By Dena Kirkpatrick

I was visiting a small church in Fort Worth with my daughter a few Sundays ago. The message that morning was about the fact that God created us ‘On Purpose, With Purpose and For a Purpose.’ I do believe that this is true, and believe that we should live our lives as such, right down to the little things. I just feel that in the grand scheme of life, we should always keep things in perspective. Training horses is a huge part of my life as with many other barrel racers I know and I am not trying to belittle our time at the barn. However, having a bad day with one of my horses is not nearly as important as worrying about my children or my father who has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. In fact, I remind myself of this every time I begin to get too upset about a bad run at a futurity or rodeo, or when I had a bad day in the training pen. Also, I learned a long time ago that obsessing over problems my horses were having just magnified the issue and caused me to put way too much pressure on them. Purpose is the subject of this article. Our lives should be lived with purpose, and although horse training is not the most important thing in my life, I do take it very seriously. Colossians 3:23 says, “whatsoever ye do, work heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men;” Therefore, I feel that Purpose must be incorporated into my horse training as well.

On Purpose

At my clinics, I remind people that literally everything they do when they are with their horses or riding them is teaching them something, whether it is good or bad. It is very important to be aware of this and to be sure that our actions are teaching our horses helpful things and not detrimental things. In other words, we should never just ride around unconscientiously. By not being clear and complete in our cues, we can inadvertently teach bad habits. Make sure to be purposeful in your actions with your, giving thought to every move prior to making it. This kind of awareness will improve your feel as well as make you a more consistent rider. Consistency gives a horse security and leadership, which in turn makes the horse more confident and happy to do his job. He will quickly learn what is expected of him and what to expect from you. For example, when I am returning to my barn after a training session, I am careful not to let my horse drop his shoulder as he maneuvers through the gates we have to go through. He may feel anxious to get back into the barn and try to rush around the gates. I just ride him around the corners making sure that he turns in the same correct manner I expect from him in the practice pen. Training does not stop just because you are not necessarily working the barrel pattern. If I ask the horse to stop in the alleyway of the barn, I still expect the same softness and execution as I do in the arena. Always correct the small issues before they become big ones, wherever you are.

With Purpose

Be decisive. When you ask a horse for a response, make sure you do it in a firm and clear way. One of my favorite sayings is, “A rider should have a firm mind and soft hands.” If you have a clear idea in your mind about what you are asking your horse to do, he will respond much easier to your hand and feet cues. Use your feet to move the horse’s feet and use your hands to guide him as lightly as possible. Don’t try to get your horse to go where you want by leaning your shoulders and wishing. In addition, you can’t expect your horse to understand what you want when you are not really sure yourself. When your horse is not responding to you like you think he should, it is time to rethink the way you are asking him. Stop his feet, take a deep breath, think about what is happening, change what you are doing, and start back slowly. I witness this at my clinics often when I am trying to get a rider to make ‘Perfect Circles’ around the barrels. A rider that is struggling will go round and round on the same incorrect path hoping for a change but continues to do the same thing and gets the same results. They keep asking their horse in the same manor, wishing that something else will happen, but it doesn’t. I have read that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” I know that is meant to be funny, but it is also a little true. Our horses can’t fake a reaction or follow direction if it is not there. So I encourage barrel racers to lead their horse with a clear purpose in mind.

For a Purpose

Ian Francis says, “In order for a command to be effective, it must be understood. Also, you cannot teach a concept you do not understand yourself.”

“Just because” is not a clear purpose or good reason to do something. Always understand the reasoning behind any command you give your horse and understand the long term results you are working to achieve. Never try a training technique on your horses that you don’t fully understand just because you saw another trainer/competitor do it. It is very important that you understand clearly the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ prior to trying it with your horse.

I don’t intend for this article to make you feel like you can’t enjoy riding your horses. There are definitely times that just riding and relaxing is good for both you and your horse. Trained and mature horses can definitely be allowed to relax and just be ridden, although this time should be distinguishable between work and relaxation. I think of it a little like training a dog. When my husband was training his Border Collies, he would release them from duty by saying, “That will do.” This means that work time is over, and they can relax. In my mind and with my actions, I do the same for my horses when I am finished with a training session. I often go for a relaxing walk somewhere away from the barrels and arena and just ride them on a loose rein. I may stop and loosen the cinch a bit, and then walk away from the pattern. With my younger and very impressionable horses, I am still very careful to feel and forecast their regard for me. Usually, they can be allowed to relax without taking advantage of the situation, but I stay very attentive to what they are thinking while being allowed to relax.

Remember as you are training your horses that each thing you do should be done with a specific purpose in mind. Keep a clear objective and direct your horse toward it with deliberate actions, keeping your cues consistent every time. The purpose of your actions, your horse’s response, and your overall goals must be clear so that your horse can understand exactly what is expected of him. The more clearly you establish the line of communication, the quicker the release will be for the horse because he will understand and be more responsive and willing to follow your direction. That is when it gets fun! …For you and your horse.

            Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit Email comments to [email protected].


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