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Barrel Racing Advice - a deeper look inside how to win

Updated: Oct 10, 2019

Competition Tips from the Top

Are you a winner or a whiner? Do you play to win?

In order to play physically, we’ve got to be on our mental game!

It’s just three barrels afterall. How hard could it be?

Literally: THREE stationary objects. on the same pattern in every arena. on a flat surface. with a timer as the judge.

Yet, we can still freeze up? HOW!?

We barrel racers know the struggle is real. Alley drama, blanking out during a run, and busted confidence on a sloppy pattern can ruin our week. Well, I say: no more! No more showing up unprepared, no more weak minded mental game, and no more self-esteem problems related to tipped barrels.

Below I’ve visited advice from three decorated equine professionals. They have some of the best insights for keeping your arena game strong. I’ve also offered some of my own tips for keeping the cans and your confidence UP.

Ed, Charmayne and Barbra all agree on three main points. These points have striking similarities to the processes of winning and being mentally tough. I’ve broken down what each professional thinks you should do before, duringand aftereach run. Applying these may take some consistency, but I promise you can grow to become a stronger and more mentally though athlete when you do.

Professionals agree:

1. Winners believe they are indeed; winners

2. Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t

3. Perfect practice makes perfect, not ‘practice makes perfect’

Myself getting “Wright” with Uncle Ed, Spring 2015.

Ed Wright

“Uncle Ed” is the go-to guy for professionals and beginners. His style is classic and his approach is timeless. Ed and Martha Wright share their secrets in Barrel Racing: Training the Wright Wayon what has allowed them to be key industry players for decades. When it comes to learning true principles of horsemanship and barrel racing, it pays to look to the best.

These tips are excerpts from what Ed and his wife recommend in Ch.11 of their bookand at clinics for what we would do for a successful run.

Before you run:At home visualize a good run in your head. Doing this daily can really help your memory and focus. Practicing the runs you visualize on your horse will also bring the winning concept to life. Don’t just ride an ‘okay’ pattern, ride and practice with accuracy!

When you get to the barrel race be sure to look at the set-up, pattern, gate, timer, etc. Never run in a new arena cold! After you check out where you are running, visualize the run in that arena. As you approach the alley to run you must control your emotions and stay level. Taking deep breaths before you enter that alley are what keep your brain focused and present on the task at hand. Quiet your mind and get your horse’s feet focused on where they need to take you.

During the run:Take your time approaching the gate, and get your horse focused on you. Tensing up will only cause your horse to stiffen and your reaction time to be slow! Ed say’s, “soft is fast!” Ride your horse at his education level. Futurity horses and seasoned rodeo horses have different experience levels; so ride appropriately.

Focus on shortening the stride, shaping the turn, and guiding your horse around the barrel – ride with two hands between barrels. If you shorten, shape, guide and ride that individual horse according to his needs and that particular arena you are a great jockey! Another thing to Ed urges us to remember is that WE ARE NOT competing with other people! You are a team with your horse, against the timer.

After the run: Ed and Martha keep is simple when advising on what to do coming out of a run. Praise your horse. Then bring your horse back down to a level and calm state, preferably by riding him. This will help keep his mind intact for future runs. As far as how the run itself went, don’t dwell on mistakes or get high on how you placed. Being able to react positively, learn and apply what you learned is what will keep your head in the game for many runs to come.

Old school book...classic advice!

Charmayne James

The 11-time World Champion states, “I’ve lost plenty of barrel races, but I’m a winner. On most of the non-winning runs, I was still a winner (even though no one else knew it), because I accomplished my goal for that day on that horse. Being a winner means being strong in your beliefs and strong in what you know and not letting other people get to you…To run world class barrel times, your job is helping to guide and position your horse. You never want to be indecisive and unsure of yourself because it’s not just you who’ll be affected. Your horse will pick up on your insecurity and become unsure himself. If you’re a confident leader, your horse will take your where you want to go – right to those gold buckles.” – Charmayne James, in Charmayne James on Barrel Racing

Here are some more mental game insights from Chapter 6 – The Rider’s Mental Responsibilities:

Before you run:Multiple weeks of daily practice will ingrain a habit and allow your muscle memory to react even when on adrenaline. Make sure that you are practicing the right habits. Learn to accept adrenaline (what you feel like when the announcer calls your name, etc.) and let it work for you. If it transfers to your horse in a negative, nervous, aggressive or insecure way then your run is already set up for failure. It’s the human’s responsibility to know you are only there to run barrels. Visualizing all the components of a race before you arrive or run (sights, sounds, smells, set up) will help you remember what your job is when you are competing.

During your run:Deep breathes and sitting deep in your seat will help your concentrate. Bring your focus 100% on your job and what condition your horse needs to be in to help facilitate your job to run barrels. Run the best pattern you can.

After your run:Each horse may need some different details tended to, but remember to let your horse know he did great work. Spend the time it takes to let that horse know he’s important and you value keeping him healthy. Charmayne says that winning, “is about being consistent, thinking positively, staying focused and taking care of business.” Don’t get distracted or down-trodden by comments or people’s beliefs about what they of you or about that rodeo. Keep your eyes on the prize and believe you are a winner!

Barbra Schulte 

This woman is a decorated winner in the cutting pen and well known author. She is one to be admired for overcoming extreme adversity, and turning it into loving knowledge and support to help people achieve their dreams. Her advice can be applied similarly to a barrel racing run as she applies it to a cutting run. I love her heart-felt approach combined with the science of the mind to making winning runs happen intentionally.

Before you run:In an interview with Barrel Horse News Barbra says, “Mentally Tough training goes far beyond only affecting mental states. And it’s that fact that makes the training powerful, exciting and fun. The mind, body and soul can be simultaneously trained because there are no lines between thoughts, feelings and emotions.”

Sound advice reflecting these facts would look like increasing your perception of these feelings. You can first practice this at home, and then when you get to a barrel race you will not feel panic stricken or disabled with nervousness. She also recommends in her book, The Gift: Performance Coaching for Horseback Ridingthat we should “breathe to release tension and to sit in a confident posture. No slumping! Act like you are a winner, and sit on your horse like you love your job!”

During your run:In the same Barrel Horse News article, Barbra stated “Your attention should be focused on your horse, your goals for that day and your presence with your horse. Your riding shouldn’t be any different then how your have been intentionally practicing and perfecting the pattern at home. If your practice is disciplined then running your horse around the barrel will be more like a dance and less like a test. Having the presence of mind to react appropriately moment-to-moment during a run will set you up to win.”

After your run:In The Gift, Barbra also mentions something very applicable to barrel racers: “You recover by identifying yourself as a winner within, no matter the outcome. Then, you go back over the pieces of the process within your riding and your horse. Good, bad or ugly – winners make adjustments accordingly.”

“Running in a way to get the prize.”

Kathleen Rossi

I have a few coveted techniques I keep near and dear to my heart and memory. My gift is teaching and training, competing is a learned skill for me. So whenever I feel like I’m getting stuck I remember the bible verse from 1 Corinthians 9:24. It reminds me that all the details I’ve put into my training will pay off in the barrel pen.

Before I run:When the person ahead of me is half way through their run, I make contact with the reins and start my final mental preparation. If any insecurity comes to mind, I make a point to think of all the hours I’ve put in, the the training and work, the foundation and confidence I’ve built in and with my horse, I remind myself to trust that. When we go into the arena, if I’ve prepared him well then I’m just there to subtly guide and support what I’ve already set up to be a positive outcome. This approach really gets my head in the right place!

During a run:As I approach the gate from the ‘hole’ (wherever that may be) I’ve already drawn a line in my mind to my pocket. When I ask my horse to leave the fence and head through the gate I make SURE he is on the correct lead. The rest of the run is trust and encouragement. I’ve actually embarrassed myself in video play back because you can hear me talking to my horse, “good boy!” No matter where I’m at in my training, I find it’s important to be encouraging to the horse versus micromanaging or aggressive. I try my best to have accurate positioning through the pattern and turns, as well as have a guiding hand and posture to stay out of his way. The more focus I have on staying centered in my saddle and centered in my mind is what allows my horse to be athletic.

After a run:I trickle down to a walk (no fence ramming) and get off to loosen the cinch. Then I hop back on to walk my horse around to cool him out. I will praise him and ride calmly until he is able to stand without breathing heavily and is focused on me. No matter how the run went, I gravitate to thinking about what my horse did well and evaluate how my job as a rider reflected that. Usually to finish up; I will watch a video of myself to gauge the accuracy of my mental presence and physical actions in my head versus reality.

Did you see some similarities in theme from these veterans? I hope you can take the main points of what most experts consider vital and accurately apply them to your riding and mental game!

GAME TIME! Ok y’all…Remember:

1. Winners believe they are indeed, winners

This means practicing like one, preparing like one, acting like one, and riding like one.

2. Control what you can control, let go of what you can’t

The more your emotions are harnessed up, the less they’ll run wild.

3. Perfect practice makes perfect, not ‘practice makes perfect’

Don’t ride lazy, and don’t get caught up in a down barrel. Ride progressively.

One of the main takeaways is that you should ride because you love it, and when you ride – ride to win. And don’t forget how true champions define winning – we are a sisterhood of soft hands, strong hearts and tough minds. Let’s use these qualities the best we can!

Readers are leaders and learners are earners. 3 of my favorite books for barrel racing!

Again, for even more barrel racing and mental game wisdom from the pros, take advantage of these books and other resources to help take your barrel racing to the next level:

Barrel Racing: Training the Wright WayAlso visit EdandMartha.comCharmayne James on Barrel RacingAlso visit CharmayneJames11.comThe Gift: Performance Coaching for Horseback RidingAlso visit

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