Conditioning the Barrel Horse

Posted in: Ask A Pro, Barrel Racing, Featured, Horse Training, Rodeo

I’ve been absent for a while, from writing here, and I apologize. Winter here has been horrific, and since I haven’t gotten to ride as much this winter as the last few, I’ve lacked fodder to share with you. Which led me to this — I’m going to share a series about training/conditioning barrel horses; what I do, how I do it, what I practice, when I practice and the like. I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to share. It’s 3 decades in the making.

Winter is often a time to pull the shoes on our horses, turn them out, and let them get fat and sassy. Which begs the question — how do you condition the out of shape horse?

For many folks, their horses may live in stalls; that’s less likely the case here where I am located in the heart of South Dakota ranch country. Though in the past I have stalled my horses, so I can speak to how to condition both types; it doesn’t vary much, though you’ll find the horse that’s turned out typically starts in better condition than one that’s been stalled.  Here, our horses have to travel a quarter mile to water daily. Even when they’re near the corral eating hay, they make this trek.

Lynn McKenzie recommends a 4 mile warm up with once weekly breeze-outs. Her program is 6 days a week. There was a time when I subscribed to this as well. However, I think conditioning the horse is just as much about the physical aspect as it is about the mental aspect — same with warming the horse up.

I like to start with 3-4 days a week of riding when I’m bringing a barrel horse back after a winter layoff.

My warm up goes something like this:

10 minute warm up at the walk. This isn’t just walking to walk. I’ll ask the horse to get soft.  I want him soft laterally, and in the bridle. I want him soft through his ribs. I’ll make sure he can walk his hind end around his front, and his front end around his hind. I use this time to really make sure he’s tuned into me and limbered up. I try to practice good horsemanship on every ride. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Once the horse is warm, I’ll get into the meat and potatoes of conditioning.

Ideally I’ll go outside, down our gravel road.  It’s a good way to gauge how far we are going. If you can’t go down the road, it takes a horse roughly 7 – 7.5 minutes to trot a mile. Typically I’ll  use the driveway as my warm up. By the time I get to the gravel it’s time to trot. I’ll ask the horse to really move out. I’ll trot them a solid mile to start. I don’t usually lope them at this point. An in shape horse can trot a lot of miles in a day — so this is where I like to start.

I don’t throw away the softness I’ve put in them from the warm up either. I’ll pick up that soft feel once in a while, but usually I pitch them the reins and post that long trot. If they’re good for a mile (not breathing hard and feeling fresh), I’ll add another half mile at the trot. I’ll slow them down to a walk when we’ve completed our mile and half, turn and head back to the house.  At this point, we’ll trot until they’re breathing hard. I always wrap up with enough cool down time that they’re back to normal respirations.

Once this is easy — usually a week or so, I’ll up that trot to a mile and a half.  Then we’ll lope for a mile making a 2.5 mile trek out. I prefer to do this on a straight, and ask my horses to pick up specific leads. I try to balance the horse so that he lopes equally on the left and right lead – in this case, half a mile on the left, half a mile on the right. Going straight is much easier on their joints than loping circles so any chance I get to ride them straight I take it. Plus, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  Some barrel horses can’t ever get straight during a run, because they never get a chance to go straight. They’re always going in circles.

Because I ranch on my horses I don’t usually go four miles just to go four miles – but I will spend most of the spring gathering cows and what not – sometimes trotting 2 miles from home just to get to the pasture where the cows are located. It’s pretty easy to put on a lot of miles this way.  When I lived in town, and couldn’t do that, I would do the four mile warm up. It takes a horse roughly 5 minutes to lope a mile. I try to start this process a month prior to my first planned run of the year.

When my horse can pretty comfortably lope a mile and trot three miles I don’t fuss with continual conditioning. At least for my horses, we’re going to make 3-4 runs most weeks, so I may even ride them daily. They’ll make a run and then the next day they may make another run, or they may get a day off, because they’re in the trailer. When I get where I’m going I’ll usually hand walk them, or get on and walk them/trot them for a few minutes to get them stretched out.  I’ll also pony them as needed. If one needs a ride I’ll pony the others so that they all get to stretch their legs and their lungs.

I hope this helps you decide what’s right for you horses when it comes to conditioning. Up next, we’ll talk about how often I work the pattern on my horses, and what I do to keep them fresh when they’re not on the pattern. It may surprise you.

Happy Trails!


Posted in: Ask A Pro, Barrel Racing, Featured, Horse Training, Rodeo

About Jenn Zeller

Jenn Zeller is the creative mind and boss lady behind The South Dakota Cowgirl. She is an aspiring horsewoman, photographer, brilliant social media strategist and lover of all things western. After a brief career in the investment world to support her horse habit (and satisfy her...

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