For many barrel racers, the thought of riding or training a hot horse to run barrels is akin to being thrown from a horse—it’s all good for a while, but then suddenly you’re in the air, wondering what went wrong as a painful crash landing of reality approaches.
Such was the experience of Molli Montgomery as she began training her prized mount, Gonetrucking Playboy (“Playboy”).
“I actually do better with horses that are hot—that want to go,” she says. “By now, I think I’ve mastered the art of getting them to turn because that’s the hardest thing is to get a free runner to set down and want to turn. Since I’ve ridden Playboy, I’ve come to appreciate horses that want to run because you don’t have to ask them. You just have to get them to slow down long enough to turn a barrel. And that’s kind of nice because you don’t have to teach them how to run. They already want to do it.”
A Hot Prospect
The very qualities that scare many people away from some horses are essential in a prospect to Montgomery.
In addition to a fiery personality, her ideal candidate is short backed with a long underline and hocks that set underneath them a bit. She wants them to be racy looking, and ideally not over 15.3 hands because she believes they are naturally more agile than larger horses.
She also likes them to be sensitive to the point of being spooky.
“If people tell me their horse is spooky, that’s the horse that I want,” she says. “I think the more spooky a horse is, the more sensitive they are when you’re running. I think you have more whenever you’re running—you have more sensitivity once you ask for that speed—so I like one that’s a little spooky because I think it makes them a little more sensitive.”
Montgomery believes the innate sensitivity of a spooky horse makes them more responsive once you develop them through training. While her preferred combination of spooky and hot is a non-starter for many trainers, she is willing to put in the time and effort it takes to bring them along because she believes the result is a superior competitor.
“I just think that whenever you ask for more speed, the spookier they are, the more sensitive they are and the more response you’ll get at a faster speed,” she says.
More Broke Than Broke
Montgomery’s main goal in the early phases of training is to get a horse beyond simply ridable broke.
“I want them to be broke, broke,” she says. “If I just barely sit down in the saddle, I want them to be looking to do something. I want a horse very soft and very responsive before I ever start them [on the pattern]. The barrel pattern is the last thing that I worry about by all means.
“When I pick up on that rein, I want them to be moving in that direction before that bit ever makes contact with their mouth,” she says. “I want them to be that soft in their face because I think when you add that speed that you have less and less, so I want them to be very responsive, especially to walk and at a trot. My main priority is keeping my horses broke at all times.”
It’s her skill at being able to soften a horse’s face that has made her training services invaluable to those who have brought troublesome horses to her.
“That’s really kind of my thing,” she says. “I’ve helped a lot of people get their horses back soft in the face. I don’t know if it’s my hands or what, but I would die without my draw bits and my cavason. I just take a horse, and if somebody comes to me and wants me to help them, I take everything off their face, and they get put in a draw bit and a cavason, and we’re going to work on being broke again. I think once you get them broke and a horse understands how to respond to your legs and the bit, then I think everything else will just fall into place.”
Her set up works well for her because it allows her to hang onto a horse’s face longer without it being so harsh that it causes him to stick his nose in the air and fight it.
“It allows me to help a horse more on the back side of the barrel,” she says, “which is where I think they need the most help. It allows you to hang on their face and not be so harsh with a curb and a nosepiece. A draw bit really allows a horse to follow their nose. As long as you’ve got their nose going in the right direction, their body will usually follow right behind their nose.”
Putting in the Work
Once a horse is broke to her standards, she works on building flexibility and conditioning.
“I trot lots of serpentines,” she says. “Keeping my horses flexing and bending, moving off my leg. I want to be able to pick up that rein, and I want them to trot away from my leg with their nose tipped to the inside, and the second that I ask them to come around, I want them to respond from my body.
“Most of the time, once I’ve got them broke, when I pick up on that rein, they already know that they need to be moving off. I like a horse that really knows how to counter-arc off the rein. I want them moving away from my leg and my rein. I get a horse where I can really pick their shoulder up and move them over. I lope lots of circles and bring them down into tight circles and pop them back out into larger circles. Then I trot around lots of mesquite trees too. To me that’s a barrel, but to them, that’s a mesquite tree.”
Once she starts her horses on the barrel pattern, she lets them figure it out on their own, and if they’ve got the ability to do it, eventually they’ll just start moving faster and faster.
“Eventually, they’ll get to the point that they can go on if they’ve got the heart and the talent to want to go on and do it,” she says.
It’s during barrel training that her obsession with the position of a horse’s hip comes into play.
“I want that hip to stay in, in, in,” she says.
Approaching a barrel, many times a horse will let its hip fade out, causing them to fan out and lose all their power. Montgomery believes allowing their hip to step out is a costly habit horses get into when running up to a barrel.
“I like to make sure that they understand that when they approach a barrel or a small circle of anything, that they need to keep their hip in,” she says, “and if they don’t, stop them, put that hip back in and then ask them to go on again until they learn that they need to keep that hip to the inside.
“That’s when you lose all your time. That’s a habit that I think a lot of horses get into because when they run across that pen, they’re looking at that barrel and they know they’re about to turn it, and they start to set and start their turn before they’re even at the barrel, which causes their hip to kick out, and I think that causes lots of issues, so if you can keep a horse’s hip in there, that’s the key to me.”
Making the Jump
The most critical time in training occurs when the run hits the horse, and they realize it’s a speed event. Errors once thought corrected are bound to crop up again as the horse tries to learn how to do everything it has been taught at competition speed.
“When I first start riding Playboy, he would have problems,” Montgomery says. “We would be doing great on the first and the third barrel, but horrible on the second. Then we’d start doing great on the second and be horrible on the third.
“I think the key is to just trust your training. I think the most critical time is when that run hits them, how to take them back to the house and re-train them and train them up to that barrel race. Put that set back in them and let them understand that even though we’re running we’ve still got three barrels to turn out there.”
Once Montgomery started asking Playboy for speed, he would run too hard to the barrels and wouldn’t have enough room—didn’t really know how— to turn them.
“I think the main thing is just to stay persistent and not give up,” she says of training a hot horse. “If you know that they have it, you’ve just got to wait on it to come to them because it will eventually come to them.
“I guess the thing that got me over the hump was I was at a local barrel race, and a friend a mine, Cindy Masters, told me ‘Molli, you aren’t giving him enough room. He’s going to turn. Just trust him,’ so I gave him a little bit more room, and that was the answer. Ever since then, I set him up in a position so he can turn a barrel successfully. Before I wasn’t giving him enough room, so I wasn’t putting him in a good position and it was bad for both of us because I thought he didn’t want to turn, but he was trying to turn, and I wasn’t giving him enough room.”
At The Race
In addition to being thoroughly broke, Montgomery believes a horse should be used to the sights and sounds of a barrel race before you begin competing at a race, in addition to knowing your horse’s unique quirks.
“That’s one thing I noticed with Playboy is I can’t even exhibition him because he’s scared of the barrels,” she says. “If I go slow at a barrel race, he’s scared of the barrels.”
“Lots of people like riding their horses out in the pasture. I really can’t do that with Playboy. Playboy likes a routine. He likes doing the same thing every day, and if he doesn’t, that freaks him out. Your other horses, you can’t put that much pressure on them. You need to ride them out in the pasture a little bit and trot around mesquite trees. I think every horse is an individual.”
The rider must also know how to ride their horse in a way that puts them in a position to be successful and not get caught up in pre-race nervousness or worrying. She believes riders, and their horses, should always be chomping at the bit to go for it during a run.
“That’s what we spend hours a week training for is to go for it when we get to the barrel race,” she says, “because if you don’t go for it, you won’t ever see where you are. I always think ‘Go for it,’ and if it messes up, well then we go back home and fix it again.”