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A Weekly Barrel Racing Workout is in the Can

Get an inside look at how champion barrel racer Sue Smith keeps her horses mentally and physically fit to compete.

By Micaela Myers | December 2011 Extra

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Barrel racers know that overpracticing the pattern can sour a speed horse. But what do the pros do during the week to keep their horses in tip-top shape, both mentally and physically, for competition season? Champion barrel racer and trainer Sue Smith of Blackfoot, Idaho, shares her weekly routine to help you keep your speed horse fit and focused.

Barrel Racing
Circle D by micadew on flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Day 1

The day after a competition is all about rest for Smith’s horses. Time on the hotwalker can keep them from getting stiff, but other than that, they are free to relax.

Day 2

"Assuming it was a good competition run, I start back light [on the second day],” Smith says. "I try to take some pressure off my horse at that point.”

Smith works her horses in a large field where she can ride without the confinement of an arena. "Because the field has a big circumference, I don’t have to do a lot of circles—I can just let my horse go forward. I go out there and try to keep it casual and relaxed, not really asking anything of him. Then I might trot, but I don’t do much else. I just let my horse chill and get out of his pen.”

Day 3

"On day three, I ask my horse to give me something,” Smith continues. "I want him to break at the poll, give me his face, step underneath himself with his hind end, and do different suppling exercises. I’ll ask him to move his front feet in and out of a turn while keeping his face in the correct position.”

Although Smith says many barrel racers may not consider keeping their horse in a proper frame important, she explains that it’s essential for good balance and correct turns. To ask her horse to give at the poll and frame up, Smith drives him forward in to both hands and uses a release of pressure to reward him. "I ride two-handed a lot so I can keep his face in the right position,” Smith explains. "I drive my horse to my hands with my legs. I’m not keeping a steady pull on his face—it’s a give and take. When my horse gives his head to me, I release. I’m not throwing his face away, but I release the pressure immediately so he knows where his boundaries are. He knows that if his face is in the correct position, I’m not going to pull anymore.”

Smith practices circling as a suppling exercise and expects her horse to stay framed up and rounded, performing perfectly round circles. "I want my horse’s body to be in a ‘C’ shape—a curve from his nose to his tail,” she explains. "I don’t want one part bent more than another.

"If you have the arena freshly dragged, you can look at your horse’s tracks and make sure your circles are correct and round, not egg-shaped,” continues Smith. She explains that a horse will often drift toward his pen or a buddy, making the circle oblong instead of round. If this happens, she applies more outside leg at the point where he drifts out to make the circle true. At the opposite side of the circle, the horse may drift in, so she’ll apply more inside leg.

Smith recommends practicing circles of varying sizes at all gaits. "I always change up [the size] because a horse can get so patterned that he goes through a drill without paying attention to the rider,” she says. "That’s what barrels are all about. We teach horses to turn a barrel, and then we have to teach them to wait for us because otherwise they’ll take over. And then they start cutting the turns and doing it their way. I want my horse to be hooked on me and focusing on what I’m asking.”

Smith begins circling at the slower gaits and doesn’t increase her horse’s speed until his circles are correct. She also notes that her weekly workout strategy differs on a seasoned competition horse versus a young horse in training. "Most of the time, the horse I’m competing on is far enough along that I’m not putting pressure on him with speed,” she explains. "For most of the work I do with him, I’m trying to take the pressure off. He gets enough pressure on the weekends.

"Speed will tighten a horse up,” Smith adds. "I try to soften my horse in between competitions so he’s performing his best [at the next event]. So I don’t do much speed work once he’s running well at home.”

Day 4

The fourth day brings more suppling work. Which suppling exercises Smith practices during the week depends on the horse. "I just mix it up,” she says. "You can do a reverse arc in to or out of a turn. I’ll lope circles, stop, and then roll my horse off of his hocks onto the opposite lead. I do a lot of these exercises to keep my horse thinking, getting his hocks down and then driving away.” Smith constantly assesses what her horse is doing and what areas he may need to work on. "I feel what my horse is doing and then go from there,” she explains.

Smith says one of the most common problems for barrel horses is they become too heavy on their front end. She explains that this can be caused by the rider pulling with both hands or jerking on the reins.

"What I have to help most people with is their horses falling on their forehand in to their turns because they’re anticipating,” Smith says. "As barrel racers, we run the same pattern. We rate our horses, and then we ask them to go forward. That’s the best way to [unintentionally] teach a horse to get heavy on his forehand.

"I do a lot of suppling exercises to let my horse find his way through the turn,” says Smith. "When I do that, I basically set him up with his head to the inside of the turn, and I hold his head there. I’m not just pulling on the inside rein, but I’m also supporting him with some outside rein. I’m not going to let my horse leave that position until he steps to the inside of the turn with his front end, stepping across. It takes a lot of pressure off when he realizes that he can go that deep in to a turn and not get pushed.”

Again, Smith makes sure her horse is framed up during this suppling work. She uses her outside leg as her driving aid during the turn, while supporting with her inside leg. As with the circles, she starts out at a walk and adds speed once her horse gets the hang of the exercise.

Another exercise Smith uses to teach a horse not to fall on his forehand is to offset him each time she stops. "Whenever I stop my horse, I never just step him forward to leave the stop; I always offset him,” she explains. "Even if I’m going to go forward, I’ll move his shoulder over one way or another. I want him to elevate his shoulders slightly.” Smith also accomplishes this by stopping with one rein shorter than the other, and then backing her horse in a reverse arc prior to stepping him forward again.

Day 5

"On the fifth day, I might go out to the field and do some conditioning exercises, where I start out trotting and then lope,” Smith says. "That helps take that real tight edge off my horse. It gets him tired and keeps him in condition.”

Smith explains that young horses preparing for competition will need more of this type of work, but for the seasoned competition horse, conditioning exercises such as long trotting are more for maintenance.

If your horse is lazy or slower than you’d like, take this conditioning time to extend the trot and make him work at the lope. "That will help lengthen his stride,” Smith explains. "With a horse like that, I do a lot of long trotting. Then, when I do lope him, I lope him out.”

On the other hand, a horse with a lot of go and too little rate may need to work on control, so Smith focuses on circling and shortening the horse’s stride.

Day 6

The day before a competition is the day Smith may work on the pattern with strategic modifications for the individual horse to prime him for the perfect run. "Whatever he’s weak at, I exaggerate it,” she says of her pattern practice. For example, with her current competition horse, she’ll work on keeping his turns round. "I’ll exaggerate the roundness because he’s quick enough that he’ll take it away from me,” she says. "I may take some extra steps away from the barrel, keeping him extra round as he finishes it.”

Smith doesn’t often walk the pattern but will do slower work, such as trotting up to the barrels and walking around them. "When he feels pretty good there, then I might speed him up again until I’m loping. If he gets a little chargey, I’ll remind him to come back to me until he’s comfortable going a little faster,” she says.

Day 7

Day seven is competition day. By staying supple and fit during the week, Smith’s horse is ready to run!

Further Reading
Barrel Racing Boot Camp
Rating Your Run
Riding the Run

Meet the Trainer
Sue Smith of Blackfoot, Idaho, started out competing on the rodeo circuit as an amateur, winning several barrel racing and all-around championships. She now specializes in bringing along barrel prospects and has won several futurities, as well as the Wildreness Circuit (in Idaho, Utah and Nevada) twice. In 2009, she competed in the National Finals Rodeo. For more info, visit

Micaela Myers is the author of The Horse Illustrated Guide to Trail Riding and KNACK Leg and Hoof Care for Horses

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.

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