By Fallon Taylor, from the May 2015 issue of Barrel Horse News
I, Fallon Taylor, have a bad habit, and I don’t think I am alone in barrel racer land. So, what is that bad habit? Trying to fit the horse to the bit instead of the other way around. If I had to guess, you probably have been guilty of this, too.
In 1995, I qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for the first time on my amazing mare, Flowers And Money. “Flo-Jo” and I were inseparable, and while no one else really liked her (she was quite contrary), I adored her every move. I was 14 years old and loved riding in the equipment that was trendy at the time, so my pick for her was a Jim Warner hackamore. It hung off her head, and I never let the curb chain even come close to functional. Every time I ran her, the headstall would slip and nearly fall off. I also used a pair of braided leather reins that were my all-time favorite, even to this day. However, at 14 years old, I didn’t really take the time to take better care of my equipment or understand how to adjust the hackamore for it to function properly. After several successful years with Flo-Jo in spite of ill-fitting equipment, I retired her to raise some awesome foals.
Here comes the bad habit. I picked my favorite foal based on which one would work best in my old mare’s hackamore, because that was what got me to the NFR in previous years. Looking back, I realize my philosophy was as much of a fairy tale as Cinderella’s prince finding his bride based on which one could wear the glass slipper—insanity. So, although Babyflo carried me to many wins wearing an ill-fitting hackamore I had very little control in, we continuously crashed barrels, which led to a disappointing 16th-place finish in the world standings in 2012. I beat my head against a wall run after disappointing run, but the last thing I would discuss changing was head gear. I just wouldn’t let go of the dream of riding a foal by my NFR stallion and NFR mare in my NFR head gear. It sounds even crazier now that I am reliving it, but it really held me back—I know I am not alone.
After the 2013 NFR where my Achilles heel reared its ugly head again and I crashed more barrels than any of my peers, the time had come to re-evaluate my head gear. I decided to use a longer-shank bit and a tie-down to gather and collect Babyflo before each turn. It took time, discipline and many hours in the practice pen for her and me to communicate on this level and for me to concentrate on my horsemanship rather than wondering why she wasn’t placing herself correctly. After all, she was already trained. Why couldn’t she help me more? I had to look in the mirror and re-evaluate my skills. Why aren’t your hands in the right place every time? Why don’t you set her up better? Why are you clenching your saddle horn instead of helping your horse more?
After tons of practice pen lectures with myself, I realized Babyflo needed more from me and I needed more control of her. Since I know we are all guilty of this in some way, shape or form, I am asking for you to evaluate every piece of your equipment before the summer rodeos and jackpots get started so you can have your most successful year yet. Are you riding a saddle that helps your performance or riding it because it’s pretty? Are your reins best suited to your hands, or are they a hand-me-down from someone you wish you rode like? Most importantly, is your head gear best suited for the control you need, or are you using it because someone else was successful with it and so surely it has magical powers to take you to the next level?
What do I think of this hackamore now? I love it! I know what the purpose and function is for this amazing piece of equipment and know exactly which horses I will use it on in the future and exactly how to adjust it. I recommend it often to riders and make sure to give them a quick lesson on how it is supposed to fit. Here is a quick rundown of how I choose bits and headgear now:
• Short shanks or no shank create lots of bend and break at the rib cage with a little whoa and lift.
• Medium shanks create flexion and a little more bend with some whoa.
• Long shanks create lots of control and flexion when used properly.
• Smooth mouth pieces offer less control but are very appropriate for a young horse that is just learning.
• Twisted or three-piece mouth pieces, when combined with a medium to long shank, gives lots of lift and control. Remember, the thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more potential it has to have severe effects on the horse’s sensitive mouth and the more advanced your skills need to be.
• Chain mouth pieces provide for a lot of movement in the shoulders, and when combined with a longer shank can help with control.
Of course this list just scratches the surface of the thousands of bits lining the wall at the tack shop, but hopefully it will get you started on what kind of equipment to look for to have your most successful year.
Fallon Taylor was the 2014 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Barrel Racer and contributed a monthly column, “World Champion Reflections,” to Barrel Horse News throughout 2015. Email comments on this article to [email protected]