Is Your Barrel Horse Talking To You?

Horses can talk, they just don’t use words. They have their own language of communication and it is our job as a rider to learn their “speak”.

The more in tune we can be with our horses the greater our chance of understanding their concerns. However, sometimes the closer we are, the harder it is too hear the truth. When it comes to trouble with soundness we need to know our horses normal behavior to know when there are changes we should be concerned about.

Sometimes, lack of basics and foundation can result in problems on the barrel pattern. However, soundness issues can also result in problems on the pattern. The combination of both can also be a culprit. When you have a horse that doesn’t know the basics, he isn’t going to use himself properly and he is going to injure himself through incorrect movement. The tricky part is deciphering whether there is a soundness problem causing a training problem or if you just have a training problem.

If we listen close, they say it all....

Before tackling a problem on the pattern, it is worth considering whether he has the basics required to complete the task you are asking. Can he move all sections of his body independently? Can he move them together? Is he proficient in all the essential barrel moves before hitting the pattern? (I discuss all these in the free report that comes with your pass to the drills & exercise site). If not, that is a place to start.

In order to determine the root of the problem while giving the horse the benefit of the doubt, you will also want to assess the horses soundness from head to hoof.

Is his dentistry up to date? Performance horses should have their teeth checked annually. Those with known problems even more frequently.
Is his hoof care up to date? Are his hooves balanced from side to side, his ratios correct from toe to heel? Performance horses and horses that wear shoes will need their feet trimmed every 5-6 weeks.
Does your tack fit? An improper saddle fit can cause an array of problems including lameness in addition to many subtle symptoms that aren’t so obvious. Does your bit fit his mouth? Does the bit communicate what you are asking? Is your bridle adjusted correctly?

The horse needs to be healthy from the inside out. His coat is often an indicator of any problems on the inside. Has his winter coat shed normally? Is he shiny? Are his eyes bright? Have you noticed any changes in the way his eyes look to you? They eye can be an indicator that he is not feeling well or is in pain. Does your horse move normally? Do you know his “normal”? Does he have a limp? An imbalance to his stride or body? An imbalance in muscle tone is an indicator that one side is weaker than the other.

Some obvious clues to an unsoundness would be limping, swelling and heat from a limb. I polled the fans on our Barrel Racing Tips Facebook Page to help me come with list of signs your horse may be sore. Some are more obvious than others. Often these problems can be confused with other issues like a respect or training malfunction but all of which can also stem back to a soundness problem.

(In no particular order)

  • Carrying the the head in an awkward position
  • Bucking
  • Stiff legs
  • Doesn’t want to turn (when they used to)
  • Tossing the head
  • Moving when you try to get on
  • Not running as hard as you know they can
  • High headset
  • Tense neck
  • Pinning ears during turn
  • Refusal to speed up
  • Swishing the tail
  • Dropping the shoulder before a turn or in a turn
  • Refusing at the gate
  • Over rating
  • Not rating
  • Not finishing the turns
  • Stopping too soon
  • Not wanting to stop after a run
  • Leaping
  • Locking up
  • Cross firing/dropping a lead
  • Not picking up a lead (when you know they know how)
  • Running by a barrel
  • Dropping at saddling or while cinching, kicking, pinning ears and biting while cinching
  • Not wanting to pick up feet for farrier or fighting on the hinds with farrier
  • Mood swings
  • Biting
  • Stopping feet when mounting or dismounting
  • Clunky feeling when riding
  • Unwillingness to collect
  • Lack of cooperation out of the blue
  • Not stopping the clock like they normally would
  • Lack of stride extension
  • Back sore to touch
  • Grinding teeth
  • Holding bit tightly (or differently)
  • Stiffness on the way to barrels or at a barrel
  • Traveling on front end
  • Fretting about a turn
  • Running away anywhere on the pattern
  • Sudden onset of nervousness
  • Rearing
  • Switching leads in a turn or on the way out of a turn or on straights

Edited to add these two submissions from our visitors

  • White hairs developing under saddle (usually near wither)
  • Horse that urinates during a run

If the horse could talk, he could tell us straight up what is bothering him. Instead we must listen carefully to the messages he is sending us.

This is a long list and the purpose is to open your eyes to the large number of problems that may show up because your horse isn’t feeling right. We need to give the horse the benefit of the doubt before we start scolding him for improper behavior. Don’t get me wrong, these are smart animals that can get our number, but whatever the message, they are trying to communicate with us in horse speak. It is up to us to do what we can for our horse to resolve the issues he is having and be his health advocate.

Please comment below if you have experienced other symptoms of unsoundness we could add to this list.  It would be great to have the most inclusive list possible to have as a reference.

Comments 11

  1. My horse is only 7 years old.. This is only her 2nd year running barrels.. At the end of last year she started to get gate issues… Now it has just gotten worse.. When she gets in there she is awesome! But it’s getting in there… She has started backing up and rearing up… She is normally a very dead headed horse. But when it comes time to go into the arena for our run it’s a fight.. Do you have any idea’s of how I can kick it in the butt?

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      I would take her to a horse vet and rule out soundness issues first. Even though she is working great, doesn’t mean there isn’t something bothering her. I would also consider how she feels about barrel racing? How is she handling the pressure?

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      I would look at his hoof care and have him checked by a vet. Tripping can be dangerous and be caused by several factors. He isn’t running fast because he is afraid he is going to trip.

  2. I have a mare that runs really nice, we bred her one year and when she came back she had a new hang up. She runs nice to the first barrel but when she gets on the back side of it she locks up. I do alot of flexing, I stretch her from the ground before running, good warm up, etc. Any idea why she locks up on the back side of the first barrel, the rest of her run is great. I’ve tried switching bits, she’s been vet checked, teeth floated and the cyropractor(sp). Is she just being hateful?

    1. Post

      I don’t think horses intentionally try to be hateful (without a darn good reason anyway). She might be feeling pressure at that spot. If you are 100% sure there is no underlying soundness problems I would try a couple different things. Personally I would change directions – go to the other barrel first. I would also make sure that my positioning was right for her. Maybe she needs more room to comfortably make the turn you are asking? Just speculating on that as its hard to say without seeing her in person.

  3. My horse is only 6 and this is his 3rd year running barrels but when he gets close to other barrel horses he rears and starts bucking and he moves while mounting and dismounting any tips or suggestions.

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  4. My horse always slows down a lot when we turn a barrel, almost to a walk or a slow trot. I don’t know why he does this, but he’s a really fast horse and he won’t go as fast as I want him to when we go around the third barrel and stops before we get out of the arena. How can I fix this?

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      I think it would be best if you took your horse to a vet to have a check up and see if there is anything keeping him from wanting to turn freely. I would also want to look into why he shuts down before you’d like as well. Could be a soundness issue or lungs.

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