"We can hardly get him in the arena." a caller, seeking advice, explained to me.
"He's ring sour," I remarked to show I'd been listening and understood.
"No, he's not," she protested defensively, "he's just very difficult to get into the arena."
A ring sour horse is any horse that does not willingly enter the arena. If your horse won't go willingly and easily into the arena whether he's a park, speed event, cutting or anything else, horse, he's ring sour. Somewhere the horse has gotten the idea the arena is an unpleasant place to be. He then sensibly resists going there as much as he can.
Strictly adhered-to routines cause ring sour horses more than any other factor. The horse does the same thing over and over to the point it gets bored, or becomes frustrated by not being able to perform the routine in the manner it has been taught. Like you, it wants to avoid unpleasant situations.
I've seen riderless barrel horses run the pattern, and even turn Port-a-Johns. I've announced and judged shows where heavily shown horses responded to the announcer long before the rider did. I've seen horses who knew the routine so well a mannequin could ride them to a ribbon. The routines are so ingrained in these horses that they are excellent candidates for ring sour. Mix in some frustration by preventing them from performing the way, or when, they are used to and before you know it they are reluctant to enter the arena.
You can stave off, even prevent, ring sour by varying the routine of showing as much as possible. Speed event horses become ring sour more readily than other horses because of the intensity and fast pace of the events. Some speed eventers refuse to do anything with their horses other than their specialty event. They reason that taking their barrel horses in a Western Pleasure class takes the competitive finely-honed edge off. They feel it distracts from the hours spent ingraining pattern routines into the horse. This strict adherence to a rigid procedure encourages ring souring.
A few years back a new boarding stable sponsored a summer series of speed event shows to promote their facility. Placings were determined by high point at the end of the season. I decided to show up at the first show to show my support because the saddle club I belonged to was using their arena for shows. I grabbed a 13h mare I had in the pasture at the time and went over. She was the first one to come up to me and I wasn't planning on seriously competing. There I was surrounded by several dozen dyed-in-the- wool speed eventers with their "hot" taller, heavier, faster veteran horses. The disparaging remarks I received about my horse from some of them prompted me to announce I was going after the first place trophy.
I was in first place on that little horse right up to the last show where I ended up an extremely close second because of a rule wording and how the points were assigned. Most of the competition soured out. Their horses couldn't handle routine changes which cropped up from time to time. Wrist watch timing ("As soon as Mickey's hand is straight up I'll yell, GO!"), and tight patterns (odd-sized arena) are just two of the things that will throw the order of an ingrained routine procedure out of whack.
None of that stuff meant anything to my horse. She had no routines to be affected by changes of any kind because I take great pains to make sure my horses don't develop any routines to screw up. A barrel racing routine, developed using a regulation pattern at home under optimum conditions, can be greatly thrown off by the seldom uniform distance between barrels at a show. Instead of using an inflexible pattern requiring three barrels in a particular arrangement I have a number of basic inter-changeable movements. That way, I can flexibly arrange my "mini" routines to fit a particular speed event situation regardless of what it is.
When you build your runs from an inter-changeable collection of basics your horse becomes used to looking to you for its' directions. This leaves little area for frustration caused by changes and delays because the horse is unaware that there are any. When you do the same thing every time you enter the arena you leave your horse open to ring sour. The horse gets to know the routine better than you'd possibly expect. Change it, or delay it, a few times, and frustration builds up and he won't like it. He'll look for ways to relieve the situation and the door is open for ring sour.
I want my horse to look to me for everything in and out of the arena. The only things I do the same way every time I do them are the commands and aids. Every time I tell the horse to stop, I do it the same way. However, I don't run an event the same way every time. I try to eliminate predictability as much as possible. I don't want a horse that becomes mind-set on a long routine. Basic commands (whoa, turn, change lead) are long enough routines for my horse to follow. Combining these basics to fit a situation are the job of a reasoning mind and I don't know any horses who have one.
At a show I try to keep my horse with me and vary the things I do with her as much as possible. I may lead her into the ring when I go help set up a pattern (you can carry a prop and lead your horse at the same time). I may ride her into the arena and help set up the pattern while riding her (You can carry a prop and ride at the same time with practice). Or I may ride her into the arena while others are warming up then dismount and lead her on foot through an imaginary speed event pattern. I do anything I can think of to vary the routine as much as I can.
I vary my run procedure as much as I can too. I may mount outside the arena one time, inside the next. I may enter the arena at speed one time, walk, trot, or lead in the next. I may vary the exit the same way. I may even choose to take her through the pattern slowly or even deliberately break the pattern by starting it in the middle.
Any speed event can be broken down into increments that can be mixed in any order to compete in any event. All you need is a smooth and rapid take off, a flat out run until you say otherwise, a turn that lasts as long as you ask for it and a stop. As an example when I run a pattern the horse need only to go like a bat WHEN I tell him to go until I tell him to do something else. It doesn't matter of the barrel is 70, 80, 90 or a 100 feet from the starting point, my job is to tell the horse when to slow down and when to make the turn. If I don't, we'll go by that barrel like eggs through a hen and it won't matter one wit to the horse. He is doing a simple can hardly fail task...running until I tell him to do something else.
Spending entry fees to intentionally throw a speed event run seems like hypocrisy to most eventers. I consider it an investment and charge it to schooling. As a horse person I have an ethical responsibility to strive to know my horse at least as well as I know myself. I owe it to my horse to be aware when conditions are not suitable to winning.
If I or my mount are not razor sharp and the placing times are substantially above the crowd average and fall within a ten/one hundredths of a second range separating the placings, I'll sometimes turn in the slowest time just to save ring sour causing wear and tear. A good speed event horse takes time to develop, and with thoughtful care will give years of good willing service. A speed event horse sours easily and it is the responsibility of the rider to do everything possible to prevent souring.
I cover these strategies and more in depth in my video The Horseman's Speed Eventer's Guide To Winning
Click here to check out my very reasonably priced DVD inventory covering many of the subjects featured on my site's pages in greater depth.
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