Photo by Megan Parks

I’ve learned from my own horses that, much like people with different learning styles, horses can’t be expected to conform to just one teaching method. I’ve gotten along with a lot of different styles of horses in my career, and I attribute that to not asking them all to conform to me. People used to make comments to me about my style of riding like, ‘oh, that horse isn’t your style, or this horse looks like your style,’ but I never understood that. I couldn’t envision my way fitting just one style of horse because I believe you have to do and try different things for each individual horse in order to get the very best out of them.

Good Mechanics

The number one thing is that the repetition of correct fundamentals builds confidence and the desire to want to do things right. This is true of horses and people. When someone has a strong desire to barrel race and combines that with proper fundamentals, they usually end up doing very well.

Every horse, like every person, is a little bit different and through time, hard work and repetition they usually come around. Horses learn by repetition, and so do people. Enough time spent working on correct fundamentals results in those reactions becoming natural and automatic, which creates confidence for both horse and rider.

I think it’s so important to remind yourself during the teaching or problem solving process to stick to basics and wait on the horse. Finding people to help you who know the correct fundamentals can be challenging. The bottom line for me is to find someone who teaches riders to be aware and in control of what their body is doing. We can all ride better and then apply that awareness of what our feet, hands, balance and seat are doing and use that to help a particular horse.

What My Horses Taught Me

Scamper is a great example of my philosophy of building confidence in horses. We did lots of different things with Scamper to keep him happy and confident. We always hauled a buddy horse with him to make things easier, because he was insecure about being alone. We didn’t tie him up just anywhere when we traveled to events because he would kick and fight with other horses, so we took care not to put him in those situations.

When I started running Scamper, I always had to get to the rodeos early and ride him in the arena or he wasn’t sharp. That’s a big commitment of extra time and effort, but it sure paid off. Another thing we always did was make sure he had a nice, comfortable stall to stay in at night. When he was well rested, he would run much better. Just spending the time and knowing your horse is so important — you know them when you’ve spent the time with them working to get the best out of them.

When Scamper was still a little bit green to the rodeo atmosphere, he ducked in front of the barrels a few times. It happened once at the rodeo in Raton, N.M. The second barrel sat very close to the bucking chutes there and the bulls being there worried him and he ducked, but we knew it was an isolated thing. We didn’t take him and school him and terrorize him after that incident. We just stuck to the fundamentals and had confidence that we would be fine the next time out.

The approach I took with Scamper was not to pick at him a bunch, set him in the ground or drill him on the pattern to fix things. I rode him each day and went around the barrels each day working on the basics of a smooth, balanced turn and he was so broke that those fundamentals really took root. For Scamper, he would never have tolerated intimidation or fear tactics because they suck the confidence and try out of horses.

Much of what we learned was the result of trial and error, and my mom, Gloria, left it up to me to figure a lot of things out.

Cruiser is another good example of a unique learning style. With Cruiser, he was kind of a little renegade of a horse. He was so fast and all run. I remember one time going to a rodeo in Arizona where we got by the first barrel pretty bad. I thought, ‘you know what, you are not going to do that again!’ I took him out and tuned on him and the next run he never even saw the first barrel. I thought, ‘ok, that is definitely not the approach to take with this horse!’ That little bit of bullheadedness that a lot of the great horses have — they won’t tolerate you trying to overpower them. With Cruiser it was a quiet warm up and keeping him calm, adjusting the speed at take off and sitting good for the turns that really suited him.

Helping Others

Obviously, small kids or beginners who are learning to barrel race need to ride older, more forgiving types of horses. Sometimes horses that have been ridden at a high level of competition have been very finely tuned, and when ridden by a novice rider they become confused by the unfamiliar signals they get.

I think it’s important to remember to match people with the types of horses that will help them learn the correct mechanics of barrel racing. I want to win as much as the next person, so I understand people who want to win. But for parents with kids, I’d just remember that you do not want to over mount them.

I’ve found that oftentimes the work ethic of young aspiring barrel racers varies. You might have one that wants to get out there and work at it and ride every day in order to really focus and figure things out. It’s just like horses with different levels of heart and try. If your child wants to barrel race, they also need to understand the level of daily commitment necessary to win and the sacrifice and expense involved.

For parents or instructors, I’d say it’s important to remember that a fine line exists between offering correction and encouragement. As an instructor, you have to be assertive about what is correct and what is incorrect and offer praise when people do things right. They might not always like it when you point out what they do wrong, but if you don’t, they can’t analyze their mistakes and improve.

For example, when I was first starting out in my career, I was bad about letting up before the timer. My mom would tell me, “you let up too soon,” and I’d say, “no I didn’t!” But sure enough, I’d watch the video and I did. My rookie year, when I was shy and intimidated, I hit quite a few barrels at the beginning of the season because I was riding timidly and I had to just tell myself to toughen up. I thought, “you ride better than this, so ride like you know how to ride,” and that mindset turned things around for us. It was a learning experience.

Take Home Message

The biggest message that I want to communicate to people is that building confidence should be at the heart of the training process, for people and for their horses. The fact of the matter is that you usually learn the most when you are making mistakes. Things happen in barrel racing, so the key is to make the best of it and take the opportunity to learn and grow. It pays off to stay the course and work hard on perfecting those all-important fundamentally good riding habits.

Remember, that the point of teaching is not to tear someone down, but provide instruction in a spirit of kindness and respect.


For more information on Charmayne James, and her books, videos and clinics, visit Charmayne loves to hear your feedback so please feel free to e-mail comments or questions to [email protected].


Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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