Keep your horse’s attention and build conditioning with Dona Kay Rule’s exercise tips.

A horse can’t run its best without being in top shape. Over the years, I’ve found that consistent conditioning is what helps my horses work their best, but I also know I can’t run the pattern over and over at home.

My days begin the same. I feed and let the horses settle about an hour and a half before I saddle up for the day. From there, each horse’s activity depends on where it is in training. A rodeo-ready horse needs to stay in shape and stay sharp. A younger horse I’m still prepping to run at jackpots needs repetition for correct positioning.

All my horses spend time outside the arena to keep them from getting too dull or too anxious in the arena.

One of Dona Kay Rule's exercise tips uses trees to remind a horse of proper body positioning.
Out of the arena, a trained barrel horse can still get a good reminder of proper body position by circling trees. Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

But First, Listen

One exercise I do with all my horses is to have them respond to me on the ground. I do liberty work in the round pen, having the horse back away from me, move off around me and generally respect my presence.

I feel like liberty work with a horse teaches it to be more aware and build a connection. When I had an accident with “Juice” (A Juicy Adventure was hit from behind by loose horses at the Springfield, Missouri, pro rodeo in 2017), he jumped over me instead of running into me. It is real important to engage your horse. The biggest thing I remember from the wreck is that Juice looked to me for help, came to me for help, and then the horses hit him from behind. Without our connection, it could have been a worse wreck for me. Each day, I connect with the horses on their level.

Natural Workout

Each workout really depends on the individual. Say I have a rodeo-ready horse, and its job is to stay in shape and stay sharp. I have a place where I walk about a quarter-mile, then trot a quarter-mile, then lope up a hill and walk back down the hill. This is a good conditioning workout for that horse.

I don’t spend an hour on each horse’s back working the barrels or working it until it’s exhausted. I want each ride to build on the last and to end on a good note. I’ll work up and down the hill until I feel the freshness is off the horse, or until I can see it has worked up a sweat or is breathing harder.

Dona Kay Rule works her horses over the hilly landscape.
The hilly landscape around her home allows Rule to give her horses a natural workout. Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

The groves of trees in our pasture make a nice alternative to working the barrel pattern but still allow me to work on correct circles and the turn response from the horse. I walk in the trees, around the trees and focus on the horse’s shoulder, ribcage and responsiveness. That keeps circles and turns from getting boring. The horse is more apt to stay engaged and willing to listen.

When I get finished with a horse that’s been going to a lot of rodeos, I’ll go to the arena to lope a few circles before I stop at the mouth of the alley I get off and loosen up my cinch in the mouth of the alley, so it is my ‘hot spot’ as well as a pleasant place to be. That is a big deal on rodeo horses for me, to have them relax.

One exercise tip uses multiple barrels in the arena during training.
Multiple barrels allow Rule to circle whenever she chooses and wherever she chooses in the arena. Photo by Kate Bradley Byars.

Time to Turn

I use the same exercise program for a 4-year-old horse getting ready to be a divisional barrel horse. I ride each horse outside to get it conditioned but with a younger horse, I spend more time in the arena.

In the arena, my work focuses on correct circles, correct body position and stopping to get the horse on its hind end. I have barrels set, but not in a cloverleaf pattern. I will set five or seven barrels all around the arena. Instead of working one right turn and two left, I will trot or lope around the arena, turning whenever it feels like a good spot for the horse. I use the same leg and rein cues as if I were turning in the pattern.

Lots of options to turn lets me work on speeding up and slowing down, turns and positioning without the horse becoming bored with the pattern.

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.