The Trials and Tribulations of Competing and Keeping Your Horse Working

We just finished the first part of summer and the 4th of July runs. This busy time of the year can get overwhelming if we let it, but we have to keep things in perspective, and what are the goals we have set for ourselves and how do we achieve them? And if we don’t achieve them, does it mean the end of the world? Usually not. If we didn’t achieve the goals, why didn’t we? Was it that the horse needs some more tuning and training? Do we need more tuning and training on ourselves? Or is our horse hurting and he can’t give us everything he can? It usually is a combination of all of the above.

In my opinion, we have to remember why we are out there competing. Is it our hobby? A way to blow off steam and escape from our day-to-day job, tapping into our dark competitive side. Or is it our job and we do this for a living? Most of us are more on the hobby side of the spectrum and rely on some other means of income to pay the bills. So why do we put so much pressure on ourselves and talk so negatively when things don’t go as planned? Why are we ready to sell it all and buy a beach house when we have a couple of bad runs? We need to persevere, but keep it in perspective…why are we really doing this?

For me, it is my hobby. I can unleash the dark side, the aggressive person that lives within me, in a healthy environment. I love the training and the riding of horses. I compete so I set goals for myself and push myself. If I didn’t do this, what would I do for excitement? Start drinking heavily or do drugs? Or maybe cheat on my spouse? As much as he thinks I spend too much time and money on my horses, I think he would agree that it is much better than cheating or drinking!! It literally keeps me out of trouble, because I am a bit of an adventure-seeker and need to be excited about things.

This is also why we have encouraged our kids to get involved with horses. It is a healthy way for them to compete, and it teaches them responsibility, how to handle hardships and overcome obstacles, which they have both had to do this first half of the season.

This story begins on Memorial Day weekend, when we went to Loveland, Colorado, for a large barrel race and pole bending. It was a qualifier for the junior world finals in Las Vegas. We felt like our oldest daughter Emma had a good chance to qualify in poles if she had the run she normally has.

Both girls entered, paying their own fees, which were not cheap (again, us trying to teach them about life and that this stuff doesn’t come without a price). Gracie was riding a new horse named “Big.” We knew it would be a long shot with her because they were still working on their timing, but he is a very talented horse, so we all were willing to take the chance.

As the weekend unfolded, Gracie struggled with getting tipped forward in her turns and had trouble keeping barrels and poles up. She was mentally and physically exhausted with many tears shed. We reviewed the videos and talked to Kisha Zieffle, who trained Big, to come up with a game plan to change how things were going. We ended up changing saddles, so Gracie had shorter stirrups and could balance better in her turns. Then she and Big worked with Kisha to help her hand position on the reins and getting her to sit deeper before her turns to help her stay balanced to help her horse—then what do you know, she started to click with this horse!

In the meantime, Emma was on cloud nine that weekend in Loveland. She made a solid run in poles and ended up qualifying for Las Vegas! Her excitement was hard to contain. So now the tweaking started. How can we start shaving off tenths, so that she has a better chance of winning this thing when she gets to Vegas? She started working with her mentor, Jayde Atkins, to get the most out of her horse “Pickle.” Unfortunately, he had other ideas! As she started putting more pressure to him, he started not rating or turning for his left turns. Emotions ran high and now she was in tears and frustrated, while Gracie was on a high!

Since our horses can’t talk to us, we have to be investigators. We started by trying a little different approach to his first end pole. Sometimes that worked, but sometimes that didn’t. I felt there had to be something physical, because he was consistent with when he would do it—turning left with speed. We took him to see Dr. Paul Fornstrom of Cactus Vet. Pickle had been sore at times in his back, pelvis, poll, and jaw. Paul found this again the day he examined him. After looking at the X-rays and doing his exam, we decided hock injections would help, along with chiropractic and physical therapy.

Emma thought he felt good in the practice so we went to a local jackpot to run barrels. Her little sister ran a great time on Big, so Emma wanted to see if her and Pickle could keep up, but again, Pickle had other ideas (are you seeing why his name is Pickle?). He again bowed off his left turn at the third barrel. By now we are all starting to wonder…is there something wrong mentally with this horse? Is it something Emma is doing in her run? Is he still hurting? The answer was all of the above. Fortunately, I sent the videos of her run to Dr. Paul so he could see what Pickle was doing, and he was coming to our house for a roping that weekend. He examined him and said his poll was out again and felt like if we injected his jaw, he wouldn’t have so many poll issues. We also had Emma work with Kisha for some more insight with her riding skills and tweaked her hand position on her reins.

Emma’s next run back was not super pretty, but better. We had her work on her hand position in the warm-up pen, then of course, if any of you know me or have heard me when my kids run, I am that screaming mother! My cues were “reach down”…a simple cue for her to reach down her rein more to get more direct rein pressure on him instead of getting centered up and pulling on both sides of his face in his turn. The following day things started to click better and they made a much better pole run and barrel run—without all kinds of assistive devices on his head.

On Emma and Pickle’s next run they were super smooth and ended up winning money in the open 1D in both barrels and poles!! Praise the Lord! We couldn’t have done it without the help of good vets like Dr. Paul and talented trainers like Kisha and Jayde.

My hopes are that this synopsis of our summer so far shows that when you encounter problems, you are not alone, and you should look at it from all perspectives. Look at it from a health perspective of your horse. Look at his training, and look at it objectively with your riding. What can you do to ride to the best of your ability? Don’t be afraid to get help; professional athletes have coaches, so why do we think we can compete without a coach?

Do I think we have our problems fixed? I think we are on the right track. And if not, we will continue to investigate where we can do better, as long as we continue to make progress in our quest for perfection.