The horses we ride today are bred to run and turn. They are super quick and strong. Our horses are extreme athletes thanks to advances in breeding programs and strategic planning by breeders, who have dedicated their lives to raising more capable athletes for barrel racing. Therefore, I have decided as a rider and trainer today, I need to focus on my fitness in order to be as physically prepared as possible to compete.
Having a Strong Team
I’ve been obsessed with horses from a young age and I still get goose bumps just watching them. I constantly watch my horses. Whether they are just walking on the walker or playing in the arena, it’s exhilarating for me to watch them. I love analyzing their footfalls and muscles, their massive sloping shoulders, the reach of their front feet and the way they tuck their hindquarters as they slide to a stop. As I watch each horse move, I consider their immense athleticism and think about how it will be to turn a barrel and feel their strength and power. I believe that even God is very impressed with his handiwork concerning horses. In the Bible in the book of Job, God speaks of the strength, speed and magnificence of the horse.
I have had these thoughts and emotions about horses since I was a little girl, but growing older has changed my thought process. As a younger, fitter person all I thought about was being in the saddle on top of an athletic horse. Now, my excitement is just a little bit guarded. I find myself wondering if I am I still physically strong enough to stay in the middle of a powerhouse horse when he or she sticks a leg and makes that move out of a barrel? I have joked recently about being able to train a horse that I’m not woman enough to compete on. All jokes aside, when you begin to get older, you become much more aware of your physical ability as a rider to stay with certain horses in the turns. Most horses, especially young ones, will become frightened if their rider loses balance. Some horses will be very aware of their rider’s loss of balance and will move to stay under their rider, or wait for the rider to catch up instead of making the turn as quickly as they are capable of. Either way, time is lost in the barrel pattern.
My dilemma is one that is common for a lot of barrel racers, and that is a struggle with weight gain and less muscle than I had naturally in my younger years. However, weight and muscle weakness are not age specific. The age factor is unavoidable, but strength and agility can be regained and perfected no matter how young or old. As barrel racers, we are riding athletes and our horses will appreciate us for becoming more able companions in competition. Being in good physical condition will help make any rider of any age naturally capable of helping a horse in their turns instead of hindering them.
The sport of barrel racing, like other sports, consists of a team of athletes working together. Some are more athletic than others, but the most successful competitors are generally the ones who work the hardest.
“I think that the less naturally athletic you are and the older you become, the more important it becomes to stay fit in order to be able to compete with the young athletic trainers,” says my friend and fellow trainer/competitor, Bo Hill.
Many of the up and coming young riders are athletic and were successful at other sports before beginning their barrel racing careers. Fitness is becoming a necessary part of barrel racing if you expect to stay competitive. Bo shared with me some the activities that have become part of her fitness regimen. She gets up early and walks several miles before she starts the day training her young horses. Bo added that weight fluctuations that often come with age make it more difficult for her to stay fit, so doing some pushbacks from the dinner table is a necessity.
You Are What Your Eat
The solution to improving balance in the saddle starts with a healthy diet and workout plan. Exercise alone is not enough and a healthy diet alone is not enough. Experts say that a workout plan won’t work well if we don’t eat properly; these two health commitments go hand in hand. Improving your diet is a great place to start and takes no extra time out of your day. You truly are what you eat! I recently started seeing a MD who has devoted his practice to changing the way people eat in order to improve their lives. For example, I once thought old age was to blame for my fatigue, joint pain and weight gain. I now understand the root of my problems wasn’t my age, it was a direct result of consuming soft drinks and of certain foods I was eating on a daily basis. I made some changes as he directed, and in just a few weeks could not believe how much better I felt. My personal turning point made me think more about our horses as athletes and how we too, as barrel racers, should consider ourselves athletes.
Most barrel racers spend countless hours analyzing what grain, minerals, hay and supplements their horses should get and why. We put as much effort into the horse’s well being as we can. I know I am very sensitive to how each of my horses reacts to different feeds. Our responsibility to our own health and well-being should be no different.
Riding my horses, cleaning stalls and working at the barn on a daily basis is no longer enough exercise at this stage in my life to keep me physically fit and able to ride to the best of my ability. I have ridden almost every day my entire life, so riding several horses a day does not give my body much of a work out. I’m so used to grooming, saddling and riding that I can do it without breaking a sweat. Like most barrel racers, I do not make speed runs at home or in practice often enough to condition the muscles needed to stay balanced on my horses during competition.
In answer to this, I have begun an overall fitness program focusing on core strength and toning my leg muscles, which is what I have found most beneficial to me as a barrel racer. I visited with Jolene Montgomery recently, who shared that she jogs and stretches regularly to build and sustain strong core muscles. Even though she rides 12 horses a day, Jolene believes that working out and developing a fitness plan can help barrel racers of all ages.
“I always stretch before competing on some of my horses that may be a little trickier to ride, knowing that I may have to lift my leg or really bend my upper body to clear a barrel,” says Jolene.
It is January, the month of resolutions, the most common of which is probably weight loss and/or getting in shape. Once again it will be my resolution, but this time it has nothing to do with how my clothes fit but everything to do with how I ride. I realize that this is a harsh reality and is a very sensitive subject, especially when you are talking to barrel racers, women in particular. But, the facts for us cannot be avoided. We are competing in a timed event on highly capable, athletic horses and in most cases, have made a sizable investment.
Our horses are a phenomenon in and of themselves and what a dream it is to live in the country we do where we have the opportunity to be barrel racers. We can all make the most of the chances we have and improve our health, and with that, up our odds for hitting the winner’s circle with a little added focus on diet and exercise. I wanted to share my thoughts and feeling on health this month to encourage barrel racers to view themselves as athletes. We should take care as well for our own bodies as we do for those of our horses, which includes a commitment to proper diet and exercise. We need to be the best athlete we can be to match our equine athletes. As a trainer and barrel racer in my fifties, my love for my horses and running barrels will drive my focus on physical fitness in 2013.
Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments on this article to [email protected].