Professional barrel racer Kassie Mowry trains her horses against their natural tendencies to increase their athleticism and make them think.
By Michael Mahaffey. This article was originally published in the June 2011 issue of Barrel Horse News.
As one of the top trainers of young horses in the United States, professional barrel racer, multiple futurity and slot race champion and National Finals Rodeo qualifier Kassie Mowry has ridden dozens of horses during her career. Whether they are free-running heart-stoppers or ratey mounts that require a constant push, one thing remains the same—she expects all of her horses to attack the pattern in the same way.
Mowry wants all of her horses to be able to shift gears without stalling, to keep their feet moving and to pull themselves around each barrel, so they don’t bog down and lose momentum at any point during the turn. It is a running style that she has found lends infinite flexibility to her training, because all she has to do to make it work is find the right tweaks that suit each individual.
“I try to train exactly how I’m going to run,” Mowry said. “I’ve tried to figure out how to tune them and train them, so everything feels the same at home as it does when I run at a race.”
It sounds like a straightforward and simple approach, but Mowry’s methods often include exercises that push a horse 180 degrees away from what it naturally wants to do. While it may seem counterintuitive, her approach has gotten winning results, over and over again. Since this article was published, Mowry is the second-highest earning barrel racer of all time with more than $3.5 million in earnings.
Handling and Body Position
To get the barrel approach she wants, Mowry believes her horses need to have the right handle. Her colts are broke, soft and very responsive to light pressure before she ever takes them around a barrel. Once she feels they are ready, she takes training very slowly.
“I don ‘t feel like they understand when you’re throwing everything at them,” Mowry said. “I want them really, really relaxed with the turn. They’re thinking about it, and they’re going slow enough that they’re comprehending everything. I try to go slow enough that they’re able to memorize where they’re putting their feet, so it can be a good habit for them.”
In the process, she teaches her horses to run between her hands.
“I am very aware of what I’m doing with my hands, and I try to do everything subtle,” she said. “I want a light feel with them. I handle them like I do when I’m running them. I’m asking them to do the same things. I’m very aware of my hands when I’m doing it, so I get their trust, and I ask before tell them.
“I ride two-handed in between the barrels, just to steady them and keep them in between my hands, because a lot of them will zigzag between the barrels. A lot of times [young horses] have a hard time with straight lines, and I’m just there, ready to help them stay straight, but I don ‘t have a lot of contact with their mouth. It’s really light, if any.”
That lightness is needed to keep the horse’s body position correct. A horse will brace or lean into any kind of pressure a rider gives, so Mowry tries to keep from becoming heavy-handed.
“Then, they can get into the barrel, and they’re kind of holding themselves, and if I need to help them, my hands are freed up to help them,” Mowry said. “I’m not going to hold onto them all the way there, because if I get there and get in a bind, I can’t help them. I’m already holding them up, and if I let go, they’re going to come out of a turn or fall.”
Mowry handles her horses constantly, and not just with perfect riding form. Since no rider is perfect, she slips common miscues and the occasional rough tug into the mix to teach her horses how to handle things when she is having the inevitable bad day. She does this to get her horses thinking about why she would cue them that way instead of reacting out of fear to an unexpected pull.
“I set them up for me to mess up,” she said. “I’m preparing them for me to grab their face or drop the reins, or if I get nervous or tense and kick, I still want them to know to keep coming around that turn no matter what I do. I ride so many horses that I can’t ride any of them perfectly, so I try to make them all as easy as I can and educate them all as much as I can, so they know their job enough that if I mess up, they’re going, ‘No, sweetie, I know where we’re going. I’ll take you there.”‘
By throwing a variety of scenarios at her horses during slow work, Mowry teaches them to think instead of react.
“I want a horse that will try to figure me out and not get defensive, bracy or nervous,” she said. “It helps later on when you get nervous and get a little snatchy with your hands. They try to think their way through it and not just panic. Just because I kick or let go of the reins doesn’t mean that we’re leaving the turn.”
Mowry likes her horses to think for themselves. She wants a partner who is capable of helping her just as much as she helps it. In her mind, her horses should be able to determine the differences between when she’s asking for something important and when she’s messing up and riding poorly.
“What I do to prepare them for when I’m off is speed control exercises around the barrels,” she explains. “I’ll lope, and I’ll get really aggressive with them and make them keep coming around that turn, where no matter how hard I’m pushing on them, they know that they still have to turn.
“Everything has to be fluid, and everything has to flow. All I’m trying to do is make everything smooth, where I can pick up on them, and they’re not going to toss their head up or stop moving forward.”
Approach and Speed Control
According to Mowry, the angle a rider takes when approaching a barrel is the most important part of any run. The position the horse is in when it gets to the barrel is more vital to her than having her horse hunting the barrel.
”As much as they see it when they’re running to it, they cannot turn it and turn it correctly and leave it powerful if they are out of position, ” Mowry said. “Most of the problems with the back side of the barrel and hanging up and tipping it and getting stiff could have been prevented if they had a better entrance.
“I try to teach them that perfect entrance as much as I can, to where everything else just flows, so they’re in a good position, and the easiest thing in the world to do is just come around that back side.”
To do this, she wants the horse traveling on its own. lt doesn’t matter if its feet are always landing in the same place, they must turn smoothly.
“I want them feeling athletic,” Mowry said. “I want them light-footed and not leaning. [When they lean], they’re putting more weight on one side of their body than the other and on my hands.”
Mowry gives her horses plenty of pocket, especially when approaching the first barrel , both in training and at a race. She never wants them to be too close to the barrel because if they get in too tight, they stop moving their feet, and when they stop moving their feet, they can’t keep up with their nose, which often gets them out of line going to the second barrel.
“You’ll pull, and their feet are kind of stuck together, and that’s when you’ll get them throwing their head in the air, or they’ll just kind of pause and roll back,” Mowry said. “Any time you pull on them, you’re stopping their forward motion, so I never like to pull on them. It just deadens their feet up.”
Having proper speed control coming into and going around the barrels is vital for Mowry, since she prefers that her horses keep their feet moving forward at all times. Instead of stopping her horses at a rate point during training or slow work, Mowry teaches her horses to adjust their strides, yet still keep pushing forward, so they never lose momentum.
“I don’t teach them rate by stopping at the barrels,” she said. “When I do that, I get them stabbing their front feet and stopping their forward motion, and I don’t want that. And I don’t want to pull them to slow them down, so I teach them speed control. When I do go down a gear, I go forward into that gear. I go from a trot to a long walk, where they kind of have their nose tucked, and they do a long walk through the turn. I want everything moving forward because that, to me, is reaching. I don’t want any little, bitty steps. Everything I want is big steps, because I want them pulling with their front end around there. I want them still stepping through.”
Maintaining momentum is critical to keep the horse from bogging down on the back side of the barrel and having to work that much harder to get back up to speed.
“The more speed I can have going deep into the barrel, then they can snap back with that same momentum and leave it just as hard,” Mowry says. “But if they don’t have that speed and momentum going into it, they have to stall out and work around it and gain it again, and it’s slower.”
To keep the horse’s feet moving throughout the turn, she will often double-wrap the barrels during training, keeping the horse in the turn until she feels like turning correctly and on its own.
“I feel like that keeps the colts thinking about coming around that turn more on their own than me pulling them around there,” she said. “Because they’re so used to going around it, they stay focused on it. When I don’t do that, they’ll turn the barrel, and they won’t be all the way finished with it, and they’ll be ready to move on to the next one. Then, they leave it wide.”
Mowry has found that double-wrapping the barrels also helps to establish speed control in her horses, because they quickly figure out that they’re going to have a hard time making it around the barrel a second time if they’re not gathered up and collected.
”I’ll just kind of sit up, and they know when I pick up on them that it’s time to throttle down a little bit,” she said. “When they’re babies, they’re tripping over their own feet, and they don’t pay attention. After a couple of weeks, they start getting that, then I’ll lope them to the barrel, trot around it once, pick up a lope, lope around it once, and then go back to a trot.”
The only time Mowry will stop her horses on the pattern is if they are in her hands too much.
”I’ll just apply pressure until they back off,” she said. “I don’t want to feel them where I feel like if I let go they’re just going to keep going or get on their front end. I’m going to ask them a couple of times to slow down or get off my hands, and if they don’t, I’m going to stop them like we’re stopping at the edge of a cliff, and we’re not going another step until they get off my hands, and then I’ll back them up.”
Tuning Against Type
When Mowry’s horses are having a problem turning the barrels, whether they’re rating too much and cutting the turn off or slowing too late and running by the barrel, she has learned that it is often beneficial to force them to work against their natural tendencies.
For example, if she has a horse that’s really turny and sticks its leg, or it turns so hard that it almost tips the barrel, Mowry does everything she can to keep the horse loosened up in the hind end and driving forward, rather than wrapping it back over its hind leg.
“Missjbrunningwithfire craves the turn,” she says of one of her mares. “She’s dying to run in there and slide that leg and come through herself, and she can do it fast. So when I work her, I don’t let her do that. I don’t let her roll back over herself. When she wants to, I push her forward out of it. And when I do work her on the barrels, I keep the barrel in front of my leg, and I ask her not to swing her butt, just keep her a little disengaged around it and really get her feet kind of flying around there.”
It’s this sort of dramatic change, forcing her horses to do the exact opposite of what they want to do, that Mowry believes helps them figure out how to meet her in the middle.
Most of her horses don’t know the exact same tuning maneuvers. What she does with them depends on their particular issues.
“If I have a horse that has a hard time using its hind end, I’ll back them up, and as they’re backing up, do a three-quarter turn and lope off. It reinforces, ‘Hey, you have an inside back leg, use it.’ It puts their body in a position that forces them to use it, and it strengthens that back leg, so they can use it,” Mowry said. “I had a buckskin mare, and she’s a runner. I do a lot of stuff to keep her off my hands, and I teach her that three-quarter-turn maneuver. While that leg is underneath her, and she’s turning around, I lope her off into another circle, and I get that drive from behind, and it gives her something to think about. It’s helping her to become a better athlete.”
Mowry backed her champion gelding FM Radio around the barrels more than she took him forward, because he wants to go so much. Another of her horses, Miss JB 055, has a tendency of rating so hard at a barrel that she plants all four feet at once, grinding their forward motion to a halt. To correct this, Mowry trots the mare to her rate point and does figure 8s—one circle around the barrel, one circle away from the barrel.
“That kept her front end up and moving,” Mowry says. “She couldn’t [rate to a stop] because she had to turn and keep moving.”
One horse Mowry had wouldn’t drop her shoulder. Instead, she would anchor up and not go far enough toward the arena wall. Mowry solved the problem by doing circles behind the barrel instead of around it.
“I would turn her in toward the barrel and keep her moving forward and with more room and just keep spiraling around the barrel,” she says. “It gave her something other than the barrel to focus on because she was very focused on that barrel. She was so cowy about that barrel that I just tried to keep her feet moving. It let her turn the barrel, but she was doing what I wanted her to do and not what she wanted to do.”
If a horse always wants to turn the barrel tightly, Mowry will only exhibition or practice at home by loping big circles around it, just to take the focus off the barrel a bit. If a horse is too bendy at a barrel and loses its shoulder, like FM Radio had a tendency to do, Mowry will turn the barrel as stiff as possible.
“I have more pressure with my outside rein than I do with my inside to keep his body together around it,” she said of the gray gelding. “A lot of times, I turn that barrel with two hands on the reins, not to get him into the hole, but to get his shoulders coming straight because he wants to bend, and he’ll get strung out and go by it.”
She’ll also lope circles on her horses counter-arced to the left in the right lead and bent to the right. She will start out riding a circle in one half of the arena to the right in the right lead, switching when she comes around to the middle of the arena to lope the same-sized circle in the opposite direction but in the wrong lead and bent the wrong way—a counter-canter. Then, she’ll come back and lope a big circle correctly to the right again and repeat.
“I think that’s a really good exercise to do,” Mowry said. “A lot of them will want to switch leads because they know it’s not right, but what that does is picks their front end up and it really gets their shoulder up, and it gets them off your inside hand. If they’re one that wants to drop at the barrels, that really helps because it’s picking them up, and you’re going the opposite way. I’m just really trying to teach them to soften on the inside and keep driving through it, bend and drive your inside leg and body through their shoulder.”
Mowry believes pushing her horses to do the opposite of what they want to do is the best way to show them that there is more than one way to do something and to get them thinking instead of reacting.
“If they do one thing, I do the very opposite, a little obsessively, so they fall in the middle and find that middle ground,” Mowry said.
Michael Mahaffey was a former associate editor of Barrel Horse News. This article was originally published in the June 2011 issue of Barrel Horse News.