Article written by Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley

Regular physical maintenance is widely accepted as an important part of keeping barrel horses at the top of their game. Your veterinarian, equine dentist, farrier, chiropractor and other equine practitioners are all commonly connected with your maintenance program. What is talked about less is how important it is for barrel racers to tune up between runs as part of good maintenance.

Keeping your horse mentally and physically sound often comes down to putting things back together at home. What I’ve come to realize is people start to go really fast in competition and their horse might be starting to really come on, but then if things begin to fall apart a little bit, they don’t know how to assess what’s happening and tune the horse up between runs. Keeping a barrel horse confident and solid for the long haul requires reinforcing proper mechanics outside of competition.

You could compare what I’m talking about to a high-powered head horse that has to go all out at the ropings or rodeos. A good horseman or horsewoman will take that horse home and won’t run too many steers on him but instead will invest the time to score and track cattle, balancing out the adrenaline that’s built up in competition. They’ll sit in the box so the horse learns to stand and learns to relax around cattle. If every time a horse sees the roping box, he’s conditioned to think he has to go all out and duck left, you can’t blame him for getting hot—you have to invest the time at home to maintain the horse mentally.

The same principles apply to barrel horses, because you have to learn to channel their adrenaline at the appropriate times.

When you get home from a race, evaluate how things went. Did you not have collection in the turns? Did you lose correct position somewhere in the run? Look at where things could’ve been smoother, and fix it before the next competition.

Undo Anticipation
Like a roping horse, a barrel horse learns to anticipate the run and the turns. When you go home after a weekend of competition, you can score your horse in much the same way, making the barrel pattern a comfortable place for your horse to be ridden. The goal is to reinforce proper body carriage in your horse—keep him framed up in the turns whether you’re walking, jogging or even loping—keep his nose, ribcage and hip in the proper frame.

I see lots of different styles of riding barrel horses, but I can only teach what works for my horses and me. I don’t believe taking the anticipation out of a horse should be done by using a sidepass away from the barrel and all inside rein, which is something I see a lot of riders doing. The habits that come with the side-pass move are hard to break for both the horse and rider. The rider starts crossing their hand over and up toward their opposite shoulder, which makes horses move in harder toward the barrel. For me, I want both hands on the reins and the horse’s nose pointed down at the ground—not against its chest like a reiner—and broke at the poll with softness and flexion, driving straight from behind into the bridle.

Not only does practicing correct body carriage work well to maintain the horse, it also helps riders focus on keeping a good seat and riding with balanced pressure in their hands and feet. Practicing these things at home carries over to competition runs.

Straightness and collection in the horse’s body is necessary for the long-term mental and physical soundness of the barrel horse. Practicing at home using all inside rein and side-passing out to get room around a barrel—to me, you don’t want to run that way so you don’t want to train for that automatic response in either you or your horse. 

It gets the horse moving more on the front end in the turn, which makes the hip move out and results in a slower turn and a horse that will get sore in the front end.

Good Mechanics
Good tune-ups require good mechanics, so the importance of working on rider fundamentals can’t be overstated. Keep good, quiet hands and good pressure on your reins. Learn to respond to what your horse needs. For instance, some horses are ratier and move in a little more toward the barrel, so it’s important to learn to stay two-handed and keep your feet moving between the barrels longer to keep forward momentum. Don’t stand up in the stirrups and try to keep your feet moving at the same time or you’ll lose collection in your horse. Reinforce the habits you need to carry over into a run on each particular horse.

Good mechanics build good muscle memory for you and your horse. Be conscious of your body position and how you’re cuing your horse, but remember what you want to do between runs is keep your horse correct as well as limbered up. That will do a lot to maintain their condition and flexibility, as well as keep them listening to you.

Keeping them driving from behind helps them flex their hamstrings. Working with collection builds up a good, strong topline. And, no matter what, make sure your tune-ups aren’t a fight—it’s got to be a positive, confidence-reinforcing experience.

Article originally published in the October 2016 issue of BHN.

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