Spring is a great time to evaluate your barrel horse’s fitness.

Managing your horse’s fitness is a process that’s unique depending on your circumstances and the region of the country in which you live.
Sometimes the simple act of getting your horse out of the stall and finding a place where it can stretch out and graze helps keep it fresh. Photo by Bonnie Wheatley.

Managing your horse’s fitness is a process that’s unique depending on your circumstances and the region of the country in which you live. During the spring months, many barrel racers are bringing their horses back from a winter break. California and Texas, even though they offer warmer climates, have had rain and cold that’s limited many residents’ ability to ride. In other parts of the country, like the Midwest and Northeast, people often can’t ride during winter at all because of extreme cold and snow. Everyone’s situation is unique, but I’ve learned a few things that help the conditioning process.

With barrel horses that are off all winter in harsher climates, it’s going to take at least three weeks, maybe longer, to get them legged up. Even after you’ve spent time conditioning by loping circles and long trotting, some horses take another several weeks of making actual runs before they start clocking well. My advice is to stick with it, even if they don’t come back running as fast as they did at the end of the previous season.

Know Your Horse

Each horse is different, so pay attention to every detail when you’re bringing one back to its competitive fitness level. Some horses breathe harder than others, some get hot quicker, and other horses experience a shorter recovery time following exertion. Pay close attention to all of these details. Some of it is genetic. Breeds like Thoroughbreds and Arabians are bred for greater endurance. Sometimes a horse whose breathing is more labored than usual might be getting sick. If you’re paying attention, you can catch it early.

Sometimes a horse might be fighting allergies or a little congestion you can take precautions against to keep it from getting worse.

How Many Runs?

If I can start running barrels on the weekends following a winter break, do I need to make runs during the week at home? A lot of people ask themselves this question. Occasionally people over-do it with running their horses at home, but I think, through education, people have by and large realized this doesn’t work. I don’t advocate running horses over and over at home. However, some horses do better with a few runs under their belt. It keeps them snappy and sharp to make a run occasionally, but your decision of how much and when comes back to knowing your horse.

Making runs is what gets horses in running shape. But you have to manage each portion of your horse’s exercise routine, because it’s also important to lope circles to build the muscle and stamina horses need to hold perfect circles during a run. Long trotting is important too, because it really stretches a horse’s muscles. If a horse gets tight in the hamstrings and can’t stretch out to run, it won’t perform as well for you because it simply can’t stretch out and run as fast. It’s important to balance the amount of loping circles, long trotting and making runs and not cram it all in, especially if you haven’t built the horse’s fitness level up over time.

Quality Time

I try to leave my practice arena at home as a sanctuary. I will do drills or work through the barrels two or three times slowly, lope some circles and do some long trotting, but I don’t make many fast runs at home.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to spend time just riding outside the arena. Horses like to look around, see the sights and avoid monotony, just like we do. Riding in the pasture keeps their minds fresh. You avoid over-schooling them on the pattern, too. Getting out of the arena and seeing different sights is important to the horse’s overall health and mindset.

Even walking is an important element of conditioning. Remember, your horse reads your body language, so you want to call on that relaxed state. You can get that while you’re conditioning by spending time walking and chilling out. This helps horses that are naturally nervous. You want to become good at keeping your horse’s composure, knowing that your horse will react to your body language when you relax your body position. If you’re a little tight and bracing on the reins, they feel that. Horses can feel a fly on their back, so it goes without saying that they feel all of it when you tense up or get nervous.

I advise riding at least five days a week. When I was competing heavily, my horses got out every day. Even if I wasn’t up at a rodeo, I still made sure my horses got to move around when I was out on the road. The worst thing you can do is let them sit. Sometimes I would get up in the morning and just hand-walk, which meant I got out and walked around and stretched out, and so did my horses. Take every opportunity you can to let your horses out to graze or play. They get stiff and sore just like we do if we’re sitting in the truck all day, so you’ve got to find ways to let them stretch out.


Breezing is something I did quite a bit with Scamper. It helped free him up and keep him sharp. However, if you start overdoing it, horses will run by barrels because they’re more inclined to run harder and think less about turning.

The effectiveness of breezing is case by case, just like everything. I had one horse that was a pretty nervous, hot- type of horse you wouldn’t really think would benefit from breezing. I gave it a try before I went to a barrel race and it knocked the adrenaline off, and he was not quite as nervous at the event. A lot of it takes being open to trying things. If I had been scared of messing him up, I probably wouldn’t have tried that, but sometimes you don’t know unless you take the chance.

Bottom Line

A horse properly conditioned for its job will be stronger and more capable of doing it well. It’s just a like a person—the better shape you’re in, the more circulation, oxygen to your brain and blood flow you have, the better you feel. Plus, exercise builds strength and bone. Working out and moving makes you stronger. It’s the same for our horses.

Be patient and give your horses a few runs to get back in the rhythm. Build your horse’s fitness up over time. Very few horses do well a week or two into it following a long break, so the process will require some planning on your part.

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News. For more, visit charmaynejames.com.