By Laura Lambert

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Lance with a group of students celebrating his BFA Super Stakes reserve world championship run. (Kenneth Springer)

Anyone that competes in the sport of barrel racing knows what a frustrating event it can be. Being young and trying to learn this complicated activity can be trying at best. Adults and trainers can help ease this learning process by becoming a positive light in young kids’ lives. Recognizing the need for encouragement and positive thinking, Lance Graves has built a reputation on his methods helping children learn to run barrels successfully.

“No matter what happens or how bad the run goes, from the time a child enters the arena to the time they stop their horse, something went right. It can be their worst run ever, but something went right,” Graves said. Building on what went right in the run and reinforcing the positives is how Graves approaches his teaching techniques.
Back to the Basics

The foundation of Graves’ philosophy is just getting back to the basics. The first thing he does when he begins to help a child is to assess what is comfortable. He watches them ride their current horse and does a lot more listening that teaching. Graves’ goals in the beginning include seeing where the child’s comfort zone lies, assessing the abilities of the rider, and becoming friends.  

Graves believes in building a life-long friendship with each child he coaches.

“You can be the most effective teacher to a child when they know you are their biggest fan,” stated Graves.

In fact, he has modeled his teaching around the coaching style of his hero, Bela Karolyi. If you, like me, didn’t recognize the name, then maybe these names will sound a little more familiar—Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci and Kristie Phillips. Karolyi happened to be their gymnastics coach and these medal-earning gymnasts represent just a few of his success stories. Nine Olympic champions, 15 world champions, 16 European medalists and six U.S. national champions were all coached by Karolyi. Graves admires Karolyi because no matter the methods or approach, Karolyi has always found a way to bring out the best performance in a child.

Knowing that not all personalities are compatible, Graves listens to the child and works with them in their first few meetings to determine whether or not they can have a good working relationship. When that is determined, he begins communicating with them to understand what motivates the child.

“I think I have a natural ability to be able to communicate with little people. I’m never one to brag on myself, but that is where I think I excel,” Graves said.

He admits that many of the processes he uses while teaching are just life principles, not necessarily barrel racing techniques.

The children Graves does best with are the ones who enjoy motivation and praise. When a child needs a little more gruff instruction, Graves openly admits that he is not the right coach for them.

“I am a naturally upbeat person. It is easy for me to get excited about small accomplishments,” Graves said. He believes in keeping the entire experience a positive one. “The more positive reinforcement you give a child, the harder they will work to do what you want them to do which, ultimately is what they want to do.”

Matching Pairs
Another important part of Graves’ work with children is his ability to know his horses and the child. While he admits that for the most part, matching young kids with young horses is a bad idea for many reasons, he also admits that almost all of his futurity horses ultimately go to youth riders. He attributes the success he has had with these pairings to the fact that he takes the time to know both the horse and the child.

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Sassie Jae Thompson at age 10 winning second at the 2009 Josey Junior World Championship barrel race riding 6-year-old Flitter On Fire. (Stefanie Yoder)

One of the biggest mistakes he thinks people make is putting different personalities together with horses and riders. Taking the time to observe the child and what fits into the child’s comfort zone and then pairing that child with a horse that corresponds will make the entire experience better for both horse and rider. You don’t want to put a free running horse under a child that is a really aggressive rider, just as you wouldn’t want to put a really ratey horse with a timid child. Barrel racing is many things, but having the right combination of horse and rider is a big part of the game.

Listening to his horses and figuring out what makes them want to run barrels is at the forefront of his mind all the time when training. Graves spends a lot of time just riding horses and says that the very simple concept of just riding is something that everyone should employ.

“Every time you ride a horse, you should be learning something,” Graves said. “If I send three little girls out on their horses to just go ride the trails for an hour, each one will come back knowing something about their horse they didn’t know before they left.”

According to Graves, people just need to ride. The more time you spend in the saddle generally equates to greater success in the long run.

A young person wanting to become a successful barrel racer should spend a lot of time in the saddle, according to Graves.

“The more time you can spend with a horse and learn how to communicate with your animal on a one-on-one basis, the better natural choices you will make and your reactions will be positive.”

Graves believes that when surveying the sport of barrel racing, the easiest thing about barrel racing is barrel racing. The underlying meaning behind that statement is that when you get to the race, all the work should be done. At the race is when you have the chance to enjoy yourself and let everything you have done up to that point show. The hardest parts of barrel racing include learning about your horse and working as a team in or out of the arena.

Training Points

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Lance Graves won back-to-back AQHA Junior Barrel Racing World Championships on the great gelding, Famous Ed. (KC Montgomery)

Graves approaches his horses much the same as he does his students. He recalled learning when he was a child that a horse is the only animal that gives up his own life to live for the will of someone else.

“I try to teach my students that they need to be the horseperson who that horse is willing to give up his own life for,” Graves said. “You need to be an inspiration to your horse and be the person the horse looks forward to seeing.

“Transmitting kindness through your hands is the quickest way to get a speed event animal to come to your side. Your hands should always be soft and your feet are the gas pedal. You always need to be kind to a horse’s mouth and the horse must know that you would not deliberately try to injure them. If you do those things, horses will want to serve you. It is one of the wonderful characteristics God gave them.”

Graves also emphasizes that it’s important to have an adult around to help you. Bad habits can be fixed relatively quickly if you have someone there who is educated and experienced. Running barrels and training horses involves so much more than just the pattern. Experience in riding and overall horsemanship can and will ease the frustrations of this sport.

Larger Lessons
“My main objective is to build a child’s confidence in a real way,” Graves said. “I don’t give praise for nothing and I don’t give them a false sense of accomplishment. I try to teach them that if they try hard and work hard, you can accomplish positive things.

“Being the world champion barrel racer is not the most important thing—even if it seems like it. Barrel racing is just a sport. The life lesson that should be learned is that if you really focus, really listen, and if you try hard enough, positive things will happen.”


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