Wow! Life sure has had me busy the past few months! Between barrel racing, riding colts, and breeding season, I have been SWAMPED! I keep wanting to blog and finally I actually have a few minutes, so here I go - ready or not!
Why is it that as soon as you mention to a non-barrel racer that a certain horse is a "barrel horse" that they instantly have that image of "Hi O Silver", a horse rearing up and taking off, hot, baulking at the gate and just plain disrespectful pop up in their head? Well, believe it not, this misconception of a barrel horse is every where you go. Stepping back and just observing at a barrel race, you will see some "hot" horses, some horses that are "ready for their job", and some that are "okay if you say so" type of horses. It is easy to see how the barrel horse has gotten that image and reputation, but it is no excuse to let you horse fall into that "hot" category.
A barrel horse may become "hot" from many different factors. Maybe it's been running while it's sore or hurt? It anticipates that it's going to hurt, which leads to balking at the gate, running off, or ducking barrels. Or it may became that way due to over running or practicing barrels. Soon, they dread working the barrels and do whatever they can do to get out of it. Their rider has taken the fun out of their job. Or maybe they have become that way due to their rider's nerves. A horse feeds off our our body and our energy so if we're nervous, it will pass on to them and make them nervous.
I can NOT stand a "hot" barrel horse, however I enjoy and want my horses to be in the next category, "ready for their job". I want my horses to know what their job is and be ready for it. I don't want to have to ask them twice to head to that gate and onto that first barrel. I want them prepared and craving their job. They may be tense at the gate, their head may be elevated some, but they are completely controllable and walk easily around. There is a VERY fine line between this type of horse and being a "hot" barrel horse. How do you keep your horse from becoming into a Hot horse or take your horse from hot and into the "ready" all depends on you.
I used to dread homework while I was in school. I would much rather do fun stuff after school, like ride horses, however, if I didn't do my homework, I struggled in school. I might get by, but I wasn't prepared for that next lesson, or really even the previous lesson - I did not have a solid foundation. This is much like a barrel horse and gate issues. I stress to everyone I talk to about gate issues or high strung horses....DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
So what exactly do I mean by homework? I can't say enough how important walking is. I spend a lot of time on my solid horses just walking the pattern. It's actually amazing how much you can fix on the pattern if you just walk. Most importantly, you horse learns that it doesn't have to run or work every time it's in front of a barrel pattern. My goal with my barrel horses is to be able to make a run, stop at the finish line, turn around and walk that pattern on a loose rein. In order to do this, I spend a lot of time walking. If I feel a horse be tense, guess what...I walk it! If I can feel it pulling on the bit, I walk it! If I've loped through quite a few times, I spend just as much time walking it through the barrels as I did loping it. And on those solid horses, I live by the rule that for every run I make on a horse, I will walk it 3-5 times through the pattern. You will be amazed at how just walking the pattern will make your horse freer, happier, and more relaxed.
Another very important part of homework is gate work. This can be done at home but I've found it most important while at jackpots and on the road. Before it's my turn to run whether it be just a few runners before me or 50, I like to walk my horses up to the gate and let them sit. I'll do this multiple times onto hundreds depending on the horse and circumstances. I want to keep them soft and relaxed and waiting on me. It doesn't take long to get them this way if you make it a habit. The next step to gate work is just as important. After I make a run, I won't get off my horse immediately. I like to stay on my horse until the end of the rake and then I will do much like I talked about before and will walk in and out of the gate. If at all possible, I try to walk through the open gate, stop, pet and let the horse relax, get off and loosen my cinch. If you are a roper, it's just like what you do when you score a horse or when before you put him away, you set him in the box.
Find a sweet spot. By that I mean, find something that you can do that automatically makes the horse relaxed. For me, if you've read my blog before, I do "Direction". If you're not familiar to what I'm referring to, there is a whole post dedicated to this exercise I posted earlier this year. These tiny little circles not only help my horses to relax, but also to focus, and it's a reminder to stay soft. My good mare can be HOT and as soon as I do this, she melts down into a kids horse state of being and walks with her head down, soft and relaxed. My horses know that this is a calming thing for them to do. It takes their mind off the anxiety and gives them something else to focus their energy and nervousness onto. You might have a different exercise that would work for you, however this is what I've found has worked best for me. In addition to this exercise, I've found that it has calmed me down as well. With deep breaths, my body relaxes, translating to the horse to stay cool.
Just like with any thing you do in life, the more effort you put into it, the better things will be. By doing these things, my horses stay in that "ready" category. Sure, just like humans, they can have anxiety attacks here and there, however it should not take much to bring them down a notch if you've done your home work.
Don't let that raging barrel horse stereotype give you an excuse to not do your homework. There is no good excuse for this kind of behavior. If you do your homework, not only will the barrel race become more enjoyable for your horse, but it will be for you too!