Calm Your Barrel Horse at the Gate

Professional barrel racer Janet Engel offers advice that'll help your speed event horse stop balking, calm down and get down to business.

In its June 2004 issue, Horse & Rider kicked off a three-part series, Body Position Basics, with champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi. If you’re looking for more speed horse tips, read on. In this special online reprint, Janet Engel offers some tips that’ll turn your horse from balky to cool and confident.

Balking Basics
If your horses refuses to enter the arena, it may be due to one — or a combination of — the following reasons.

  • He’s experiencing pain from strain or injury, dental problems or poor-fitting tack.
  • He’s sensing your anxiety through your firm contact and tense muscles.
  • He’s starting to dread his job from repetitive practice.
  • He’s anxious due to the excitement he senses from the other horses or his surroundings.

Work with your vet or a reliable trainer to rule out or diagnose and resolve any of the above problems, then try the following confidence-building exercises.

Circle Exercise
1. To build his confidence, walk your horse on a 20- to 30-foot circle, about 50 feet from the arena entrance (or at a distance where he shows no signs of resistance). Ride one- or two-handed — whichever you or your horse prefer. (If your horse anticipates making a run, becoming too anxious, when you place both hands on the reins, ride one-handed.)

Focus your gaze on your target — the entrance. You’ll find that your body will automatically signal your horse to move in the direction in which you’re looking.

2. When your horse is relaxed, continue to make your circle, but proceed to a point directly across from the entrance. Then turn him to face the target and ride toward it. Now is a good time to begin riding two-handed (if you haven’t been) for maximum control of his head. Use direct rein and leg pressure to keep his body straight and press your calves against his sides to maintain forward motion. Your procession to the entrance should be a continuation of your circle so he doesn’t anticipate you’re about to enter the arena, and balk.

3. If your horse does balk, remind him that you’re in control, not him, by driving him forward into a small circle directly outside the arena entrance. Simultaneously sit back on your jeans’ pockets to shift his weight onto his hindquarters, firmly press your calves to his side to send him forward and apply inside direct-rein and leg pressure to get him to flex to the inside of the circle. As before, look at your target.

4. Once you’ve regained control, continue your circle and proceed to the arena as you did in step 2. If your horse willingly approaches the entrance, pass into the arena. The instant you sense he’s about to balk, increase your leg pressure to keep him moving forward. Repeat steps 3 and 4 if he balks again.

When your horse is inside the arena, reward him with rubs, reassuring words and relaxation. Then ride out of the arena and repeat this entire exercise in the opposite direction, rewarding him whenever he enters the arena without hesitation. It may take several sessions to consistently achieve this goal, but once his confidence is ingrained you’ll have a strong foundation on which to build a winning run.

Tip: To further prevent balking, keep your horse away from the arena’s nerve-wracking distractions before you compete. As the rider before you makes her run, walk your horse on a large circle just outside the arena. Plan ahead so you’re ready to proceed straight into the arena from your circle as the rider exits — and before your horse has a chance to balk.

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