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Conditioning for Winning


Barrel horses are athletes and must be conditioned.


I want my barrel horse to be in shape–not too thin-not too heavy, muscles firmed and conditioned to win, mentally and physically. I like to plan on taking at least 45 days to get a horse into shape. Sometimes, a horse can look like he’s ready sooner than that, but to really be in top condition takes from six to eight weeks. Plan on starting your conditioning program at least two months before you plan to compete. I have heard people say that a barrel horse only has to run a few hundred feet on a standard barrel pattern, so he doesn’t have to be in really great shape to run barrels. I don’t agree with that. It’s true that some people ride an out-of-shape horse, and sometimes even win. But how much better could they be if the horse was in top form?


Horses that are out of shape get hurt easier because their bodies aren’t ready to take the strain of competition. Injured ligaments and pulled or torn muscles are common among horses that are asked to do more than they are conditioned to do. Horses that are out of shape are also out of shape in their ability to think and react. They are not snappy, and you can spot the sluggish reactions when something goes wrong in a run. Another sign of an out-of-shape horse is that he will use himself up by the time he gets to that third barrel. He just doesn’t look like he has any gas left for the run home, and loses valuable tenths there.


Other ways to recognize an out-of-shape horse are:

  1. long or dull-looking hair
  2. he is harder to cool down
  3. after a run, he is blowing and gasps for breath for quite a while

The out-of-shape horse wins less, so we want to have our horses in shape to win as much as they possibly can! The first thing I do is to get a calendar and write on it everything I am going to do. It helps me keep on schedule and the planning lets me avoid overlooking something. I also set up some conditions that I want to be the same throughout the conditioning program.


First, I want to know that my horse will have plenty of rest during this time, so I need to provide a clean, comfortable, safe stall for him. Also some kind of area where he can get safe, free exercise if possible. You can’t overlook the importance of the feeding program. The horse must get everything that is required, all the natural minerals and vitamins should be in his daily feed. Remember, Purina has a wide variety of feeds to fit the nutritional needs of all horses. We feed our horse his ration and then we all have a habit of feeding, “a little of this and a pinch of that”, which could keep your horse's system out of balance. This is the reason I worked with several top nutritionists and veterinarians. I want a complete feed with all the vitamins and minerals that a horses body requires.


“I have been very happy with Purina feeds such as Omolene, Ultium, Strategy and Equine Senior.”





"I love the Purina Equine Feeds. They are balanced with the correct vitamins and minerals. When you add oats it causes the feed to become unbalanced."


Another preparation step that is so important is a vet check-up to make sure the horse is healthy and has no problems. The horse should be wormed, have his shots current, and teeth floated, if necessary. There are so many great things to use on your horse for performance. I work with United Vet Equine and they have some great products. For joint support, HY-Flex by Med-Vet Pharmaceuticals, Ltd. improves the joint integrity by incorporating high levels of Glucosamine (7,500 mg.), MSM, Ester-C, Yucca and 30 mg. of H.A. (Hyaluronic Acid). For stamina, oxygen and muscle recovery, Stamin-X provides a performance edge to the pay window. Both Hy-Flex and Stamin-X are manufactured by Med-Vet Pharmaceuticals, Ltd. and are available through our Corporate Sponsor, United Vet Equine. Both products have become a “Performance Standard” in the barrel racing industry



Finally, the last preparation step for our program is to take a picture of you horse. Print it out or have it developed and seal it in an envelope and don’t look at it again until the end of your conditioning program. When the time does come to open that envelope and look at the picture again, you will be amazed with the change in your horse! Now that the horse is ready to begin, we need to take a look at where we are going with our program.


My goals are:

  1. To put a shine in his hair. Hair in good condition is something I really look at. I feel that all the brushing in the world won’t give the right hair coat. It has to come from within, a reflection of just how healthy he is. The way we use our barrel horses now is so strenuous, the hauling and the stress, that they have just got to have the proper level of nutrition. I’m not real high on using a lot of vitamins, but I do want to give them what their body requires. It’s just like with people; if you just eat junk food, you don’t feel at your best.

  3. To firm the muscles and give as much muscle definition as I can

  5. To have his feet in good condition; a good healthy foot is a must for a winner.

  7. To have his legs strong and in good condition.

  9. To have his underline tucked up

  11. To have him, overall, feeling like a world class athlete

  13. To take care of my horse by proper bathing and proper grooming


It’s going to take that six to eight week period to accomplish all this. You just can’t wait until the week before an event and say “I’m going to work on my horse’s legs and get the grass belly off and change the angle of his feet at the last minute.


Start preparing NOW for winning!


I like to start at the feet and work up when I’m conditioning a horse, because when I get him into the exercise, he needs to be on the right angle. A toe that’s too long can result in a strained tendon, and one too short can cause problems, also. Make sure your horse is set to the proper angle for his confirmation. Keep in mind, too, that drastic changes have to be made gradually. Along with that attention to his foot, alcohol rubdowns for the horse’s legs are a must after workouts. It is best to use green isopropyl alcohol. After the workout, clean his legs, washing off any dirt or mud. Cold water really helps those legs or the ProKold Ice Boots are good for this purpose.



Then rub down with the isopropyl alcohol. Rub DOWN from his knees to low on his ankle. (NOTE: I rub with the hair growth instead of against it to prevent irritating his skin). This feels good to his legs and takes the soreness out. If a horse is sore, or stocking up (swelling in the legs) at night, I will wrap his legs. To do this, I will wash them with soap and water and let them dry. Then I put on a leg lotion that won’t blister the leg. I rub it in, again rubbing down. Then I wrap the leg with a good standing bandage (which includes plenty of padding). This is important because the thick pad will prevent injury if you get the wrap too tight. You can bow a tendon if the wrap is too tight or you wrap incorrectly. ProKold Ice Boots are a great product that's made icing easy. "One of the most important lessons I have learned in my barrel racing career is that the actual barrel race is won prior to the timer ever starting. The care, conditioning and preparation that goes into getting your horse "Rodeo or Horse Show Ready," will determine how fast your horse shuts off the clock.


I believe that a fast and effective coolant system for your horse's legs is essential in making a healthy long-life for your horse and winning the race. ProKold Ice Boots are, by far, the fastest, most effective, direct system to use when your horse needs any type of icing or swelling control. I use these products after each race for proper leg treatment on all the horses I run. I also use their additional coolant products for preventative measures prior to running or if I notice any type of swelling in specific areas. The care of my horse is just as, if not more, important as making a winning run. To make sure they get the Best, I use ProKold. There is no better product on the market."




Cool Pak Green Gel





1. First apply a good brace to the area you will be wrapping. The brace is used to cool and tighten tendons.







Begin with




2. Next, apply thick leg quilts. I use a type called “no bow” as it is less likely to cause problems in case of an improper wrap. Start on the inside of the leg and wrap to the outside; “Tendons in.” Notice that the wraps have easy-to-use Velcro strips.





Completed wrap


3. Wrap the leg with standing bandages. Start the first part of the wrap by tucking the edge just inside the under wrapping. This will hold it securely in place. Begin the outer wrap in the middle of the leg. Wrap in a downward direction overlapping each layer ¼ to ½ the width of the wrap. Then begin wrapping back up the leg. Keep your wrap snug, but don’t get it too tight or it will interfere with the circulation and cause pressure points.


Wrap from the knee to just below the ankle. In our Winning Ways we will be talking a lot more about wrapping legs, because this is such an important subject. Properly done, leg wrapping can do a great deal of good, but incorrect wrapping can hinder a horse more than it helps. In a conditioning exercise program, I feel that there is a time to train you horse and a time for just riding. I know a trail ride is good, but you don’t see someone getting ready to compete in the Olympics by walking through the woods. Trail riding is for the mind. It’s good and has its place, but it doesn’t replace the training and conditioning aspect of a program.


Any time I take a horse out of a stall I walk him to:

  1. take out any soreness in his body
  2. take out any swelling in his legs



I walk in circles in both directions, teaching bend, using leg pressure. In other words, we are not just walking around the arena, we are working and exercising in a relaxed fashion. I walk the horse for fifteen to thirty minutes. The I’ll jog him for about the same length of time, going in large and small circles in both directions. I also jog him through the barrel pattern, slowing down to a walk at the turns to reinforce the rate. Then, I’ll walk some more. For about the first ten days, the workouts consist of this walking and jogging for about 45 minutes to an hour. I will make sure that the last part of the workout consists of enough walking to let him get completely dry and cooled out before I unsaddle, and rub his legs down. After ten days, I begin the workout the same, by walking. Then I’ll jog the horse for a while, but I add some work at a lope. I will lope the horse, then tell him to “whoa”, stop and turn, and lope in the other direction. As he is picking up those leads and stopping and turning, he is working his body muscles.



I am also working on conditioning myself as I condition this horse. When he “whoas” I sit, and then move with my horse. Again, I end my workout with that important cool-down phase. After twenty days, I do a little more jogging and loping in the workouts, all the time keeping him relaxed, but strengthening his body and sharpness as we go. I will also begin to long-trot the horse at this point to lengthen his stride and tuck up his belly. This is a good exercise, but if a horse has any lameness or weakness, it can be too much strain. If you are in doubt about it for your particular horse, you might consult your veterinarian. Of course, I’m still finishing up by taking time to cool him out and rub his legs down. After thirty days, I add another step to the workout. After walking, trotting, and loping, I will breeze him (go in a fast, but collected lope). This will increase his lung capacity. After breezing him, I will jog some, then walk some more, so that he remains relaxed with the workouts. Since I am asking the horse for more, I expect that it will take longer to cool him down after each workout, so I plan to take the necessary time. That leg rubdown is as important as ever, here. Even though he is starting to get into shape, he is being asked to do more, so the potential for soreness or injury is there. The rubdown is the time for me to find any soreness or problem. Remember, this conditioning phase is the time to try different things on your horse. Try a different training bit; or bending bit. If you need collection, try a stiff bit or hackamore. Right now you have time to experiment.


Do this during the conditioning period, so that when it’s time to compete, you KNOW what works. After 45 day, the horse should be close to being in shape. You’ll be gradually switching to a maintenance program. Now is the time to incorporate the trail riding and cow working or roping into the program. This is also the time to study your horse. You have worked to get him into great shape, and he is. So take note of how he feels now, so you will be able to spot it if something goes wrong. Take a picture of him. You’ll be able to do two things with it. First, compare the new one with the one you took at the beginning of your training program. You’ll be amazed at the difference. If there is no difference, contact a vet, because he likely has some problems that are keeping him from getting into shape. For most horses, though, this program will have gotten them into top shape and the difference will be quite noticeable. The second thing you can do with your new picture is to keep it as a reference, so you have a record of how he SHOULD look all the time. Also, make a video, if you have access to a camera, so you have a picture of what your horse looks like working, how he moves and works. In other words, you want to KNOW HIS NORMALS. Know what he is like when he is right. Know his temperature; know how he acts. As for the picture, you will compare him with this picture and video from time to time. A lot of times, when things go wrong, they go wrong gradually. Having this record to compare with will help you spot any changes more quickly.



Nobody should know your horse like you do. You will know if he is in top shape. If he is not, you can get him that way in just six weeks. I can give you an example of what being in shape can accomplish. Back when I was riding Cebe Reed, they let us make both runs at a rodeo and barrel race in Hillsboro, Texas in the same day. They were fifteen second patterns in deep sand, and I won both goes. That was in the afternoon. That night, I went to Mansfield, Texas to an indoor arena, where a horse really had to be fast and snappy to win on a 12 second pattern. Cebe won that. The next day, we went to Huntsville, Texas and won the barrel race on a 20 second pattern. I knew my horse. Cebe couldn’t have handled the runs or the hauling if he’d have been out of shape, mentally or physically, and that’s the kind of condition that I want my barrel horse in. Mental shape is important. In order for a horse to take the pressure, mentally, he must be in shape physically. When you ask him to do more than he is physically capable of, he blows up and does one of the following:

  1. He cheats
  2. He goes ahead and does it and hurts himself
  3. He begins to dread performing
  4. He begins to put out only half of an effort knowing your horse and having him in the best possible shape will help you avoid those problems. Listen to your horse and pay attention to him. If he’s telling you he’s had enough, it’s time to quit and look for a problem. A horse that is doing something he has never done before is usually signaling that something is wrong. If a normally calm horse begins to switch his tail, or kick or gets irritable, you need to notice the difference and find the cause. Again, knowing what he is like when he is in top shape and ready to go will let you be more aware when something is wrong. GETTING a horse in winning shape and KEEPING him in that condition, puts you that much closer to being a winner! I want you to win! You want to win! Together let’s get our horse as fit as he can be and let’s go run our best.

Conditioning for Winning

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