My horse “Emmitt” won’t go into the arena. He’s got to have ulcers. After all, research says all horses do, right? (It has nothing to do with the fact that he thinks he’s got a ticking time bomb on his back due to the nervous beat of my heart.)
Here are a couple of other not so rare scenarios, maybe some you’ve even experienced personally:
I keep crashing the barrels with “Rock.” I’m not riding far enough into the pocket and I’m looking at the barrel instead of the ground beside it. Maybe I need to do more reverse arcs to get him obeying the inside rein. (It has nothing to do with the fact he has huge bone spurs in hocks that have caused him to dump on his front feet so much that they’re sore too.)
“PJ” balks at the gate. He pins his ears when he turns. I can barely keep him running through the pattern. When I cross the timer, he dash boards me before calmly walking out of the arena. (He’s in agony because he hates barrel racing!)
I wish I could say that I concocted each of the above scenarios specifically for the purposes of this article, but I did not. At least the last horse is now my sister’s top-notch rope horse and not mine. Thanks to guilt I felt over missing Rock’s problems for years, I easily jump to the lameness excuse. A veterinarian husband and having access to some of the top barrel racers in the country via speed dial doesn’t stop me from doing it either.
So, how do you know if your horse is unsound, untrained or simply doesn’t want to be a barrel horse? Here some of the top barrel racers in the industry help us unravel some reasons that lead to poor performance and offer tips on how to know if a lameness issue or training problem is at the heart of the issue.
The vast majority of barrel racers, especially those who have been around the sport for a while, take great care of their horses, and they should give themselves some credit for that and not overuse the lameness excuse. Says one professional barrel racer, we’ve become a sport of “horse hypochondriacs.”
Colt starting guru and horsemanship clinician Phil Haugen, who has put the start on many of the futurity industry’s brightest start, including two $100,000 winners, says he hears it all the time, ‘Do you think my horse is sore?’
“I really think with the young horses people are looking for an excuse for why their horse isn’t working,” he says. “More times than not, the horse is locked up in one of its five body parts. That would be its head, neck, shoulders, rib cage and hindquarters.
“Whether your horse is 2 or 20, if you go through the basic flexing exercises you can help your horse from getting sore. Sometimes we get a little lax in that. Then we get a horse that’s sore and they brace and pull instead of relax and give. That just adds to more soreness in other parts of the body.”
While he believes chiropractors and massage therapists have their place, a horse has to really show him that he’s “darn sure lame” or he’s going to work. “Every day I get up and I’m sore, but once I get moving, I work it out,” he says. “Most of the horses I ride are going to get body sore because they go from doing basically nothing to boot camp.”
Multiple Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier and futurity champion Danyelle Campbell attends many large divisional races and has experience with horse hypochondriacs firsthand. She says its unfortunate to see people that spend money, sometimes needlessly, on horse health care experts and products when they could have spent that money getting some horsemanship help or a better horse.
“Certain people are always looking for a gimmick,” says Campbell. “It’s really hard to tell those people that it is their fault (the horse isn’t working) and that sometimes they’re on a horse that just flat doesn’t want to be a barrel horse.” Campbell believes she sees more rider nerves causing problems at the open races as opposed to soundness issues, especially with the older seasoned horses that have done well with other riders. “You see horses that you know are good horses and like their jobs go to a new owner and overnight they’re not wanting to go into the arena,” she explains. “I usually advise them to go to the (equine) dentist, to the vet, have everything gone over and then make sure that they’re riding in a calm manner. People get too nervous and jostle their horses up. That’s the biggest thing I see.”
All-time leading futurity rider Troy Crumrine says he sees more horses that lack proper basics than horses with true lameness issues, because it’s very tempting to rush a horse through its training and go too fast to soon.
“Sometimes people don’t take the time to teach their horses the basic fundamentals—the hard stops and turning,” says Crumrine. “It’s the little things that make your horse win. A lot of people need to work on getting better control of their horses instead of working on more speed.” Speed is a by-product of control, and Crumrine says a lot of barrel racers can’t believe that they can slow down and have a faster time because they have better control during a run.
Lame or Learning Curve?
The first step in knowing if your horse has a training or rider issue versus a lameness is simply knowing your horse. You have to know if he’s always had that swelling or if he has always hesitated slightly before going in the arena.
“You’ve got to know your horse a little bit,” says Haugen. “You need to know if it’s something your horse has done before. Say you’ve got a colt that’s been stopping really nice and one day all of a sudden he starts coming out of it. To me, that might be the start of something bothering him.”
Crumrine says you can check for subtle lameness by watching a horse move in the round pen and doing flex tests. Some horses will let you know where they’re sore just by how they react when you touch them, he says.
“A lot of acupuncture/acupressure points will tell you,” he explains. “You can generally tell where they’re sore by running your fingers down them and hitting certain points.” Again, you have to know your horse to get an accurate assessment. “Some horses are more flinchy than others so you have figure out if they’re being silly or really hurting.”
Former Women’s Professional Rodeo World Champion and multiple futurity champion Mary Burger says she uses the basics to determine if a horse is going through a “speed jam” or is getting sore. “When you pick up speed it’s just one of those things that they’re going to start making mistakes,” she says. “When that happens, I go back to the basics.”
Her typical routine is to take a horse two steps forward in their training and one step back to reinforce the basics that the horse already does well. When a problem arises and going back to the basics doesn’t solve it, she’ll start hunting for a physical cause.
Former International Professional Rodeo Association Champion Barrel Racer, multiple futurity champion and leading divisional rider Marne Loosenort says she’ll start considering a lameness issue when she has a horse that won’t respond to cues away from the pattern. If they won’t turn left barrels properly and still have difficulty turning to the left when ridden out in the pasture, she’ll head to her veterinarian.
“I would rather find out it’s a soundness issue before I really go to training on them when they may be sore even though they’re not limping,” Loosenort says. “If something doesn’t show up you usually don’t feel as bad for tuning on them or giving them an extensive workout.”
With older, seasoned horses, it’s easier to tell if they have something physically wrong. You can tell something is bothering them when they change their routine. Burger says she noticed Rare Fred wasn’t in timing at all when he hurt his suspensory. He’d set to turn, but then go passed or come off the barrel.
However, even older horses may need some tuning from time to time if they have a young or inexperienced rider that has altered their solid patterns.
Some horses, young and old, simply can’t take the pressure of being a barrel horse, period. Horses in futurity training are easily susceptible to mental meltdowns because of the intense pressure of training and competition at such a young age.
“Mentally, you know in a couple of months if they can take the heat,” says Crumrine. “It doesn’t have to be on the pattern, just in their training itself, you’ll know if they’ll mentally take it or not. Those horses that aren’t going to take it usually get hot. They start chomping at the bit and loping in place. If you’ve got a hot one to start with you have to be able to quiet them down first to see if they’re going to take the pressure.”
Crumrine notes that just because a horse can’t take the pressure of futurity training doesn’t mean it won’t make a nice barrel horse, it just might be better suited for someone who doesn’t mind the spending whatever amount of time it takes to see the horse reach its potential.
Campbell uses the first 30 days she has a horse to determine if it has the mentality to be a barrel horse. “I think you can tell a lot of about a horse in the first 30 days, about their willingness to do what you want,” she says. She’s had some stubborn horses that were always willing to try, but she’s never had a horse that wasn’t willing in the first 30 days all of a sudden see the light and make a nice horse.
“If they didn’t show me anything to start with they never did over time either,” Campbell said. By weeding out the unwilling horses in short order, she’s found that she doesn’t run into many mental meltdowns. “It seems like every time there is a red flag for me, it’s a soundness issue.” With older, finished horses, Burger notes, a sudden onset of increased nervousness is often a sign that the horse may have some impending lameness.
The problem that most barrel racers struggle with is which equine health professional to see first. Finances often dictate the use of chiropractors, massage therapists and the like first in hopes that they can solve the problem cheaper, and in some cases more effectively than a veterinarian or equine dentist.
“It shouldn’t matter who you go to first,” says veterinarian Matt Randall. “If your dentist, chiropractor or veterinarian is a true professional, they’ll tell you if they can help you or not. Depending on the nature of the problem you may need the help of all three.”
Dental problems are the first to be eliminated. Both Burger and Campbell take a proactive approach and go to the dentist with their horses before they ever climb aboard. Loosenort, too, can eliminate dental problems from her list of potential problems because she has her horses checked every six months. Some horses need dentals every six months and others don’t, but it never hurts to have routine checks, she notes.
By virtue of their respective marital partnerships Loosenort and Burger both easily eliminate shoeing problems as well. “I’ve got a pretty good shoer in my husband, Bob, so I usually cross that off of my list, even though I probably shouldn’t,” admits Loosenort.
With shoeing and dental issues eliminated, Campbell, Crumrine and Loosenort head to the veterinarian first. “I usually go to my vet first,” says Crumrine. “I use some chiropractic, but I’m not saying it’s a must.”
Loosenort does use a chiropractor, but is more likely to go to her vet first. Her vet believes in chiropractic treatment and will tell her when he thinks the horse is needs to go to the chiropractor. In some situations, a chiropractor may be your first choice. For example, Loosenort had an open horse fall on bad ground at a rodeo. The fall left the mare with a pinched nerve in her neck and she was unable to lower her head to eat grass.
Campbell, on the other hand, puts her faith in a vet that she can trust and isn’t a big believer in chiropractic treatments. “To be honest, I’ve used chiropractors in the past and I’ve had one horse respond well to acupuncture, but he’s the only one that ever did,” Campbell says. “I haven’t had a lot of luck with chiropractors. I’m all about stretching and that sort of thing. A chiropractor is more likely to be my last resort.”
Conversely, Burger likes to use a chiropractor proactively. Like with her dentals, she’ll have her horses gone over by a chiropractor before she starts them and then throughout their training and careers to keep the horse moving correctly. If you keep them in time,” says Burger, “then you’re more apt to keep a horse sound, so one of the first things I do is keep a horse chiropracted to make sure they’re in time and traveling well.”
Campbell says it’s easy for barrel racers who compete at the divisional races to enter into a vicious cycle. The cycle begins with a rider issue that turns into a training problem, which very well can cause a soundness problem because the horse is using itself incorrectly at the rider’s command. “Look at cutting, reining and horse shows, they all have trainers and coaches,” says Campbell. “Barrel racers are one of the only ones that don't and it really hurts us.”
Most of us aren’t professional barrel racers and our horses don’t get ridden nearly as often as we would like. Our varying riding schedules make it difficult to pin point a lameness or training problem. Inconsistent riding can cause training issues, but it can also mask soundness problems.
Clinicians and trainers make their living by helping people solve their problems, whether it’s the horse or rider. You generally can learn something from everyone you need only ask and find someone within your price range.
While the trainer can help fix rider and horse training issues, they too can help separate those from lameness. It’s not uncommon to send a horse to a trainer only to find out that the horse was unsound rather than untrained, and the discovery has nothing to do with the trainer having more time to take the horse to the vet.
“I get a lot of horses in to tune up and for the first time they’re getting ridden hard five days a week,” says Loosenort. “Soundness problems will show up more when they’re ridden hard.”
The Good News
Differentiating between lameness and training problems is a nightmare for many of us, but it’s also one of the most educational processes we can go through as horsemen and women. When in doubt seek your horse health care professionals first. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If they can’t give you an answer to your problem, seek help from a reputable trainer or clinician.