By Tana Poppino with Bonnie Wheatley
Question: I have a 6-year-old barrel horse that I trained myself. He does great in the arena, but it is a struggle to get him into the alley and out the gate. He backs up, crow hops and rears. He is fine at home, but when we get to a show, he starts acting up again. Are there any exercises we can do to help with this? — Katie Howell, of Mize, Miss.
Hi, Katie. There are several things that could be causing this behavior. Let’s look at a couple of the possible culprits. Your horse is either dreading the run because he hurts, or it could be that you and he are getting a little nervous and tightening up before you run.
First of all, I’d get your horse checked out by a veterinarian and/or an equine chiropractor. It’s possible that his hocks and/or his back are sore. Everyone thinks these things will show up in the practice pen, but the pressure is not on at home, so sometimes they don’t.
As far as exercises, if possible, go to other events and just ride. For instance, I will make it a priority to haul my young horses to team ropings and just ride them around. Sit down where the action is and let your horse get used to that. If his issue is nerves, this strategy will help. He’ll find out that every time you go somewhere else he is not going to have to run barrels.
If you can’t go to other events, you might have to sacrifice a barrel race and just exhibition or not even run. While they are dragging, ride in and out of the alley if possible. (Please remember arena etiquette and don’t interfere with other people’s runs.)
Practice your breathing and relax before you enter the arena to make your run. We all have adrenaline pumping, and the horses feel it, so pretend you are just going on a trail ride and walk up to the gate.
Sometimes barrel racers want to be ready when they hit the gate, so they gather the reins up and get in their “go” position. Our horses feel that, and they think it’s time to go, so they go, and we pull them up, then we kick them to make them go, and they take off, and we pull them up. This habit can obviously become quite confusing for the horse, so try to keep him relaxed until you get in the arena.
This process could take some time, so just stay relaxed. I call this “scoring,” just like the ropers do. You get your horse in position to run, and then you just pet him and let him know that he did a good job, and that’s all you are asking today. Ropers score as many cattle as they run to keep their horses good in the box, and we should learn from that.