It takes a special hand to make winning a $100,000 slot race seem easy aboard a 3-year-old horse that’s never been entered. Yet, Lacey Harmon has done so consecutively. Not only does she consistently place among the top at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Juvenile Futurity and SuperStakes each year, but her juvenile stars continue to shine throughout their futurity year as 4-year-olds.
Harmon’s mother Kathy Donegan—the breeder and owner of many of Harmon’s top contenders—attributes Harmon’s success to her daughter’s easygoing, laugh-it-off nature that helps young horses stay relaxed and confident from their first day on the pattern to the first day they’re entered. While the time crunch of training a 3-year-old to clock with open horses by the end of the year can be stressful and demanding for some, Harmon’s methodology is the opposite. Her training program is based on a simple, low-pressure approach allowing colts to enjoy learning to run barrels while encouraging the horse to progress at its own pace.
Harmon prefers starting 3-year-olds on the barrels later in the year than some trainers. She typically begins the patterning process in March or April. Harmon uses simple circles around the barrels in the same direction to avoid overwhelming the colt.
“I start at a lope, not a trot. I’m not necessarily ready to lope the pattern, but I just lope lots of circles,” Harmon said. “I might lope all rights or lefts—go to the first, then the third then the second. I do the same thing every day. After two or three days, they get to a barrel and know what they’re supposed to do. I don’t typically ever stop at a barrel.”
Once the colt understands how to lope a big, easy circle around a barrel, Harmon will begin dialing down the size of the circles according to how much the horse can handle.
“I’ll bring them in tighter when they are real comfortable and doing it perfect—I’m not saying exactly the right position, but when they understand and want to be soft,” Harmon said. “I’ll go for a few big circles and then come in and go back out, just to let them relax. I won’t leave a barrel until they do relax.”
In the beginning, Harmon doesn’t stress too much about the specifics of body position. The most important thing is showing the horse where to go and letting it get comfortable around the barrel.
“I’m looking for smooth circles and not picking a fight with them,” Harmon said. “Just getting them to place their feet correctly. I’m not asking a whole lot. I want it to be an easy experience and for them to learn fluidity and how to move smoothly and forward.”
She also lets the horse figure out lead changes from first to second on its own. However, Harmon will always put the horse on the correct lead to begin the pattern and when loping circles.
“I’m probably one of the only people who doesn’t expect that from them; I’ve never been a huge lead person,” Harmon said. “Leads play a certain role at a certain time—you don’t want them in the incorrect lead all the time—but I don’t pick at it, because it usually comes with more speed. With that being said, I want to be training them correctly and not causing problems.”
Harmon helps facilitate a lead change after the first barrel by finishing the back-side of the turn with a serpentine curve toward the second, creating a dramatic move the opposite direction that usually forces the horse to swap leads naturally.
“When I’m loping the first barrel, I don’t finish barrels normally,” Harmon said. “When I’m leaving the first barrel, I’m over-turning it and then swooping back to the left, so that creates a natural switch. After a few weeks it comes naturally to them and then once they turn, they switch.”
Harmon will have colts loping the pattern for several months before she takes them to exhibition, usually in June or July. Part of what helps her horses transition so successfully into futurities is her theory on over-preparing before exhibitioning.
“I’m slow to start,” Harmon said. “I have a big theory on not exhibitioning too soon. I think you need to get their confidence and be consistent. It might only take two weeks to get them loping the pattern, but I’m going to stay loping the pattern for months until they’re very comfortable and confident. I won’t exhibition until they’re overly ready and can go do it on their own.”
She says asking too much from a colt too soon can cause the horse to burn out by the time the futurity year rolls around, when the runs need to count.
“If you pay attention to colts that are running hard and exhibitioning early in the summer, they aren’t doing well when it comes time to enter up,” Harmon said. “Granted there are some that were cruising the pattern as 2-year-olds that are still doing good. But in my opinion, they need that time to just chill. You don’t want them to peak too early.”
Outside influences can also cause people to push young horses too hard.
“If you watch Facebook, it’ll make you get scared,” Harmon admitted with a laugh. “Social media is the biggest deal of why people get pushy with their colts. You see people posting videos and think ‘Oh, I need to go faster,’ when really you need to go with what you’ve always done and what works for you and stop worrying about everyone else.”
Harmon doesn’t pressure her colts when she begins exhibitioning. For her, a trip to town is all about building confidence.
“About the first 10 times, I literally just let them figure it out,” Harmon said. “I’m not going to put them in a situation where they have to do something correct. It’s all about exposure and a confidence booster. If they’re scared they’re going to make mistakes, and it just escalates downhill from there.”
After the first few exhibitions, Harmon begins expecting the horse to pay attention in the arena. She typically takes three exhibitions for each horse with a goal of gradually improving each time out.
“I’ll start by just taking them through. My goal is to lope circles, but sometimes that doesn’t always work out because they’re too scared, so I end up just trotting and letting them see the arena,” Harmon said. “If it went well and I was able to actually work on the pattern, I’ll come back and lope them slow through. If that went well again, I’ll go a little faster. Throughout the year I build on that and get faster.”
Harmon’s timeline is always adjustable for every horse. She’s not afraid to hold one back if she thinks it needs extra time to mature.
“I stay at one speed for a while; I don’t move too fast,” Harmon said. “If it doesn’t go well and I feel like they need more seasoning and time in the arena, then I just keep it simple. I might have to lope all three exhibitions and lope circles until they really pay attention.”
How the horse is clocking doesn’t matter to Harmon until August or September. By that point, she has more or less decided which horses will be ready to run as 3-year-olds in the juvenile and which need to wait a little longer and be entered as 4-year-olds.
“Sometimes they surprise you, and some do mature more than others. If it’s one I think is greener and just needs to go and keep trucking, I won’t enter them yet and just keep it day by day,” Harmon said. “I don’t worry about them clocking until the fall. All in all, you can tell. They either crave it or they don’t.”
Drills for Improvement
Harmon uses fence work and a circular tire drill to improve footwork and build power through a turn.
In keeping with her training style, she doesn’t pressure a horse when working it on the fence. Harmon simply uses the fence as an aid to quicken a colt’s feet and response to rider cues.
“I don’t want it to be like a ‘Do it right now’ thing,” Harmon said. “I want them to stay soft.”
She uses her body during fence work similar to how she’d ride the backside of a barrel turn or a cutting horse. Harmon trots down the fence, leaving some space between the horse and the fence. She asks the horse to rate down by sitting deep in her saddle, putting weight in her outside stirrup, releasing the inside leg and closing the outside leg, asking the horse to roll over its hocks toward the fence. Harmon repeats this several times each direction until she feels her goal with the individual horse has been accomplished.
“They don’t have to turn back on the fence really hard, but I want them to rate at the fence,” Harmon said. “When they do turn back, I want them to leave hard. It’s more of a quickness-on-the-backside type of exercise.”
Harmon uses a circular tire drill for a horse falling out of lead or struggling to hold a smaller circle around a barrel. She sets four tires around a cone, making the circle smaller or larger depending on the horse’s capability. The goal is to lope a circle around the cone within the parameters of the tires.
“For horses that aren’t pushing through a turn or not holding a small circle, this really helps them because they have to, otherwise they’ll run over a tire,” Harmon said. “It gradually builds that want-to.”
Harmon makes it easy by starting in a trot to demonstrate the concept to the horse. She also modifies the circle when she begins loping.
“Sometimes I’ll lope around the outside of all four tires, and then go in halfway and do a half-moon, and then gradually build up to loping inside the circle,” Harmon said.
It’s crucial to stay as relaxed as possible as a rider and guide the horse instead of forcing it into the circle. Harmon also emphasizes the importance of not getting frustrated if the horse can’t complete the drill in one day, because it is a difficult exercise. Be patient and build up to it.
“It’s a pressure situation, so they do want to panic a bit,” Harmon said. “Try to relax and not pressure them into it, but just gradually ask them to do it.”
Ready to Run
Harmon stays true to her simple approach when her colts begin competing. She believes less is more once the horse knows its job and is happily working the pattern with confidence. By the time the futurity year begins, Harmon’s colts are prepared to hit the ground running with a sound mind, a solid foundation and a promising road ahead.
“If they’re working good and it’s easy for them, I don’t work them a lot at home,” Harmon said. “When they’re trained, I only work them two or three times a week, and I try to keep it simple. I don’t over-train them.”
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BHN.