The Anxious Horse: Barrel Horse Training

The Anxious Horse: Barrel Horse Training

These horse-training exercises help calm hot speed-event horses.

generic barrel racing photo from jackpot barrel race (Credit: Doug McElreath for AQHA)

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Pressures of a high-speed event can take its toll. Controlling a hot barrel horse doesn’t have to be a nightmare. The good news is there are drills and exercises to help anxious horses. Training hot barrel horses takes a few steps. (This advice works well for horses that compete in stake race and pole bending, too!)

The place to start is identifying the root cause of the horse’s anxiety. Bob Jeffreys and AQHA Professional Horsewoman Suzanne Sheppard, of Middletown, New York, help horsemen in need with their horse-training problems. Common causes they see for horse anxiety are:

  • Pain – Poor saddle fit, a sore back or some other source of discomfort may be present, causing tension, stiffness and hypersensitivity.
  • Lack of knowledge – The horse may be able to “go through the paces,” but doesn’t know how to do so calmly, confidently and listening to his rider.
  • Fear – The horse may be so insecure that he becomes panicked when away from other horses, and when the barrel horse enters the gate, it’s a very stimulating situation with lots of distractions.
  • Rider error – Because the horse is so talented and willing, the rider may have jumped the gun and worked on advanced skills before confirming the basics, like impulsion, speed control and transitions up and down.

Addressing the Anxious Horse

Bob and Suzanne suggest the following drills and exercises:

  1. Go back to the basics, training the horse four to five times a week with a snaffle bit. Ask the horse to give to the bit at the walk, jog and eventually the lope so he remains supple, relaxed and focused.
  2. If speed excites the horse, focus on emotional training; this is the area where the horse needs the most improvement.
  3. Do lots of quiet work at the walk and trot, teaching the horse to slow and settle after work at speed, will help him learn how to relax in all gaits.
  4. Because running away in a panic is unacceptable, work on correct impulsion, engaging the hindquarters in all gaits so he learns to move forward in good balance and on cue.
  5. Lateral work will strengthen the horse’s focus and body, so do lots of it, getting specific control of each part of his body and guiding him through increasingly complex maneuvers.
  6. If herd-bound-ness is an issue, keep the horse busy enough that he doesn’t have time to worry about other horses.
  7. When incorporating this plan, you will build your horse’s self-confidence, attention span and confidence in his leader – you!

Success is assured when you plan your work effectively, and then work your plan with your horse.

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