How to get your alley sour barrel horse into the arena

I am often asked what a person should do to get their “hard to get in the arena” horse into the arena.  Recently, I attended a barrel race as a spectator.  This doesn’t happen often but it certainly offered an opportunity to learn.  It was one of those “how not to do it” learning experiences for the most part since its always easier to do our best barrel racing from the fence!

There was one rider that had a heck of a time getting her horse in the arena and it came with a lesson for me that I’d like to share.  Something that I know, but appreciated the reminder so I’m passing it on.

The horse was beautiful and built for the job.  The rider had a good seat and was confident on the horse.  She did everything I would have likely suggested.   She rode assertive, rode with forward motion at a posting trot towards the arena, she looked where she was going, she never panicked, never got mad.   The rider had quiet hands and a balanced seat.  She after several attempts she upped the ante and swatted the horses butt with her over an under.  It refused one more time, she lined back up, raised the over and under and off they went.     I was astounded that all these “tricks” I would have used or suggested weren’t working and I didn’t know why.   It only took from the gate to first barrel for me to figure it out.

The horse ran focused and level to first barrel.  The rider was soft and asked for the turn.   The horse CRANKED out a turn about half the size it needed to be and BOWLED over the barrel.  The rider remained calm, slowed the horse down and went across to second.   I thought to myself, “well there’s an old issue there she’ll get the next one handled” .  So she high lopes over to second and CRANKS out a mini turn and bowls it over!   She lopes down to third calm as can be and CRANKS a turn out on top of third!   The horse was so worried in her turns it was like someone had taught her to sneak up on the barrels and mow them over.  No wonder she didn’t want to go in the arena! The horse thought “if this is barrel racing I don’t like it” and why would it if that’s what its being taught!?   Now, I have no idea if the gal riding it was in the process of fixing the horse or she was the cause of this horses anxiety.   Either way this particular horse needs some slow, relaxed work on the barrels to open up those turns. Fixing this horse is the least of our worries…how do we make sure this doesn’t happen to us!?

How do you get your horse that is refusing at the gate in the arena?   Take a close look at why your horse doesn’t want to go in!    In this case it was a training issue.  The horse has been training in a way that is causing a lot of pressure around the turn where it literally thinks that is how it is supposed to turn.  This horse doesn’t like barrel racing because she is confused about what she is actually supposed to be doing.  There is no confidence there.

Another reason your horse may refuse at the gate include Pain – they may even run fine at home, but along with the pressure of competition the pain causes them to look for and “out”.   A good vet or equine therapist check including teeth, feet and chiropractor is a good place to start.    You want to eliminate any reasons and take care of any problems your horse may have as soon as your horse starts to refuse.   This can become a bad habit really quickly if it isn’t nipped in the bud.

It takes a lot of time and patience to retrain your barrel horse from refusing at the gate.  Prevention is the best cure so keep your training fun for your horse.  Instill confidence in them so when they see that gate they are keen and ready to work.  Be sure to not intimidate or confuse them on the barrels.  Barrels need to be a happy place.

If your horse is not happy on the pattern and tells you so by not going in the arena to barrel race, its your job to take a step back and figure out why.  Once you know, it will help you get on track to get that horse in the arena.

Comments 27

  1. I appreciate you writing this article thank you. But I have one question…
    I have a 6 year old Appaloosa/Quarter horse cross gelding who was a halter/standing stud for 5 years. But he doesn’t act like a stud or give me temper tantrums. My problem is that even when someone is helping me walk him to the gate he still refuses, and it gets very frustrating because the gate and “standing spot” for the riders are literally right by each other. Even when i go into the arena to warm up and there’s no horses around, or their all in the arena, and I’m extremely calm, he still gives me issues and refuses to go in. I’ve had vet checks done, and his teeth have been recently checked. He loves to run the barrels, and was trained at a slow and proper way. I just can’t figure out why he is acting like this. Even when I just point him towards the arena if we’re ever there for practice or something he still gives me a hard time. I have a youtube account and if you could look at my video “Barrel Racing 12/26/2009” my channel is mightysteelzipper. I would really appreciate it. If you have time of course. You can see in that video what he’s doing, but it’s gotten WAY WAY worse now, to the point where he’s backing into other people’s horses and running people over. I’m more concerned on safety issues now than actually making a clean run. HELP!
    – Stacy

  2. Hi Stacy,
    I went and checked out your video. Nice run (and your trainers run too) I can see you guys both train a similar way – looks nice to me :o)
    I’m going to give you my first impression advice here. I honestly thought you meant to stop your horse at that spot when I first watched your video (and the second time too). At that point in time you needed to be up tilting your hips forward and giving him his head to get into go mode. Perhaps he is looking for a reason not to go, but you are giving it to him. If he has gotten worse since and you are confident his health is in check I would cowgirl up right and start “sending him” from a couple strides back from where he is hesitating. Your body language needs to say go (in the video it was saying whoa even to me watching and he is even more “feely” than what I can see). I see you have a little over and under there so I know you aren’t opposed to using one of those….that might have to be part of your “cowgirl up” routine for a while in the alley and go back to without it. I makes your job even more difficult when all the people stand where you want to leave. You might try getting there early and practicing trotting up the alley, keeping him free. You might stay after and do the same. Just never stop in the alley always go in, turn him to the left and circle back around. Try not to visit too much, keep him by himself. He may be being an opportunist and has your number. This may take quite a while to resolve, but keep yourself forward and think “go”. I also wonder what he is like at a different arena (say outside where you have more room to send him and you don’t have to be so close to other riders)? If he’s fine I would guess he is being a bit stubborn and is looking for any sign that says whoa and is taking advantage of you so he can hang with his girlfriends.
    To summarize: Get up and go Stacy – cowgirl up in that alley and send him like you mean it.

  3. Thank you so much 🙂 and thank you for the comment on our runs lol. Yea the first two times I did stop him because he wasn’t listening to my feet and taking the wrong lead. And thank you so much for the advice I’m supposed to be going to a race this weekend, and I wanted to work with him on the alley way because we’re going to State and I didn’t wanna have problems there, new pen and all. So thank you so much 🙂 I should have new footage up soon of the problem haha. But thank you 🙂

    <3 Stacy

  4. Hey, okay so idk if you can help me with this problem im haveing…… I ve gt this 5year old gelding that has been trained to run barrels wide open!!!! He is a X race horse. I can stay with him because i am a recent jockey… But he is totaly out of control! Hes wide open to the 1st barrel then when i touch the riens for him to whoa he bloas the turn and runs away with me and he hasnt only done this 1 time but 10=15 times already….. He didnt stop till we run into the areana panels one time and i have a black and blue leg to prove that……… Ive took him back to the round pen to work him at all but is there anything futhure i can do???

    1. Post

      Sounds like it is time to go back to basics. You may have to do lots of walking stopping, then trotting stopping, loping stopping etc to get him back under control. Sounds like he was maybe rushed a little and now he thinks he is supposed to run full out every time and isn’t listening to your for a cue for speed (or not). I wouldn’t enter this horse again for quite a while, at most do some exhibitions at a slow pace and keep him under control.

  5. Hello, I have a horse that loves his job he recently had a saddle fitting issue but it is fixed now! He goes to his first barrel on the wrong lead… Should I try and switch and go to the left barrel first sinces he starts off on that lead? When entering the gate he rears and refuses to go in many people tell to to crack him in the top of his head is this right or wrong? I have had this horse since he was 3 months old and now hes 7 I need help I have let him get away with things for to long and now trying to make him into a nice horse. Thanks!!!!

    1. Post

      I would make sure he is on the correct lead in practice, but in competition just go with it. He should change on his own once you get to the barrel. Regarding cracking him on the head….I wouldn’t suggest you do that. I might crack him on the butt or disengage his hind end to get those feet going. He is going up instead of going forward – get those feet moving however you can even if its turning around.

  6. What if your horse has a chip in his right back leg and it has fully healed and he still dont want to go in the gate and when he gets to the first barrel he will dart.The vet tells me that it may take several months before he knows that he is not hurt anymore. What do u think? Because I have thought about saling him.

    1. Post

      It will be difficult to sell your horse when he is behaving like this. Your vet is right that it may take a while. Take your time and go slow to build his confidence back up.

  7. I have a 13 year old mare that I’ve had since she was 2 weeks old. I recently had her trained in barrels and she’s awesome!!!! But she gets super super hot when its time to get in the arena. She’ll buck, kick, rear etc…. I had her looked at and she checked out fine. She gets all the grass she wants and get grassy hay. In the arena she’s a totally different horse, she listens to the slightest signals. I really don’t want someone getting hurt. She is totally fine if its jusy us 2 or if there is another horse and rider but any more. Than 3 horses she blows up……I’n open to any advice!!!!!

    1. Post

      Do you think you get nervous when there are more people around? She may be feeling your anxiety. Another possibility is that she is getting herd bound with the other horses. Another idea may be to check her for ulcers, they can cause gate anxiety. My biggest advice is to ask the help from someone experienced that can see exactly what is going on and help keep you safe.

  8. Stacy-
    I’m 16 and I barrel race too. I went and watched your video on Youtube. Mighty is very pretty 🙂 And you looked really calm and patient with her. I like that. I hate it when riders “demand” stuff from their horses. I know exactly how you are feeling. My 11 year old Paint mare does the same thing. Only worse it seems. Someone else had her before I got her. I don’t know the lady but after a couple of months of having the horse I noticed that she did NOT want to go in the gate. At a recent jackpot, it took 4 other riders to get us in. She saw the alley and stuck her head down and backed up and even backed into another horse and trailer. I stayed calm and kept talking to her to let her know I was there. Once she did get in she was fine and had a great run. I hate the fact that my beutiful girl hates it so much. She’s a great horse and I know we have what it takes to win, I just wish that I didn’t feel like I was torturing her everytime we ride. 🙁

  9. Hello, I am having a very big issue with my horse that i have been trying to solve for the past year. I have an 11 year old appy cross and i have had him for 3 years. When i first got him as an 8year old i was running 16.0 in my arena. Over the past years i have noticed he is slowing down in between my barrels and when he is running on the way home. I have got a new saddle (that fits his back), a bit he likes, and i get my equine chiropractor to look at him every month. He is now running between 16.6 and 17.2 in my arena now and im confused on why he wont run? He lopes on the way home from barrels and he tries stopping before the timer sometimes. If i could get help that would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Post

      What does he do when you take him to other arenas? Maybe he is just getting sour from running the same pattern over and over at home? Some horses need the extra adrenalin and energy from a crowd and your energy because its a competition.

  10. Hello,

    I was wondering if I could get some advice on the came topic above, except my horse has never ran. She will lope the whole pattern and run home, but I am trying to get her to move faster I bought an over under thinking that is would help, but she is moving slowly. She is great going into the arena, does not put up a fight or anything. Any advice would be helpful

    Thank you

    1. Post

      Slowly build up your speed so you don’t frazzle her. She might benefit from running on a safe stretch or dirt and teaching her its ok to run with you (you may have to race another horse or use your whip). Sometimes its better to get her rolling away from the pattern then work the pattern on another day and ask for speed in the same way you did off the pattern.

    2. Post

      You might try teaching her to run outside of the arena in a safe stretch of ground where you can really get rolling. Use a sequence of cues that you will be able to use in the barrel pattern (kick, smooch, whip for example).

  11. My daughter’s horse is a 7 year old paint. She is 13. They have been together for 3 years. She enjoys western contest events and showed him last year in 4 events with no problems. Slower times but no behavior issues. They have both gotten stronger and faster in the past year. We have only gone to 3 one day shows in 10 months and the last two shows, including yesterday, he was very difficult to get into the arena. He does well once he is lined up and you say go. Good patterns with lots of speed, slows well at the end of the run, walks back to the trailer like a lamb. I have noticed if she gets on his back to walk around before she is ready to send him he starts to back and rear. We always have plenty of room to warm up away from the arena. He seems to only get anxious when the “on deck” announcement is made. At one show I had her walk him into the arena and get on him there, He rocked his stake and pole pattern and seemed content. Next run, he had to be held so she could get on. Our district 4-H show is next sunday and I would just like to get through this show. I can’t help her walk him in or get on him or they will disqualify them. I am looking for advice to make it through next week. I planned trail rides for 2 times before next weekend. There is also a local show on saturday. I thought about having her just take him and not run him or take him and not do the pattern. Any suggestions.
    Frustrated Mom

    1. Post

      I think you have the right idea going to a show and not running. She could work the barrels in a relaxed way afterwords. The fact you say he gets all anxious when the “on deck announcement is made” makes be think the horse is feeding off your daughters change in nerves and adrenalin. Horses don’t know they are “on deck” but they can sure feel our nerves shoot through us. I work work on getting her to breath, stay focused and relaxed. As she is getting more competitive, she may be getting more nervous putting higher expectations on herself. It might be time to slow down and take the pressure off the horse since he is getting wired, which will also help to keep you daughters nerves in check.

  12. Hi, I got a 13 year old barrel horse from a friend about 6 months ago. Before I got him he hadn’t been consistently ran in about 2 years, she just used him as a back up horse when hers got hurt. Well, ever since I’ve bought him he refuses to go in the alley. Just when I get on to warm him up he gets super excited and starts side stepping, and when I hold him back he starts spinning to the left and rearing. I’ve tried fixing it, but I’m 14 and he’s way stronger then me, and there’s not much I can do when I’m on his back. Lately, it’s gotten so bad that my dad has to walk me in the arena. And here in new Iberia the warm up pen is right after the alley way, and just trying to get him to the warm up pen he starts acting up. I think he gets to were he doesn’t want to be by himself. If were by ourselves he’s perfectly fine, but as soon as another horse comes in and I’m trying to warm up he’ll hurry and turn unexpectedly and run to that horse. It’s like he doesn’t want to leave his “buddies”. One time I went to a show with the people I bought him from and they refuse to lead me in because they think I’m not being stern enough. He was being so bad that I actually had a lady videoing me when he was rearing up, and it took me literally 10 minutes to get him in the arena, I was so embarrassed. Once he’s in the arena he is perfectly fine and he runs excellent and he’s never hit a barrel with me. He was trained right, I just don’t know what’s going on, and my horse is my baby. I just wish I could get him to stop, or if I could figure out whats wrong to correct it. He’s a wonderful barrel horse and I’ve won about $200 dollars on him in the last 3 months it’s just a workout trying to get him in the arena. He’s also, ran into people, an there horses. One lady tried to lead me in the arena and he literally picked her up off the ground and almost landed on her. At home I can ride him and he will not do any of this, and at practice he won’t. It’s like he knows when it’s a show, and he gets over excited.

    1. Post

      I would head to the vet first. Sounds like something is bothering him and causing him anxiety. Go to a vet that specializes in horses.
      Also – is it possible you are nervous and having anxiety of your own…..especially since he is getting worse? They are so sensitive to our feelings.

  13. Hi, I was wondering if you could give me some tips on my 5 year old barrel mare. We raised her ourselves. & I started training her for barrels like a year ago and we are currently placing at the 4d. She has never knocked a barrel down even though she has come a bit close to it. She does an amazing 1st a bad 2nd and at times an okay 3rd. I know now that i have to give her a bigger pocket at her 2nd barrel though, ( we just have to put it into action.) When i first started training her she loved going into the arena. I never hit her or spurred her a lot. Expecially because she was just learning. But now its getting worse. About 2 weeks ago she started kicking someones horse when they were trying to help me in the arena. And just today i had to have atleast 3 people help me get her in the arena. And she still wouldnt bugde! She also tried freightraining her 1st and 2nd. No amount of kicking or whipping or even being nice will get her into the arena. At home she is fine but when we go somewhere else its horrible. Im always calm with her & i dont ever get nervous. & i still currently exhibition her but i dont go all out, i only run her in 1 exhibition. I keep her at a slow lope. I’m getting to the point where i dont even know what to do. I have a youtube account “Cassie2014ful” I have 4 videos of her. They dont show her gate issue except for i think one where she didnt want to go in but after a little bit she did. That was actually an easy day at the gate. But today was her most difficult day ever.

    1. Post

      I’m not sure I was looking at the right videos. At five and only a year on barrels she my just need a little break. I might also take her to the vet and see if she has any soundness problems coming up. Sometimes they have stuff going on and this is how they try and communicate it to us. I would definitely slow down and take the pressure off for a while in competition so she doesn’t think she’s going to be asked for speed. The pressure may just be getting to her.

  14. Okay, my horse Dylan loves to run, but I have a few issues. At home I practice running and never push to hard and we work on other stuff too like western, English, and trails. So he doesn’t just have a crazy barrel horse brain. He has a working brain well I think. Haha. Anyways, at home Dylan runs absoltuley perfect for me and I don’t use spirs or a whip. I ride him as much as I can for I’m busy athlete. At home we practice all the events and heroes fantastic. But here’s the catch. I take him to a show and he refuses to enter the arena. Only for speed events though. For English and western he walks in like he owns the damn thing. But for speed classes he freaks out and will not move no matter what. I sit there as good as I can for its frustrating to have such an awesome horse do such a shitty thing. Once I get Dylan in the arena he runs a crappy pattern like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. And I just need help because he knows all the patterns by heart and he knows what he needs to do just won’t do it. nd I’ve tried everything! Please help!

    1. Post

      Is it possible you are more excited to barrel race than your other events? Maybe you want it really bad and get a little excited? Even just a hair more adrenalin running through you and your horse will feel it. You could test this theory by planning to just go in there and go very slow at a competition. Really manage your emotions and the feelings you might be sending to your horse. They rely on us to know whether they should be calm or excited just like they would the leader of their herd.

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