“They go how you ride them,” is a statement made to me by Australian champion horse trainer/clinician and multiple discipline champion, Ian Francis. It is one that I keep at the front of my mind the second my foot hits the stirrup, everyday. I have witnessed Ian repeat this phrase over and over to everyone from multi-million dollar reining horse trainers, all the way down to very novice level barrel racers. Over the years it’s become one of my favorite references. It is such a simple statement, yet so extremely complex that we could delve into its meaning at literally every level of training a horse and rider goes through.

Photo Courtesy of EquiBrand

Photo Courtesy of EquiBrand

Understanding the meaning of this statement involves the ability to self-evaluate or, in other words, the ability to be objective about your self as a rider. You must be aware of what you are doing and you must also be very aware of how your horse is feeling. In barrel racing, training a futurity colt or competing at professional rodeos can prove to be very difficult for some people and a walk in the park for others, sometimes even on the same horse.

Our bodies, hands and minds all play a significant role in how our horse performs. I can remember countless examples, but there is one particular instance that I will always remember. A sweet lady in one of my clinics had a 15-year-old gelding that she had been riding his whole life. The exercise we were working on was Perfect Circles. I asked her to walk her gelding in a perfect circle, equal spaced around the barrel. She walked and walked, keeping her hands correct and her body correct, but for no obvious reason, her horse would repeatedly step off and look another way. She would correct him and try again, and the same thing happened over and over, no matter how hard she tried. At first, I could not figure out why this was happening. After carefully studying both horse and rider I became aware that the woman would go part way around the barrel then look off towards the stalls or the open door or up at the ceiling. Her horse would do the exact same thing, which caused him to lose focus on the path she was asking him to take. This horse was so in-tuned to his rider that he was reacting to everything! The lady had no idea that she was absent-mindedly looking away and breaking her focus. Once we figured out the problem and she stayed solidly focused on the task at hand, the whole clinic witnessed this horse immediately walk his first perfect circle. It was amazing.

I believe that our horses can literally read our minds and that they see what we are thinking. The best way to train yourself to stay in-tuned to this idea is to practice thinking like your horse. Never expect your horse to think like a person. It’s very important to focus on the positive things and always think about what is correct, never think about what not to do. For example, don’t think about not hitting a barrel. Instead, only think and focus on the correct path your horse needs to take in order to run a smooth pattern. Think clearly and be decisive about what you expect from your horse when practicing and competing. Confusion in your mind will cause your horse to be confused, even if you are physically doing the right things.

A rider’s body movements will affect the horse’s movements. Many riders are not aware of the fact that every movement they make with their bodies has an affect on their horse. Watching hundreds of rider/horse teams over the past 10 years and studying professional colt breakers has proven this a fact to me. There are many truths concerning rider posture and its affect on the horse. For example, sitting deep in the saddle (on your pockets) helps you ride the hindquarters of the horse, which allows for a longer stride and better forward motion with a more relaxed gait. It encourages the horse to step his hind feet further up under himself. This will give both horse and rider better balance. This body position will allow you to sit relaxed while still being able to use your legs for impulsion, and will allow the horse to relax and find their natural gait. On the contrary, sitting forward with your weight on the front of your pelvis will put your weight onto the forehand of the horse, which will cause the horse to shorten his stride and will restrict the movement of his front end.

Hands and fingers should be used to complement a rider’s seat. The weaker the seat, the stronger the hands will have to be. Strong or hard hands will cause a horse to be heavy on the forehand and will often cause you to be tipped forward. Riding two handed can also cause barrel racers to ride the forehand of the horse and will cause the horse to be more rigid and less relaxed. Riding one handed and controlling the horse with your fingers will do the opposite. These are just a few examples of many subtle movements that will have a profound effect on your barrel horse whether you are just loping circles or running a race. Centered and balanced riding is always more productive.

It is important to know that you, as the rider, are the responsible member of the team. Always evaluate your mind, body and hands before taking an action to correct or discipline your horse. It seems to be human nature to blame someone or something other than ourselves when something goes wrong. I find this to be true in the human and horse relationships that I work with as a clinician. I’m not saying that the horse is never in the wrong, or that they never need discipline. I am saying that something that the rider did or didn’t do probably is the cause of the problem, and that the rider must be aware of his mistake, correct himself and then correct the four-legged student. The lack of communication by the rider and the lack of understanding by the horse can cause huge problems.

Riders’ hands seemed to be considered as the single most important body parts when discussing horse training, and are certainly the most talked about. As a horse trainer, I am obsessed with having good hands, but my hands are to my horsemanship what my heart is to my body. The heart is the life support of the body, but a person will die without a liver. All body parts function together to make a healthy body. For a rider, all body parts working together mean healthy horsemanship.

Every finger, muscle, twitch, squeeze with calves or thighs, elbows in, elbows out, angles of pulling, the way you cock your head or cock your hips, the way you position your shoulders, tension, balance, and what you’re thinking all have a profound effect on your horse. So be very aware of yourself. Realize just how sensitive and intelligent your horse is. Be aware of how he thinks, feels, sees and moves. Be aware that he sees differently than you do. Be aware that he perceives things differently than you do. Be consistent whenever and wherever you are riding your horse. You can’t expect him to understand when you ride one way in practice and another way in competition. Develop your ability to really communicate with your horse.

Barrel racing is a complex sport full of emotion, expectation and adventure. And we are lucky enough to share it with one of God’s most blessed creatures.


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. E-mail comments on this article to  [email protected].


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