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THE ART OF BUILDING CONFIDENCE IN YOUR BARREL HORSE
By Mark Bugni
We’ve all come across many different training techniques when it comes to barrel horses. They range from very aggressive styles to very patient styles and everything in between, each seeing their own share of success. However, there is one thing many trainers fail to give direct recognition to and that is the “art of building confidence” in a barrel horse.
I’m coming to you from a perspective of training young horses and taking them through the seasoning process. One common denominator I have found with every successful barrel horse is the confidence they perform with in the arena. Is that something that just happens because the horse was meant to run barrels or is it trained into them? I personally believe a great deal comes from the training.
I have spent many years training barrel horses and it was about 20 years ago when the first person mentioned to me how confident my barrel horses were. It took me many years of experience and observation to realize the weight that concept had in my training program.
There have been times I have watched riders trying to tune their barrel horses before or after an event and the more frustrated the rider became, the more frustrated the horse became. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that result out, but think of what was lost in the process. It was the confidence that the horse had in the rider and vice versa.
Once you destroy a horse’s confidence you will not get a positive result and you will see a domino effect where the horse then runs scared or mad because of the recent session and suddenly, because things went wrong, the rider loses confidence in the horse. The cycle that usually follows is…. the rider is frustrated and embarrassed and proceeds to train harder and more aggressively on the horse further destroying the confidence of the whole program.
Luckily, in most cases and with the engagement of the intelligence of the rider or trainer, horses can be very forgiving as long as this cycle doesn’t persist for a long period of time.
At this point, two concepts echo in my mind that I learned many years ago.
First, the saying, “Frustration stems from the lack of knowledge of what to do or how to handle certain situations”. The key here, obviously, is to gain some new tools of information to work out any issues that may arise before you give in to frustration. Usually if we take a breath and think a little, we may already have the rational procedure to fix the problem. Otherwise, don’t be too prideful to hang it up for that session and go consult a professional on what approach to take. You will be doing yourself and your horse a huge favor.
Second, “Never choose the day of competition to discipline your horse in any unusual fashion”. This concept came from a race horse trainer I worked for years ago. He believed that on the day of a horse’s race, they should feel good about themselves and confident in their attitude. Remember, no one is at there most confident after being scolded or “beat up on” and that goes for the equine athlete as well.
We all find ourselves in situations from time to time that make us act irrationally to some degree with our barrel horses. I have found it to be wise to give thought to the concept of “building confidence” in the way that you tune your horse or correct problems.
Remember that horses find confidence in routines, clear boundaries, and consistency in execution. I’ll make each of these as clear as I can so you can work with these ideas and see how much you can improve your own program.
Horses, as we all know, learn from repetition (or familiar routines). So, with that in mind, when you find your horse getting nervous or confused about something in your training session or even at a barrel race, do something from your daily routine. A station or any exercise that they are very familiar with and keep it at a slower pace. Such as slow loping around a single barrel or simply trotting quiet circles in the corner of the arena. Anything your horse is familiar with in your day to day program.
The next thing I think is very important is giving your horse “clear boundaries.” This means that you must draw a line in what you will allow your horse to do and what you absolutely will not allow them to do. A person, as well as a horse, is a more confident creature when they know exactly what is expected of them. No blurred lines, no uncertainties, no allowing it this day but not the next. Things with horses must be in black and white, no gray areas. Only Clear Boundaries!
Finally there is “consistency of execution”. This concept means that from the very first day you begin working with your horses you must ask them to execute any exercise accurately and it must be asked in the same exact way, every single time. I can’t stress this enough. If you want your horse to be consistent and confident you must commit to true consistency yourself. This ranges from where you teach your horse to rate, where you put your hands, how big of a pocket you make, etc…
I have witnessed many riders training on their horses with little or no consistency, all along wondering why their horse would not execute anything the same way twice. ** Remember, they will not do it exactly right every time but we, as the training guides, must ask for it the same way each time.**
This is what is meant by the old saying, “Practice does not make perfect, Only Perfect Practice makes perfect!”
It is a rule of thumb that if you want to end up with a horse that performs with consistency, You must train them with consistency. And, as an added note, if you don’t start out asking them correctly from the first day you go around the barrel pattern, the problems you create will show up, to some degree, in their future performance.
So, the next time you find yourself frustrated with your session or your performance, remember to climb off and think things through clearly and calmly before you risk breaking your horse’s confidence.
You’ll have a better, more successful program for it!
Courtesy Mark Bungi
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