My Barrel horse won’t enter the arena quietly! Help!

barrel horseQuestion: Hi, I have this dun 11 year old quarter horse gelding who won’t enter an arena. My sister barrel races him, and when we try to get him in the arena for a run in a show, he will refuse to go in. But once he is in, he takes off running, so I don’t think he hates barrel racing. It is getting frustrating because it takes us about 10 minutes to get him in. Last time it took 6 people to push him in. Do you know why he is doing this? Dusty is ridden sometimes in trail riding, cattle herding, and he used to do a lot of riding around for fun. Mostly though he is now just used for barrel racing. He wears most of the time a hackamore.

Answer from April Reeves: Your problem with your gelding is quite typical and fairly easy to fix. Let’s take a look at what causes your horse’s arena fright.

Many non-pro horses used in games and especially barrels are trained to achieve this level of skill set by focusing on this alone. While many owners believe the only way to get a really great barrel horse is to do nothing but barrels, this is not necessary nor the case, and can actually lead to escalating control problems and a dangerous horse that will require a great deal of re-training. It sounds like your horse needs a break from the barrels.

Horses used for barrel racing do need that high-energy blast to get them performing at their peak. But in order to maintain that edge, the horse also needs to work on many other exercises, in order for the horse to remain fresh for performing. An energetic or hot horse is not the only prerequisite for a barrel horse, and is not the primary consideration the professionals look for. They need a very specific functional conformation to run well, plus a willing attitude as opposed to just ‘hot’.

Your gelding does not enter the ring because he carries a high level of anxiety during his performance. The fact that he takes off running is a sign, to me, that he needs a foundation first, before training for barrels, and variety in his everyday riding routine. A horse that truly likes to run barrels, and does it without pain or pressure, will walk into the arena quietly and wait for his job to start. He shows energy within, but control on the outside. He waits for the rider’s cue before bursting forth into his performance. Right now your horse hates running barrels or he would enter the arena easily. Once you get him into the arena he runs his fastest so that he can get it over with as soon as possible, much like a jumper who rushes jumps.

What is causing the anxiety? Here are a few of the typical problems with barrel anxiety:

• Uncomfortable equipment: saddle pinching, strong bits not adjusted properly
• Sore muscles, legs and tendons from overwork or injury (even past injuries and small injuries that you would not normally notice will increase dramatically during barrel racing, as it is one of the most physically exerting equine sports)
• Improper care and daily life – locked in a stall too long, fed to much proteins and ‘hot’ feeds
• Not having variety and quiet training in his schedule
• Not being capable of handling various conditions of the arena footing
• Not being warmed up properly
• Inconsistent cues and aids or frequent use of bat or reins in training
• And my favorite – riding too young, and creating all the above plus mental fatigue. Barrel horses should be started no earlier than 5. The phenomenal stress the back hocks and spine endure can lead to serious damage as the young horse matures.

I suggest you go to every arena you possible can, especially if you are not showing there, and walk the horse in by hand if necessary, and walk around on a loose rein until he becomes quiet. This is not going to be as easy as it sounds, as it will take the better part of one year to get him to accept arenas quietly. If there are barrels in the arena, walk around them in the pattern, and when he becomes quiet, pick up a trot around them. Make the whole arena experience a good one.

I would check to see if his saddle may be a cause. In most of the problems I see with this sort of horse, the saddle fits properly 10% of the time! That’s a lot of uncomfortable horses out there! My blog, has a good western saddle fitting article you may want to review.

Another thing is to take a look at his past training and assess whether he may be missing a good foundation or is a candidate for rebuilding one. This work will take 3 months or more to put on him, but it will be worth it. In the end, you will still have your barrel horse, plus a confident partner.

I am also an advocate of using the snaffle bit as much as possible. Your gelding needs to learn to be soft and responsive first before moving into a hackamore. Any bit or device with shanks is reserved for horses that are advanced in their training. Using any equipment as a band-aid to a problem will only increase the problem. What you resist, persists.

Once you have a solid foundation on him, you may move back into the hackamore, or use it only for running barrels (there will be days you work him in the hackamore at home to ensure he is comfortable with it).

I have a great deal of information on foundation work on my blog: To help get you started, go to ‘Basic groundwork and saddle work for the herd bound horse”. This article has an extensive amount of information on how to start a foundation, and would be useful for your horse. These exercises are easy to follow and fun to do. You will be surprised at how quick your horse will learn. I believe that foundation training should not be complicated.

In the blog articles, you will learn how to teach him speed control and to take responsibility with maintaining his gaits.
He will learn to listen to your cues, and not decide on his own when it is time to change.
He will learn valuable groundwork that you can apply to create confidence and leadership.
He will become flexible and supple, maintaining a soft face and body.

It’s important to remember that ALL horses need to go back in their training every now and then. When you are having trouble or have reached a roadblock, it is a signal that you have missed a valuable lesson or level in your training, and the only way out is going back.

I also suggest you learn as much as you can about barrel racing. It has a unique style of training that you may want to follow. Find a pro clinic and audit it. Watch and read all you can.

The bottom line is, in order to fix your horse’s arena anxiety, you will need to do a fair bit of work. I really hope you and your sister make the decision to work with him in a professional manner and take the time necessary to learn and experience what it’s like to bring a horse along in training. There is nothing better than to see your horse succeed and become a willing partner! The learning is fun!

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