By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

Incorrect position on the pattern or poor rider position can cause a lot of grief for the horse. The majority of gate problems stem from riding in the wrong position, rider nerves, heavy hands, pulling too hard or down on the reins and getting ready for the run too early.

I encourage people to approach the gate with one hand on the reins and to keep their upper body relaxed. Shake the free hand to relax a little bit and relax your legs in order not to squeeze the horse. Horses like a calm approach. They like slow movements. It’s the same as people — you often become calmer around someone who has a relaxed and easy-going attitude, versus someone who is wound up about things all the time. It’s important to maintain the right mindset for the sake of our horses. Even caffeine, nicotine and a poor diet will affect a person’s nerves. Don’t underestimate how these things all influence your nerves and affect you when you run the barrels. It’s all about balance in the way we ride, the way we care for our horses and even how we care for our own bodies by eating nutritiously.

By the same token, a lot of times people tend to dismiss the importance of the basics like learning how a horse moves, the importance of leads, riding with good balance and sitting for stops. Learn all you can about good horsemanship because those fundamentals are invaluable when it comes to fixing something serious like gate issues. 

charmaynefall2010Charmayne James and Grasshopper. Photo by Megan Sparks.


Solve it through soundness

I’ve seen horses come through my clinics that the owners have recently had dental work done on, but I’ve learned that some dentists get the job done in front and miss problems in the back of the mouth. I’ve always stressed the importance of surrounding yourself with qualified professionals who you can trust to get the job done thoroughly. Find a practitioner who you trust with your horse’s health.

It’s important to get educated about equine ulcers and if you suspect that this is a health concern issue contributing to your horse’s gate problem. Have your horse scoped for ulcers if you suspect them, so you know for sure and can treat them. A sign that a horse might have ulcers are he’ll eat slowly and not real well. The horse will look bad and be drawn up in the flanks, especially before entering the arena to compete. These horses are in a lot of pain and they get a scared look in their eye and lay down a lot. As many as 78 percent of all performance horses these days have ulcers. That’s an alarming statistic and one that barrel racers should be aware of since we expose our horses to so many stress categories, not only in performance, but with hauling too.

When soundness issues have been ruled out as the root cause of gate issues, it’s up to the rider to analyze his position, and training and/or warm up routine to get to the bottom of the problem before it’s out of control.

Why do some horses dread running barrels?

The biggest factor that I see causing gate issues is positioning horses incorrectly for the turns. A rider might develop the habit of looking right at the first barrel rather than visualizing a point six steps away from the barrel. I recommend never looking down the inside of the horse’s neck or straight at the first barrel. A person can walk off six steps from the first barrel toward the second barrel and mark that spot on the ground in order to visualize what I refer to as the “Six Steps.” Of course the six steps can vary a little from horse to horse, but I’ve found that it’s not extremely different from one horse to another.

Riding a horse with his head in your line of site with his body “squared up” and balanced, not cranking his head to the inside or the outside, but just the shaping him slightly, will increase the horse’s comfort level as he approaches the barrel pattern. Riders should take every measure possible to build the horse’s confidence. Some horses don’t need a lot of shape and every horse is different, but they all need enough room to get their back end around one barrel before you ask them to run to the next one. There’s a lot of timing involved in asking the horse to rate, and it’s crucial to feel the hindquarters and understand the timing of the turn. A balanced approach to position on the pattern and in the turns has a lot to do with avoiding gate issues with your horses.

I’ve been on horses that other people have had gate issues with and I didn’t have much trouble with them because I calmed their frustration level. First of all, by riding quietly and not getting wound up with my attitude and movements, the horses often relax a bit. Second, by riding the horse with good position on the pattern and proper body position with my hands, seat, legs, feet and upper body I can get by some of those problem horses.

It’s common to see barrel racers turn their body in the saddle and look toward the next barrel before one turn is actually complete. They’re looking toward the next barrel when the horse’s hind end hasn’t even started the turn, which is very frustrating for a horse. By throwing the horse off balance and not completing the turn with him, the rider is ultimately going to really deflate this horse’s confidence. What this does is causes the horse to lose his balance in the turn, and in so doing it causes added torque on his hocks and his back. The horse will start to get sore, which compounds his frustration and causes him to dread the pattern and not want to run barrels. It’s a trickle down effect because once you get some soreness and maybe some teeth problems added into the equation, you have a recipe for ulcers too. These factors combine to create a state of misery for your horse. His physical problems combined with lack of confidence make him hate his job. All the horse knows is that the barrel pattern means that he gets pulled on because he has no room to turn correctly — and this hurts. Little by little a combination of small problems can escalate into full-blown refusal at the gate.

On rare occasions I do see horses that are bad at the gate despite the fact that they are ridden by good horsemen. There are horses that just get overly nervous, but I’d have to say that those cases are rare in comparison to the scenario outlined in the previous paragraph. The other type I see — and this is also rare — is a horse that takes advantage of the rider. This usually happens when the rider is at more of the novice stage, or it happens due to the rider who lacks confidence or a game plan. Having a game plan is crucial, particularly if you’re a beginner barrel racer. Think about, plan and visualize your approach to the alley and your position to the first barrel. Move confidently toward the arena. Don’t check out mentally and withdraw your mind from what’s about to happen, even if you’re nervous or new to the sport. A horse will pick up on that. Horses sense indecision and timidity. You can’t be timid and then get mad at the horse when he hasn’t had the benefit of your confident direction. This creates confusion for the horse. I recommend being very assertive and calm.

“It’s not basketball”

Sometimes if a person is new to the sport of barrel racing, or having trouble with something during a run, they practice running barrels too much at home. Barrel racing is not basketball or football though, so expecting a horse to make all those perfect runs at home is counterproductive and too many runs can make a horse extremely nervous and hyper.

A better approach is to work on improving your hands, timing, balance and position to the first barrel. On the topic of good hands, we’ve talked before about what happens when a person pulls down on the reins. It forces a broken mouthpiece to poke straight up into the roof of the horse’s mouth and inflicts a lot of pain. Also, jerking and pulling drags the mouthpiece across the sensitive bars of the horse’s mouth. This is extremely painful for a horse and severe damage can be done to the bars as a result of bad hands. Take a hold when you need to, but don’t inflict a constant pull on your horse.

Instead of making a bunch of practice runs at home, analyze your runs and position on the pattern. You can mentally practice looking down the outside of the horse’s neck or between his ears during slow work. Practice keeping your hands not too low and not too high — waist high is about right. Bend your elbows rather than bracing your arms, and sit down in the turns, because standing up too soon tells a horse to go. It causes a horse to come out of his set and his backend will not be in the correct position. The horse gets his strength and power from the hind end, so it’s important to keep his mind sound by riding the correct position around the barrels. Getting out of position results in the horse coming over the top of barrels or blowing out of the turns, and these things are frustrating for horses, just like they are for riders.

Know the horse

The better you know your horse the better the results will be. For nervous horses, a rider has to be really calm and can keep the horse’s nerves in check by hand-walking that horse and keeping him away from the arena prior to competition. For a lazier horse, you often experience better results by getting a little adrenaline going and keeping that horse closer to the action so barrel racing is on his mind.

An effective rider will learn to let them be the horses they are without letting them become disrespectful or develop bad habits. My horses “Charlie” and “Grasshopper” both walk toward the alley way, but Cruiser was different and I had to do everything in my power to keep him calm and away from the action prior to a run. Scamper learned to take off in the beginning because I found that he worked the best if I got him jazzed up a bit before a run. He never refused to go in the gate; in fact it was quite the opposite. If he saw an open gate he wanted to go run the barrels.

Averting catastrophe

If gate issues with your horse are so bad that you’re getting scared and putting yourself and others in danger, it’s time to start back at square one. I don’t advise entering more barrel races until things are back under control. My course of action would be to go to some different arenas and make some exhibitions, but don’t run. Keep things slow and calm. It’s not worth hurting yourself or others. Start off slowly bringing the horse back. Build his confidence and be prepared for a long process. It doesn’t always happen overnight because gate issues have usually built up over time as a result of the smaller influencing factors that we’ve talked about. Make certain that the horse is not sore, and, if you’re frightened of your horse, definitely get some help from a qualified professional.

Hopefully, a better understanding of good position and solid horsemanship will help you and your horse avoid gate frustration.

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