By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

In the sport of barrel racing you encounter lots of labels like, “My horse is a barrel hitter,” or “My horse can’t run fast enough,” “I don’t ride well enough,” “My horse runs by,” and various others. Shaking preconceived notions about your horse or even your own abilities can point you on the path to a positive mindset. Armed with a more productive outlook it’s much easier to problem-solve and get better.

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No. 1 “My horse is a barrel hitter.”

Most of the time dwelling on these sorts of labels only keeps that cycle of negativity rolling. For instance, I believe that just about any horse can be transformed through good horsemanship and hard work into not hitting barrels. I believe that only a small percentage of horses that are labeled as “barrel hitters” actually have a problem of chronically getting too short. But in most cases, they can be ridden differently and most can be fixed.

The first step is to shake that label that’s been pinned to that horse because it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a rider makes a conscious effort to adjust their riding for the better—for instance, not crossing their hands over the plane of the neck and not leaning and looking down at the barrels—and they work real hard to perfect the fundamentals, I believe they can learn to feel what’s wrong and figure out how to correct it with much less stress involved. What riders need to avoid is making up their mind that a horse is a barrel hitter and that there’s nothing they can do to work through the problem, because that’s simply not true in most cases.

No. 2 “My horse is too slow.”

Another label commonly attached to barrel horses is “My horse just isn’t fast enough.” So, if you have a horse that truly cannot run, that’s one thing but if you’re simply not riding in a way to urge them to go faster, that’s rider error and that problem can be solved. If you’re sitting down on your butt, your body position won’t encourage the horse to get up and go.
Another important aspect of improving performance in a horse that isn’t stopping the clock is to take a good look at the way you feed, exercise and care for that animal and see if perhaps there aren’t some extra steps you can take to help optimize speed and performance through improved nutrition, conditioning or health care. The way you feed and condition a horse has a great deal of impact on how hard they try to run for you. You want to be the kind of rider where your horse cares and wants to try for you because you have developed a strong bond of working together. If you become convinced of something negative about your horse because of a pessimistic remark, you’re beat before you start. Horses feel that; they know and I believe that many of them respond accordingly and they quit caring and trying.

No. 3 “I hate this horse because…”

Most horses have quirks, especially the top horses. Some may get jiggy at the rodeo or may buddy up with another horse. It’s a fact that some of them do things that make your life a little but unpleasant at times. I hear people say, “I hate this horse because he does ‘X’,” and they can’t let it go or work through it. Those labels, once they stick, they really set you back because picking on one personality trait makes a horse’s performance not as great as if you could accept it and work through some of that. This is especially true of an older, finished horse. Let that horse be who is, within reason.

No. 4 “My horse runs by.”

Truly there are horses that are more free runners than others. I hear a lot of this at my schools and what I have found is that controlled speed to the first barrel and learning to manage the horse’s anxiety are two key things that can help alleviate running by.

One thing I have actually seen is that when people really fixate on the problem they sometimes make it worse. The rider wants to fix it so bad and they’re so worried about it that they start running up to the first barrel and slamming the horse in the ground repeatedly which creates more stress and fear in that horse. A better approach to work through this particular problem might be to lope to the first, set the horse once or twice teaching them to throttle down and relax, rather than scaring them at the first barrel.

What I’ve encountered the most at my clinics is that with most horses that run by the first barrel in particular, the riders don’t prepare them well enough and sit for the turn. They’re actually sending a mixed signal with their body. If you say, “My horse gets by,” you’re sort of just accepting that as fact rather than looking further into the reasons for it and fixing the way your ride. You can take the first step toward fixing a problem by losing the label and looking at ways to prepare your horse for the turns and help him understand how to rate off your body cues.

No. 5 “I’m not good enough.”

I have lots of people who come to my clinics who have had someone tell them at one time or another that they can’t ride well enough to be competitive. Someone has made them believe that they can’t do it and that negative thought stays planted in the back of their head.

Winning certainly isn’t easy and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and determination, which some people don’t understand, but don’t ever let someone convince you that you’re just not good enough and that’s why you’re not winning. Everyone is capable of being successful provided they are willing to put in the time riding and learning what all is entailed in becoming a good barrel racer. You may, and probably will, experience failure if you run barrels for very long, but you gain some of the most valuable knowledge by learning how to fix problems and correct mistakes.

A good example of this is someone who goes and buys a nice horse that’s winning with its previous rider. That horse has been successful and then things go downhill with the new owner and the horse is off by half a second. The new owner made a big investment and is feeling the pressure, so often their first natural instinct is to look for ways to blame the horse in order to save face. They might just not be humble enough to ask advice from the previous rider and make some small but necessary adjustments in order to keep the edge that horse had. Getting help with any little detail is so important—especially with a horse that’s new to you—whether it’s shoeing, nutrition, conditioning or some other subtle difference that brought out the best in that horse, you have to find out what it is.

It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s truly a mistake not to figure it out and learn from it how to better care for the horse. You gain confidence by learning, even if it’s from things not going totally according to plan.

No. 6 “ I tried that, it doesn’t work.”

You have to ask yourself, “Can I take suggestions and constructive criticism with an open mind and without getting angry?”

A lot of things I have personally learned over the years have come out of suggestions or ideas from other top professionals in different disciplines or professions. I want to continually learn. Today I feel like I have a better eye for barrel racing mechanics and I hope to continually grown and learn as a horseman. The worst thing I’d ever want to be is close-minded to what others suggest, especially with respect to horse care. I want to stay open-minded enough to be able to sort through all the information out there and determine the program that works the best for me and my horses.

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