Tips for the Nervous Barrel Racer

This week I have decided to discuss some tips for the nervous barrel racer. Why? I am a nervous barrel racer myself and thought that, if these tips could be of use to me, then maybe they could help someone else out. Below I have compiled various tips from many barrel racers on how to calm your nerves. These tips have worked for other barrel racers and my hope is that they can help you, too.

Box Breathing

I have a post all about box breathing, which works to specifically alter your breathing pattern. This is a great method for the nervous barrel racer who tends to get short of breath. When nervous, some people will have a tendency of taking more shallow breaths. As a result, they will start taking in less oxygen. This is a big red flag for your body, which causes the fight or flight response to start up, making you anxious.


The easiest way to solve this is to breathe! Specifically, box breathing has been proven to be very effective in calming nerves in anxiety provoking situations. Everyone from top level athletes to military personnel have used this technique.


I encourage you to check out my post on box breathing for a detailed explanation for how to do it.

Listen to Music

Listening to music can be a great way of quelling any nerves that you may be feeling. Music is extremely powerful and can be used to your advantage in situations of high stress and anxiety. I’m sure you can think of a song that makes you feel sad. And I am sure there are other songs that make you feel happy, pumped, annoyed and many other emotions. Use this association against your nerves. What song makes you feel calm? What song makes you feel pumped up?

Tips for the Nervous Barrel Racer

You will need to play with this a bit. In my own case, I am still trying to figure this out. On one hand, I want myself to calm down. I want to be completely relaxed. Considering this, I would likely want to listen to a more mellow song that calms me down.


But maybe not.


At the same time that I want to be calm, I also need to get pumped up so that I ride aggressively. Listening to a slow country song is not going to do the trick in that case! Instead, I might need something more upbeat and fast paced.


Unfortunately, these songs might not help in keeping me calm and may worsen my anxiety. It’s a balance I am still trying to figure out one barrel race at a time.

Nervousness and Excitement are the Same chemical reaction

One thing that I encourage you to remember is the fact that excitement and nervousness can feel exactly the same in your body. You start to get butterflies in your stomach and you might feel a bit tingly. In addition, your heart rate increases and you may begin to sweat.


The only difference between nervousness and excitement is our interpretation of our symptoms. If we think that all of the butterflies and sweating is a bad thing, we interpret it as nerves. If we think it is positive, then we interpret it as excitement.


The key here is to change your thinking. You need to associate those sensations as being excited, rather than nervous. I know that is easier said than done but awareness of this fact is a big first step towards interpreting things differently.

Have a drink (if you’re of legal age, of course)

Let’s be honest, having an alcoholic beverage will take the edge off of just about anyone, including the nervous barrel racer. I’m not suggesting that you get drunk before making a run. However, I am suggesting that you have a beer, some wine, or whatever you prefer before you saddle up. You don’t want to drink so much that you start to become impaired. It should be just enough that you can feel yourself relax.

Use your feet

Another great tip for the nervous barrel racer is to get your feet moving. When waiting for your run, if it is safe to do so, kick your feet out of your stirrups and let your feet dangle. Rotate your ankles around gently. Wiggle your toes in your boots. Do all of this nice and slow, gently playing around with your feet while you wait.


Why does this work? Moving your feet about allows any pent up energy to be expelled out of your body. Rather than sitting there with weight in your stirrups, the energy in your body is free to move about.


There were several barrel racers that suggested this trick. Definitely give this one a try!

Use your body to convince your mind that you are not nervous

In keeping with using your body, there is also another way that a nervous barrel racer can use her body to get rid of nerves. When you are nervous how does your body look? Typically, you might be looking here, there and everywhere very quickly. You might be breathing very quickly and holding your arms close to your body. Perhaps you pace.


You would also have specific set of body language if you were relaxed and prepared. Your breathing would be slow and deep. You would exhibit relaxation: loose arms, relaxed shoulders, etc.


Tony Robbins, a well-known figure in the personal development world, suggests using your body to develop the type of emotion that you wish to feel. So, if you want to go from nervous to calm, what should you do? Breathe like a calm person (see above for the box breathing). Walk like a calm person: arms loosely at your side, swaying in step with how you walk. Relax your face, releasing any tension in your jaw.


You will be amazed by how these physiological changes can make a substantial change in your mental state.
Only compete against your last run
A reason why you may be a nervous barrel racer is because you are comparing yourself to others.


My horse isn’t as good as her horse. 
I can’t ride as good as she can. 
She beat me last time. 
That will probably happen again this time.


All of these thoughts can move you into a nervous wreck. And what for? Does it make any difference? Nope.


My best advice here is to run your own race. You only need to compete against yourself and your last run. Maybe it is true that your don’t have as good of a horse and that you can’t ride as good as your competitors. That doesn’t matter. Stay in your lane and only compete against yourself.

Essential oils

With the introduction of companies like Young Living, many people are now aware of the power of essential oils. Lucky for the nervous barrel racer there are several different oils that work to lessen anxiety and stress. Oils like lavender and peppermint can have very powerful effects. Check out oil combinations like Stress Away. You can use them prior to your run, even before the nerves start.

Put in ear plugs

It is not uncommon for people to put ear plugs into the ears of a rodeo horse who is sensitive or otherwise impacted by the noises of a loud rodeo arena. Similarly, a nervous barrel racer may also benefit from ear plugs. First off, I do want to caution you that you do not want to be oblivious to your surroundings. It is very important when working on or around horses that you need to hear what is going on.


With that out of the way, I encourage you to consider the use of ear plugs. This will potentially help to drown out some of the noises that may be triggering you: the sound of the announcers, the pounding of hooves, the clanging of gates, the cheering of the crowd.

Sit in a quiet spot before your run

Another great strategy for the nervous barrel racer is to sit somewhere quiet before your run. I understand that this is not always possible but, if it is, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the competition arena. A great place to go is back to your horse trailer. I like to bring my horse and just talk to him, sing him a song, or just be quiet with him, maybe letting him graze.


The idea here is to get that fight or flight response toned down so that those jitters from that response chill out a bit. While in your quiet spot you could listen to some music, practice your box breathing, and wiggle your toes. Do whatever you got to do!

Read mental toughness books

There are many sport psychologists out there that know much more about the mind than I do. As such, I highly recommend checking out their books. They are full of strategies that can help you in your quest to go from nervous barrel racer to confident champion barrel racer.


Check out:


    • Mind Gym – by Gary Mack
    • The Champion’s Mind – Jim Afrenow


Don’t avoid the situation – avoidance feeds fear

It is tempting when you experience stress and anxiety in a particular situation to avoid that situation at all costs. However, this oftentimes makes the situation even worse. The thing that is causing you issues gets bigger and bigger. What could have once been overcome by just biting the bullet and doing it now appears to be Mount Everest – a seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome.


This is where exposure therapy becomes your friend. The more you experience something, the less scary it becomes. Think of someone who is asked to do a presentation in front of a group of people. Their first time up on stage they are going to be nervous. However, do you think that level of anxiety is going to be that same after their twentieth time on stage giving the same presentation? Likely not.


You can also think of it another way. Imagine someone who is asked to give a presentation and has a month to prepare. That person might spend the entire month losing sleep over and worry about giving that presentation. By the time that day comes along, they are going to be a nervous wreck. In contrast, imagine someone who is asked to give a presentation but is only given half an hour to prepare. While they may still be nervous, it will not have the opportunity to build up like in the first scenario. They quickly prepare, take a deep breath and do it.


That’s what you need to do with your barrel racing. Don’t wait until next month to haul your horse to a jackpot. Get your butt to the very next one at your local arena. And continue to show up time and time again.

Peripheral Vision

Another great strategy for the nervous barrel racer is to use your peripheral vision. When you are nervous, you do not use your peripheral vision. You get a kind of tunnel vision and only focus on what is directly in front of you. If you look around using your peripheral vision, your body begins to relax because it thinks that everything is okay if you are using your peripheral vision.


First off, please make sure you are still watching where you are going, particularly if you are in the swirling vortex of death that is a warm up ring. Soften your gaze while taking in everything around you in your peripheral vision.


The last thing that I would suggest for the nervous barrel racer is to utilize visualization. Sit down somewhere where you will not be disturbed. It should be quiet and you should be in a position that is comfortable. What you are going to do here is visualize your run exactly the way you would like it to go in real life.


I like to picture the arena I will be riding in. When I visualize I will start at the point where it is my time to walk up to the alley and begin my run.


Visualize as much as possible using all five senses. What do you see? Are there other horses around you? Is your best friend on her horse beside you? Are there any people in the stands or in the bleachers? What does the alleyway look like? How far is it to the first barrel? Where are the timers set up?


What do you hear? If there is a crowd, are they cheering, or are they quiet? Is there music playing? If so, what song? Is there an announcer? Male or female? Can you hear your horse walking on gravel or pavement? Is the leather of your saddle squeaking?


What do you smell? Can you smell the dirt of the arena? Is your horse sweaty?


What do you feel? How do the reins feel in your hands? Are they leather or synthetic? How does it feel sitting in the saddle and walking your horse up to the alleyway? Can you feel the afternoon sun on your shoulders? Does your cowboy hat feel tight on your head?

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Finally, what do you taste? While this may not be as important as the other senses, it doesn’t hurt to explore this sense, too.


Visualize it all. There may be some senses that you are stronger at visualizing but try to use all of your senses. Then make a run. Feel your horse charging to first, nailing that turn. Imagine yourself cuing your horse with your feet and hands, adjusting your seat to cue for rate.


It may take a while for you to get good at this. I know that for myself personally, I had some difficulty in being able to visualize going all around each barrel. When visualizing, I had no trouble going forward but when I tried to turn around, I couldn’t do it for whatever reason. I finally physically stood up and moved my entire body and I visualized going around a barrel. Now I can sit just about anywhere and visualize making a smoking run.


Why does this work? It relates to exposure therapy. Your mind does not know the difference between a real and an imagine experience. As such, visualizing a run gives you experience. The more times you can visualize flawless runs without feeling nervous, the better.

Finish Line Thoughts

I understand probably better than anyone that barrel racing can be nerve wracking. Additionally, I can also understand how frustrating it can be to be held back by your nerves. That is why I really wanted to write this article and share these tips. My hope is that you can implement one or many of these strategies and consequently see your nerves, at the very least, lessen so that you can rock it in the arena as the barrel racer you know that you can be.


And remember, it’s always a #gooddaytoride.


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