Article and photos by Danika Kent.
“I want to know that when I drop my hand, the horse is going to go through and pretty much do everything on his own,” Lovendahl said. “I don’t ever expect them to do it perfect; you’re always going to be helping them a little bit somewhere. As long as he lets me do that, I know I can enter up and send him hard enough to compete and place.”
At this stage of the game, Ryan Lovendahl has spent a solid year on his colts. First, he introduced the basics in the round pen and logged miles in the pasture. Then, he put skills to the test on drills and let them prove themselves on the pattern in the practice pen. The next step is into the trailer and off to exhibitions at local jackpots.
Execution in Exhibitions
Though they may still be green on the pattern, by the spring of their 3-year-old year, Lovendahl usually has the confidence in his colts to take them through the barrels in a pseudo-competitive environment. Complete with banners, loudspeakers and crowded warm-up pens, this stage is more about developing confidence than building speed on the pattern.
“At first, I may only get two or three exhibitions for a particular horse, and he may only trot through,” Lovendahl said. “If he gets distracted by something on the wall or someone moving up in the stands, I’ll bring him to a walk. I’ll take my time in order to make it a good experience.”
He adds a word of caution that a young horse should be expected to throw riders an occasional curve ball when in unfamiliar environments, and that these instances should be handled with care.
“Most horses are going to look around at new surroundings and react to noise and other distractions. Be patient; that’s a huge part of seasoning a horse,” Lovendahl said. “Remember, horses are herd animals and react to the way others react for fear that others have seen some type of danger that they have not. At those times, you need to be confident and reassuring that all is well. If you’re consistent with that, they will learn to rely on you to tell them when to be afraid, and that should be never.”
After spending six months on drills, a colt is no stranger to the pattern set in the arena. But even as the horse tunes out his surroundings and hones in on his job, his trainer continues to reinforce the fundamentals with slow work.
“A lot of people say, ‘I send mine through fast the first time and then go back in and fix stuff.’ Well, I don’t want to fix anything,” Lovendahl said. “I want to instill that confidence every time I go in there. I’m going to go slow first because I want to know what part of my mechanics may be broken so I can fix it before I ever leave the alleyway.”
He applies the same theories to his warm up routine, as well. Whether he’s exhibitioning a colt for the first time or making a slot-race run, Lovendahl takes steps to predict what’s in store and set up for success.
“Based on how your horse responds to you in the warm up, you should know how your run is going to go,” Lovendahl said. “A horse that is dull to my legs tells me he may not fire and run hard enough. When I’m loping a circle, if I pick him up and he doesn’t respond or he cuts me off, I can guarantee he’s going to do that out on the pattern. If he isn’t crisp and clean when I ask him to stop, he’s probably going to go by a barrel, lean on me and get onto his front end or bow off the back side of a turn.”
These signs, shown even in the subtlest degree in the warm up pen, will show up in a big way on the pattern if not addressed before going through the gate.
“It’s like preparing a racecar to race down a track,” Lovendahl said. “You test the brakes, you test the power steering and you make sure everything’s working correctly. A barrel horse is no different than a racecar. If your brakes aren’t working before the race, they aren’t going to work when you’re going fast.”
The more a colt settles in and stays true and consistent with his rider’s clues, the more speed Lovendahl adds to the mix.
“I usually get three exhibitions, and I go slow the first two times and let him go through hard the last time,” Lovendahl said. “If I go through slow the first time and everything is flawless, I’ll let him cruise through the second time. If it went really well when I went fast, I’ll come back through slow so he realizes that it was no big deal. As the futurities get closer, I might only do one slow exhibition and then let him run through, and just before the futurities, I will start sending him through the first time.”
Of course, it isn’t always so easy to breeze through, even at a trot.
“If I went through slow twice and he was still arguing somewhere, I would go through slow again and then put him away and go home,” Lovendahl said. “Don’t ever let your horse take off running through the pattern when you were arguing with him at a trot. It doesn’t magically go away because you go fast; it’s usually going to multiply by 10 times. That’s why you need to really pay attention to tiny details that will blow up in your face when you go fast, and don’t ever go fast until those problems are gone.”