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Performance Horse Hacks: Ground Manners for barrel horses

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

This 4 part series is created for those in equine performance that are looking for an edge on the competition. Each article will be grounded in ONE skill, tweak or technique that will help your arena results. Make sure to subscribe to and download your free ebook before you begin! Sometimes the little things are actually the things that make a BIG difference. Paying attention to hooves, health, and horsemanship will be what buys you skills to change. 

Performance Horse Hacks: Ground Manners

Is your horse push button or a button pusher? Do you have to tip toe to get a certain response or is there some technique to how you ask?

Chances are, you are reading this and already own a  seasoned or finished performance horse. So what does it matter if he likes to be haltered or not?

Simply put it: it is a matter of relationship and response. The better your relationship with your horse the better (and quicker) his response will be when running the barrel pattern or excelling in his particular performance discipline. (I talk about this in my free ebook - you should download it!)

If your horse can yield his thoughts and body when doing the simplest things like haltering, he’s more likely to be supple when you ride as well.

Cheating your horse a course in basic horsemanship just because he is a natural talent is really cheating yourself of the fullness of what you can offer each other. A horse that doesn’t greet you, look at you, or acknowledge you when you approach him, should be the first signs of feedback that your first initial point of contact is broken.

If your spouse greeted you with flowers and a smile every day after work, you would always be happy to see them! The same is true with our horses. Haltering is the first chance we have to make an impression on them, and will help write the intention of the rest of our training session with them.

Haltering is the Gateway Drug…

Haltering your horse can be thought of as a 'gateway drug’ toward establishing, creating, and maintaining good OR bad habits. It can be the most innocent of vices or the most honest representation of good training. What we rely on is what we value most.

Take my horse Lucky for example:

When I first bought him I would halter him and he would stand as tall as he could (he’s 14.2), his head turned away from me with a dazed look in his eyes. Kind of like trying to put a halter on a terrified deer. As soon as I was done and took off the halter, he would rush through the gate, jerk out of the halter and bolt away from me. He actually had a history of dragging previous owners if the halter or reins didn’t make it off his head in time.

On the one hand our barrel racing was going great; a few tweaks in a matter of weeks changed into some GOOD habits we went from the 4D to the 1D(no lie)! On the other hand his deep-seeded issues of having horrible habitswhen being caught and haltered remained a challenge and we continued to work toward rebuilding his understanding of haltering daily.

For us, haltering is a gateway of sorts. The better he gets at listening to me in a thinking frame of mind (versus a worried frame of mind), the more I have been able to rely on his quality of response when running 30 mph.

If I pretended like the jerking/dragging/ignoring the human haltering him thing wasn’t a problem then I couldn’t blame him if he didn’t rate in time to turn the first barrel – because I never had the response and connection to begin with.

When I put the halter ON I would like for his neck to be bent around me, his head to be relaxed and his breathing not to be stifled. When I take the halter OFF, I would like for his neck to remain bent around me until after I take my intention off him and I leave. Where are you going? is better than Good riddance – I’m outta here!

My objective with Lucky is to continue getting him to think of ME, and instead of about being wild and free. That is a prisoner mentality. I don’t want my horse thinking the halter is like a set of hand cuffs! I want him looking at the halter thinking, “Oh boy! I wonder what I get to do today!?”

We need to change our thinking of what the halter and lead rope serves as. Is it a crutch we rely on that enables habits of reliance, OR is it a powerful tool that can enable more advanced communication linesbetween horse and human?

Typically horses that don’t like to be caught or haltered may have pain or fear somewhere in existence. A lameness that acts up during training can create reluctance to even be haltered because they anticipate the pain to come.

Horses who have a strictly ‘prisoner/slave’ relationship with the human may also exhibit a disinterest in being caught because sessions always end up causing anxiety in the horse instead of educating the horse in a positive way.

Prey animals are able to distinguish what is safe and what is dangerous by nature. Each time we are with our horses we are teaching them to feel worried and avoid us, or we’re or educating them to feel comfortable and safe.

Sometimes bad habits come out of ‘nowhere.’ A horse eager to play and roll as soon as the halter comes off after a sweaty training session could turn from innocent exuberance to bad behavior in no time. At first it starts off cute and funny to see him fart and kick up his heels as he dashes to meet his buddies, but the truth is – once his mind leaves you before the halter comes off, it will be easier for his mind to leave you even more quickly next time, and more often. Because of the passive reward he’s received, soon he won’t be able to wait to you leave!

Performance Horse Hack #3: Horsemanship

Give your horse the opportunity to respond advanced on something basic

But first…Who this is probably not for:

A finished horse with a ‘finished’ human:If you aren’t aware that refinement and finesse can progress your horsemanship.

A show pony:If you only hop on to ride and don’t other wise ever touch anything but the reins.

A naysayer:You’ve read the title of this post and have said my horse doesn’t need this crap.

Performance Horse Hack #3 Horsemanship

Basic Technique for Haltering – Remember to SING:

Settle your emotions and mind before you halter your horse Intend on showing up like a partner, not a grouchy boss Nose to hand simulates a friendly gesture Greet with the halter (don’t hide the halter)

Since haltering our horses is the first thing that we will do before training or riding, we can start by making a first impression here:


Settling our emotions and thoughts to a calm and quiet place can make all the difference. Do you ever notice that kids can catch horses way easier than adults can? Kids want to have fun, adults have an agenda.

Making sure we have scheduled enough time to calmly catch our horse, and enough preparation for what he’s about to do will take out all the nervousness and agenda we tend to approach horses with. Trying to catch a horse when you are already late to exhibitions will only make you later! Settle! Never SNEEK! A prey animal can sense a 'sneeker' a mile away!


Intention on being a gentle, encouraging and respectful leader as you walk up to your horse is beneficial. It focuses your mind in the right place to begin a great workout before you even saddle.Marching straight up to them with worry or hurry in your mind is not acting like a partner. Actually singing when you go out to get your horse isn’t a bad idea! He will probably look at you like you’re crazy – which means his nose will be pointed toward you, which is the next step anyway.


Nose to hand as initiated by your horse is a great ice breaker. If his nose goes the rest of his body will follow. It allows the horse to think it was his idea to make contact with you of curiosity instead of you going to catch him out of routine.

If his nose is tipped away from you as you ferociously shove the halter over his face you've just freight-trained your way through a very important trust threshold. The lightness in relation to how we offer a feel shouldn't be reserved for asking for a bend in the rib cage around the barrels. It needs to begin with the nose in the halter.


Greeting with the halter is a way different vibe than hiding the halter and shoving it on this face. Any time we sneak around and try to trick our horses into a task, is only enabling the real truth to come out – it’s an indicator that we have work to do.

If our horses are skeptical or avoidant of the halter, it’s a reflection of how they feel about being around us. Treating the halter as a friendly extension of yourself is the best way to get their mind on you without regrets!” to your horse lends way to him having a say in how he’s feeling and what he’s perceiving that day. Abruptly slamming open the stall door and slapping the halter around his ears shows him that we are unaware of his prey animal sensitivities. And come to mention is literal singing might actually help (especially if you are used to shouting obscenities as they try to run away)!

Backyard pony, baby colt, retiree or decorated champion – they all deserve a respectful greeting when haltered.

Haltering Right Will Change Your Life!

Have you ever worked really hard at something for years perhaps, only to have someone drop a seriously simple truth bomb on you? You think, “Gee…wish I would have known that when I started!” That’s what a performance horse hack is! Haltering your horse the right way falls into that category.

Just watch the next big barrel race or rodeo (my favorite is The American or the NFR) and see the difference in the way horses come down the alley. Some horses are like a crazy loose pinball, clanging against the panels till they get to the timer. Other horses seem to have a scary-quiet confidence of prancing down and launching off effortlessly.

The ability to have your horse listen to you, and yield to the halter and lead rope when you catch him, is an easy building block for him treating the bit with respect. At home when there is no energy or pressure from a crowd we can take full advantage out of making positive habits with our horse. That way we are more prepared to blast down the alley under intense pressure and test the strength of the habits we made at home.

Remember it is a matter of relationship and response.

The better our relationship with our horse the better (and quicker) his response will be when running the barrel pattern. If your horse can yield his thoughtsand bodywhen doing the simplest things like haltering, he will be more supple when riding.

*Subscriber Challenge*

Send me a picture or video of how YOU are going to apply this hack: “Give your horse the opportunity to respond advanced on something basic” to your individual horse or situation. How will you add an advance level or feel and refinement on a basic routine task?


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