This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Barrel Horse News.
There are so many different styles of barrel racing and training, but the very best trainers and competitors share some great habits that keep them on top regardless of the style they train for or the style of the horses they’re riding. I would say that the really excellent trainers and competitors all sit down in the turns, their hands don’t move around in a distracting way, their horses know what to expect because they’ve learned to train for body control, and they have great control of their own body English. The best riders and true professionals in our sport can be recognized by these common fundamentals.
One point to be made is that a good rider learns to be in tune with the mindset of the horse and knows how to communicate effectively with different personalities, as well as different styles of barrel horses.
What sets certain people apart is that they produce good horses and good training results over a long period of time. They’ve learned to get good control and consistently make good, safe and solid horses. On the other hand, a person might get a nice horse that they ride one way, and it works on that horse, but on another horse that style of riding might not fit.
Regardless of the style, I have a simple analogy for why it’s so important to train for body control in the horse no matter what. It’s like telling a beginner driver to get in a fast car and drive it at a very high rate of speed through a narrow opening. That probably wouldn’t go very well, and it’s probably actually an easier thing to do than riding a barrel horse. And, the beginner driver will probably crash into the gatepost. It’s the same way in barrel racing—a person needs the skills to get it done without crashing. We make close turns at very high speeds and need a high level of ability and control to get it done.
Winning requires control and precision. For instance, not all riders have developed a great feel for driving the horse’s hind end. Without control of the horse’s body and the feel to achieve what’s right in training, a bad chain of events will result. Bad habits are formed in the horse as well as the rider.
I’ve ridden many horses with different styles, and they didn’t just go to winnin. I had to figure it out. When learning to ride different styles of horses, I might make one good run out of 10 and that was good, but I knew I had to do better. But that’s how I started out learning to ride different styles of horses in the rodeo atmosphere. It boils down to day-to-day riding habits, work and discipline to figure out how to get each horse to perform to the best of their ability.
Going from Scamper, who had a lot of rate, to Magic, who was a free running horse, was probably the hardest transition for me to make. Sitting down and gauging Magic’s speed to the first barrel was really going to do the trick, and I couldn’t comprehend that for a while. Because I learned about sitting down on Magic and got my timing with him over a period of time, then as I got on the next horse that was a free running horse, it was easier to adapt under a competition-type setting. It takes some time to get with a horse, but the more horses I rode, the better I got with my timing.
When you start comparing different barrel racing styles, basically there are riders that get more bend in a horse maybe, and then on the other hand, some train for more of a roll back style of turn. I think we’ve seen fads come and go also. I think now we’re in an era when trainers are a little more middle-of-the-road and not quite as extreme one way or the other. Back when I first started, that roll back style was very popular.
What Really is the Difference?
So, what skills do you strive for or watch for in a true professional horse trainer?
First, I’d say their number one source of income and source of livelihood comes from barrel racing. That’s their full-time job, and they’re successful at it. Lots of people run barrels, but it doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. True professionals display a great work ethic, have a good reputation and perform well under pressure at events.
They very best riders react well at a high rate of speed with precision. They are able to think through a run at speed versus blanking out or forgetting what happened in a run. They have a good feel for the horse, how the horse is tracking around the barrels and if the horse is collected. In competition, all those things come together for great reactions under pressure. There isn’t a sense of panic. The best riders don’t tense up and get in the horse’s way. Having the mental capacity to deal with high rates of speed and react well without bracing or restricting the horse is key.
Another thing I really notice is when a person has the experience to ride with a good feel, good hand position and weight distribution. Some great riders do these things knowingly and some unknowingly. As I started teaching, I became more aware of what I did and why I did it. I was able to then break it down and teach it.
Great riders have learned timing and feel that they can apply no matter what style the horse has. They can tell if a horse is more of a free runner, and they know to sit a little sooner and deeper to help that horse, and when to push the horse or not push it. On a horse with lots of rate, the really good riders will give the horse a chance to work and know when to pick up and apply pressure, and that it’s just not the same on every horse. Great riders apply pressure not just with their hands, but also with their seat and feet. Correct weight distribution and keeping your weight centered or to the a little to the outside all helps guide the horse and give him confidence. Using hands to steer properly and correct hand placement—not too high and not too low—is also key.
Knowing when to back off and when to ask for more is another trait that great professionals have. That comes with experience, from riding a lot of horses and from knowing each horse as an individual. Horses get educated over a period of time—not in one session, or even in one week of training. Learning to gauge a horse’s progress really separates a pro from a novice.
There are different personalities in horses, and that’s OK. The goal of a great rider is to recognize the horse’s personality traits and work with that horse to make it a solid, safe horse that works to the best of his potential with no bad habits. Horses that run a correct pattern also stay sounder longer.
Every good trainer will tell you that each horse has days when they’re great and other days when they’re not so great. It takes really knowing the horse. Learning to tell when a horse is sore or hurt is so important and so many people have no idea the signs to look for or feel for.
With no disrespect to any other professionals out there, I’ve learned that the people that help me get to the root of a soundness issue are equine chiropractor Daryl Elliot, equine dentist Randy Riedinger, Dr. Lewis, my veterinarian, and Dr. Conklin, who is a veterinarian, as well as a certified farrier. My point is that if you take your horse to the local veterinarian because you really feel that something is wrong, yet the vet doesn’t find anything, don’t be afraid of getting a second opinion. The worst thing is to keep going when you’re not sure. The very first thing to do when a good horse quits working is check all the avenues—dental, chiropractic, veterinary and their feet. Cover all the bases. Some horses just need a tune up, but you wouldn’t want to head down that road with a sore horse.
Horses all go through a period in their career where they’re not perfect, and riders do, too. The thing is to be honest to yourself about your ability, your skill level and goals, as well as any advice you might be giving out to others.