Learn how world champion Nellie Miller keeps Rafter W Minnie Reba performing in the top tier of competition.

Sister is the type of horse that goes on autopilot during a run, but keeping her performing in that manner does take some effort and maintenance on my part as a rider. The question I hear a lot is, “How do you work Sister at home?” This is a really open-ended question and it varies from day to day, however, every horse my dad and I train have a foundation we are constantly falling back on during our everyday routine.

It’s easy to become a little too relaxed in our riding. Sometimes I catch myself going through the motions without any purpose. Every move you make on a horse should be done with purpose, even if it’s at a walk. All of these little details, if ignored, will turn into big problems down the road. If we are having issues with Sister not finishing a turn or having too much turn, it can usually be ironed out by just riding correctly and with a purpose.

During our riding sessions, our goals are to keep Sister exercised and to keep her mind correct. On a finished barrel horse, riding can become a little boring for both the horse and rider because it feels like there isn’t very much to work on. This stage is about maintaining something that is working. Sometimes if Sister and I are feeling a little bored with each other, I’ll ask my dad to ride her. Even though he doesn’t do much training on her, just having someone new and different helps to freshen her up. It’s also good for me to see someone else on her to get a different perspective on what she needs to be doing.

The things we do to keep Sister correct are usually done off the pattern. Very seldom do I make practice runs on Sister, and I hardly ever do slow work on the pattern. After the National Finals Rodeo, we didn’t show her the pattern for two months, and when I did it was at a rodeo, and she won it.

There are many different ways to achieve success, but in our opinion and the way our training process works, it’s by not putting much importance on the barrels once the horse knows the pattern. Pattern work can turn into something the horse resents, and our goal is to keep things as fresh as possible so they continue to like their job. I’m always going back to our foundation of how to turn correctly, but it might be in an open field or around a tree stump.

Barrel horse upkeep includes keeping your horse confident in between runs.
Instead of over-working the pattern, Nellie Miller prefers to keep “Sister” in shape and confident off the pattern between runs. Photo by Kailey Sullins.

Fortunately at our ranch, something is always going on—whether it’s working cattle, riding outside or roping—so it’s easy to do a new job every day. However, in most cases keeping things fresh for both the horse and rider can be a challenge. If you don’t have access to different experiences for your horse, then it’s time to get creative in the arena. Try to make your horse do new things. Lope across the arena instead of around it, or work on stopping and rolling them back on the fence. Anything that helps the horse become more of a well-rounded athlete can help when it’s time to run barrels, because it’s just another task they need to accomplish.

My advice is to ride a lot and train a little. Unless Sister is being hauled frequently or having health issues, she gets ridden almost every day.

There is a fine line between riding enough or not enough. We’re constantly juggling according to Sister’s attitude. If she doesn’t get ridden, she can get pretty sassy, and we need her to be 100 percent focused. If she’s feeling tired, I’ll give her rest to freshen up. This is when you have to know your horse and know what you’re looking for in your horse. Our days in the practice pen are not filled with drills and practice runs, but are more about smooth, correct moves in whatever task we’re asking them to do. Not only is riding important for the horse, but it’s crucial for the rider. The more time you spend on your horse’s back, the better your timing will be and the better you will know your horse.

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.


Nellie Miller is the 2017 WPRA World Champion and rode her home-raised and -trained 11-year-old mare Rafter W Minnie Reba (KS Cash N Fame x Espuela Roan x Blue Light Ike) - affectionately known as "Sister" - to the title. Miller has amassed $625,517 in Equi-Stat recording lifetime earnings. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

Write A Comment