By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

There are days when you might be tempted to give up on your horse or even give up on barrel racing altogether. Over the years, I’ve seen many cases where people were ready to give up but they persevered, educated themselves and it helped save their horse from going by the wayside. This month I thought we’d talk about horses with problems and look at what can be done to help them turn the corner. I’m often surprised at the horses people have saved and made a nice horse out of, whether it’s a 1D or 4D horse, people have found a place and a purpose for that horse’s given talent.

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Giving a horse confidence, keeping them sound and riding them consistent are three keys to fixing and avoiding problems on the barrel pattern.

Two examples stick out for me from a recent school I did. One was a 4-year-old horse that had the potential to be really, really nice. This young horse was paired with a young girl who was unsure of how to work him through some of the stages that young horses go through. Once she learned some things to do to work her horse better, all of the sudden she went from thinking she needed to sell him to loving him. Another horse had sat in a barn with absentee owners who didn’t see him or ride him on a regular basis. A girl who began working with the horse discovered that with regular riding, this horse could be really nice. I think there are some nice horses out there that don’t necessarily have a job, for whatever reason, but that do have great potential in the right hands.

I think the health and horse care topics that are covered at my schools have been such a gift to a lot of people who’ve gained access that they might not have had otherwise to professionals like equine chiropractor, Casey Deal, and equine dentist, Randy Riedinger. Sometimes fixing a horse health issue can help solve major performance related problems. The number one thing I find that causes horses not to work well on the pattern is the way they’re being ridden, but bad teeth, bad shoeing, soreness escalating from a variety of causes—all of that builds in a horse. A person who rides well can maybe get by some soreness problems in a horse, but not for long.

Riders who learn to have better hands and better placement of the horse on the pattern through good mechanics can help turn horses around. Learning how much to run the horse—because there’s a fine line for different horses between too much and not enough—is another way riders can make a big difference for a horse. A horse that’s been run too much in practice may become really scared or anxious about barrel racing. I’ve found that horses do really well with at least four to five days a week of consistent riding. When a horse is in shape, softened up and is used to working and not too fresh, sometimes these are the things that make a big difference for a horse to go from not working to working. I’m so thrilled with what people have done at the clinics to learn and find a better way because it makes a positive difference for the horses.

If a horse is doing something a little wrong, really analyze what you’re doing with your hands and feet and the pressure it’s putting on the bit in the horse’s mouth. Some riders get so locked onto the barrels that they’re completely unaware of their position in the saddle. A lot of times I hear people say, “I have no idea what happened in my run.” But when you have some training as a rider and a plan for three to four key things that you want to execute in the run in order to improve—once you start that kind of training and the thought process involved, you will gain objectivity on your riding and awareness in the run.

Most times I find that the people with the biggest problems are the ones who say, “My horse does this,” or “My horse does that.” The worst problems develop due to lack of rider awareness or incorrect mechanics. Another thing I’ve noticed that causes big problems is this notion of picking up the inside rein to “lift” a horse off or away from the barrels because it’s very ineffective. It only makes sense to have your track picked out that you’re going to take around the barrels and learn to guide the horse there with your hands and feet. What’s frustrating for riders is they’ll say, “I rode my horse to this place and he didn’t go there.” What I find is that they’ve been on that wrong pattern for maybe two or three years, so the horse has developed some terrible habits as a result. Some horses might take a month to reprogram; some might take a year, but it’s important to remember that with hard work, it’s possible.

With the mindset that goes along with dealing with a problem it’s important to take a real balanced approach to fixing horses. Some people will tend to feel sorry for the horse and baby them too much when in fact, a horse needs some work and guidance and to be ridden regularly to undo the bad patterns. So many people think that slow work isn’t important for a finished barrel horse, but it’s necessary for the mental preparation of the rider and for the mental welfare of the horse. Pre-programming the horse and the rider is important because once you get to the barrel in a run and realize you’re out of position, it’s too late to salvage things. You’ve got to go off of reactions learned ahead of time and that’s where good, solid slow work comes in.

When I quit rodeoing and my older son, Tyler, was a baby, that’s what I did, I bought horses and fixed them. I bought some horses that were a mess to see what I could do with them. It was amazing how much getting them shod, fed and ridden right, coupled with consistent riding, could do to help these horses. There were one or two of them that took a year to get right but for the most part they came around quicker, and it provided a great learning experience for me. Fixing barrel horses that have issues can be done, it just takes some time and often giving them confidence is the most important thing. The types of horses that are hardest to fix, in my opinion, are the ones that have learned to duck in front of the barrels or run up the fence. It’s hard to change the mindset those horses have developed. Usually those problems begin with bad position and get worse because they’ve been sped up and kicked to go by the barrels, so they start ducking harder. I’ve seen horses duck for a variety of reasons, but mostly it’s the inside rein coming up and across the neck because this actually cues a horse to drop in harder. A real sore horse that dreads the turn might start to duck, or a bleeder that’s choking down might get in this habit. You can do a lot to line them out physically and get them back on the right track with correct riding, but they might not be totally trustworthy all of the time once they’ve learned these habits.

If you are in the situation where you have a horse with issues to fix, my first piece of advice is to seek help from a good horseman—a reputable reiner or someone who is really known for not only great horsemanship, but great horse care, as these two things go hand in hand. Find the right person to help you; one who loves horses and wants to do right by them. A person who is not always respectful of the horse won’t do much to help you move forward with fixing issues or maintaining a healthy and happy horse that wants to work and win for you.

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