By Sue Smith, with Laura Lambert
Question: I have a 10-year-old Quarter Horse that will get within 20 feet of the first barrel, throw his ears forward and run up the fence. He does not do this every time we run, but I have no idea of knowing when he’s going to do it, or when he’s going to make the turn. Is this a lack of training, or could there be another problem? —Karen Rauls
In my opinion, I suspect there could be another problem causing this issue. Any time a horse has ever done that with me, there has always been another issue at the root of it. In fact, “Claimer” [Real Claim To Fame] did that to me this year at Salt Lake City, Utah, and, come to find out, there was a nail in his foot that he picked up in the warm-up pen before I ran.
Once a horse starts doing something like this, it does become an issue. When they figure out they can get away with something like running up the fence, and especially if they believe it is fun, they will repeat the behavior. The first thing I would do, though, is make sure that you don’t have another root cause such as an ill-fitting saddle, a bad tooth, bit problem or a soundness issue.
You will have to spend some quality time making sure nothing is hurting this horse. After you have eliminated all other potential triggers, you will have to really back the horse off and get him to turn the first barrel every time. This means you may have to really slow things down and not try to win the barrel race—just try to run the pattern correctly.
Consistency will be the most important thing for this horse. I would work this horse so he turns every time. Many times when a horse runs up the fence, it starts by him taking his head away from you. So, I would do a lot of shoulder softening exercises along with getting the horse really soft in the rib cage. Most of this work would be off of the pattern, and I would expect the horse to be responsive to my cues.
Softening a horse can happen in a day, a week or a month. It just depends on how willing your horse is to accept the training. Once the horse is feeling more responsive, I would then take him back to the pattern slowly and gradually. I would make sure the horse is not blocking me out at any point throughout the pattern, but paying very close attention.
When I know the horse is really listening and responding correctly, I would then add a little speed, still not trying to win the barrel race. I want every run to be correct. After the confidence is built back up, you can start trying to win on the horse again. This is where the trial really happens because you have to see if all of your groundwork and slow work holds him together. If it does, you can expect him to turn every time. If the horse falls apart again and you have taken your time, I would encourage you to give the horse another job for a while and give him a break.