By Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D.

Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach explains how to avoid hitting barrels by channeling positive thoughts to become a mentally stronger competitor and successfully conquer your weaknesses.

Any smart competitor recognizes that they have certain strengths and weaknesses. While it appears to be common sense to target problem areas so we can minimize their impact, many do not do this effectively. Often, we devote a great deal of attention to our problem areas, particularly if we are experiencing a slump. Of course, we do this in order to get rid of the glitch that is keeping us away from the pay window. However, getting stuck in a pattern of focusing primarily on weaknesses will likely have a negative impact on our actual performances.

Let’s examine a specific example that concerns both paychecks and shins…you have been hitting barrels. We will be using the following diagram to discuss how focusing on NOT hitting barrels can actually increase the likelihood that you will get a 5-second fine.

Think About It

If you think to yourself, “Don’t hit the barrel!” you are actually focusing on hitting the barrel. You automatically conjure up all of the things  you do that make you knock the barrel, including thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with downing it.

One reason for this is schema, which is how we categorize and think about the world. Concepts are related to each other because we would have a heck of a time forming coherent thoughts otherwise. If you hear the word, “bird,” I would bet money that you immediately pictured a bird or thought of feathers, wings, nests, trees, and other bird-like things. Conversely, I’m fairly certain that you didn’t immediately think about your horse needing to be reset soon. Related concepts are connected in order for us to process things more quickly and efficiently. Therefore, focusing on not hitting the barrel automatically activates all of the pathways that are connected to actually knocking it down.

hitting a barrel
Hitting barrels is often caused mentally by our negative thought process. Photo by Ty Stockton/BobwireS

Let’s first take a look at the thoughts that arise in response to thinking, “Don’t hit the barrel!” You likely begin to automatically mull over all the horrible consequences for one landing in the dirt:
• Another buckle down the drain
• Feeling embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, or some other unpleasant emotion
• Adding another notch to the slump you are in
• No gas money to get home
• Disappointing others

Honestly, this list can go on and on. I’m sure you get the point, though. You are not exactly thinking positive things that make you confident and ready to run. Instead, you are placing your focus on how awful you will feel and what you will lose if a barrel takes a nap.

These thoughts have a direct impact on your emotional experience. You might start to doubt yourself and feel nervous about making a mistake, which often interferes with your ability to make a good, solid run. Hello, anxiety…goodbye, confidence. This anxiety causes changes in your body like rapid heart rate, increased muscle tension, differences in reaction time, and shaking, as well as decreased ability to focus and concentrate. These emotions and physical sensations also impact your thoughts, so you start second-guessing yourself even more, which leads to feeling even more apprehensive and less convinced of your talent. These effects quickly wind up circling in a downward spiral toward having a not-so-stellar go.

This spiral also includes how thoughts and emotions further intertwine with behavior. When you do something multiple times, it becomes automatic. Think about learning to drive a tractor. It probably wasn’t too pretty at first, but now you are a pro after all those years of experience. All the things you need to do to drive a tractor are now automatic to the point that you no longer need to think about it. If you have been hitting barrels consistently, all the things you do to hit them are also automatic. Just by focusing on the barrel, your body is prepared to make the movements in the reaction time that causes you to knock it. With added anxiety and doubt, you wind up involuntarily activating minor muscle movements while asking your horse to complete the turn incorrectly. These changes translate almost immediately to your horse, which responds by turning too quickly (or leaving too straight, shouldering, whatever the problem is) and, you guessed it…5 seconds out of the money.

achilles heel graphic
Focusing on what you want to happen rather than what you’re trying to avoid allows your thoughts, emotions and behaviors to be helpful and aligned toward creating a positive outcome.

Shift Your Focus

At this point, you might be thinking, “Okay. That’s all fine and good, but I still don’t want to hit barrels. How can leave them up if I don’t think about them?” Rather than focusing on the barrel, try focusing on all of the things you do to have a clean run. Take a look at the diagram again, and let’s replace “Don’t hit the barrel!” with “Have a clean run.”

If you are focused on having a clean run, you are not thinking about those darned barrels lying on the ground. Instead, you are thinking about lifting, driving to your spot, sitting at the right time, looking to the next one, etc. This automatically conjures thoughts that are much more positive, such as looking forward to initialing for that check and how great you will feel after your impressive run. You can also make a plan about what, exactly, you will do to make a clean run. Taking into consideration your horse, what you know will help him turn correctly, the ground conditions, etc., make a solid decision about how and when you will cue your trusty steed. Concentrating on your plan and all the benefits of sticking to your plan will likely lower your anxiety and increase your confidence. This, in turn, causes your body to be in a more optimum zone of physiological arousal where you feel prepared to compete, but not jittery. You are also in more control of your body movements and are less likely to make subtle cues that lead to tipping barrels. The outcome of this new diagram is more likely to be “Clean Run” rather than “Barrel Down.”

Focusing on what you want to happen rather than what you are trying to avoid allows your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to be helpful and aligned toward creating a positive outcome. Of course, these principles apply to other difficulties, so take some time to fill in the diagram for yourself and your own situation.

Our thought patterns, emotions, and behaviors have been created over a lifetime, so change takes time and training. Be patient with yourself and the process. I’ll try to do the same.


Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and owns Country Counseling, LLC in Loveland, Colo. For more information, visit countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks.
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.

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