By Dena Kirkpatrick

Be the kind of coach and trainer who gets the best performances out of your horse.

As a mother of two girls (Sarah, 25 and Hannah,19) and horse trainer for the past 30 years, I can’t help but to relate parenting to my horse training. For my entire career the two responsibilities have gone hand in hand. The importance of parenting my two girls far outweighs my horse training job, but there are so many similarities between these two aspects of my life. I think one of the main reasons for this is communication. You must have intuition, patience, and compassion to know what a young child is trying to say, as well as to understand a horse’s needs. I always felt my ability to communicate with horses made me a better parent, and vice-versa.

Twenty-five years of growing pains, peer pressure, sports, and hormones will definitely enhance a person’s communication skills. Both girls played select sports, one played basketball and the other volleyball. During these years, I noticed more similarities than ever between my children and my young horses, probably because of the pressure in competitive sports. Specifically, I became increasingly aware how difficult my role was as a parent and trainer. Pressure is not a bad thing if it is controlled and correctly applied, but it can be devastating to both children and horses if it isn’t. So, the big question is: how much pressure is too much?

This question is the focus of many sport-related articles and discussions, and there does not seem to be a clear answer. An article I recently read uses a phrase in relation to the dangers of pushing children too much in their selective sports. Sports psychologist, Dr. Larry Lauer, used the phrase “optimal push” to describe the amount of pressure and training parents could safely put on their kids without causing them to resent their sport, get injured, or quit. Dr. Lauer, who was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America, goes on to describe optimal push as “providing some structure – but not too much structure.” The definition is not precise, since it varies with each individual. Your instinct, intuition, and common sense will play a huge role. As a barrel horse trainer, I seek out each of my horse’s “Optimal Push” level from the minute I first set my hands on them all the way up to the time they leave my house.

Dena Kirkpatrick
Dena Kirkpatrick • Photo by Lone Wolf Photography courtesy of Equibrand

I keep more things in mind than there is room to share here, but as related to training barrel horses, there are a few of the aspects I feel are the most important and beneficial. First, don’t over-train your horse’s body. Extreme muscle fatigue can lead to soreness and injury, so make sure your training sessions match your horse’s current physical capabilities. I think it is very important, especially when working with young horses, to be educated about the development of tendons, ligaments, and joints with age. For example, a two year old may look as big and stout as a mature horse, but his knee joint may not be completely closed. Putting too much stress on his joints and muscles before he is fully developed can cause permanent damage. The large number of two year olds off the track that need chips removed or have damaged joints is proof of this. Most horses will give you hints that they may be feeling physical stress. It may just be anything from hesitation to pick up a lead, to reluctance to being caught. Pressure is both mental and physical. The “optimal push” of physical pressure in young horses can be a huge factor in a horse’s career and longevity. If you are aware of slight changes in your horse, a few days off to recover may save you a vet visit down the road, or even much more.

Second, I think it is important to know the strength or weakness of your horse’s mind. Mental pressure may be responsible for more prematurely ended barrel racing careers than any other cause. I always say that you better know what your horse is thinking, because he definitely knows what you’re thinking! To be a responsible trainer, you must be able to sense the mental stress your horse is feeling before he shows it to you in some physical form. If you wait until it’s obvious that he is mentally stressed, it may take a long time to fix, or it could be too late. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to read a horse’s mind than it is to learn about his physical development. It is definitely not an exact science, but with focus, concentration, and attention to extreme detail, we can all become better equipped to judge each horse’s mental “optimal push” level.

Third, I think pressure also becomes too much when a rider is expecting more than their equine athlete can offer. It is necessary to be discerning when analyzing a specific horse and your expectations. All horses are simply not 1D horses and nothing the rider/trainer can do will ever change that. This is when you must be able to realize when your horse gave all he had at any given time and be satisfied with it. I always preached to my girls, “The one thing you have total control over is the actual effort you put into it.” There will be many players more or less talented than them, but there should never be a player on the court that worked harder. As long as they gave their best effort, I would be forever proud. I apply that same thinking to my horses, in this case both young and old. I am happy with my horses for trying hard and I reward them for it, even if they didn’t run the fastest time. Listening to your horse, learning his signs of emotional and physical stress, and knowing what his “optimal push” level is takes a dedicated effort, but it could save you headaches and setbacks down the road. We are both coach and parent to our four-legged athletes…The same patience and compassion that makes a good parent, also makes a good horse trainer. Think about finding that “sweet spot” to encourage his best performance, without pushing too hard.

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]

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