Boot Camp: Tonka I

Part of my boot camp agreement with my trainer was that I would not be just riding dressage horses. As soon as I felt comfortable with a horse, I’d be moving on to the next one.

When I arrived for my fourth lesson, a saintly big paint horse was giving a very young girl a barrel racing lesson. He walked at the slowest possible pace, and let her steer him with just a touch of his sides. I was very, very impressed by his kindness and patience.

…And then the lesson was over, and I learned I’d be riding him next – a barrel racing lesson of my own!


Tonka is an older, tall paint horse with navicular. He took my trainer’s daughter to the junior championships when she was a junior, and my trainer showed him competitively in barrels as well. This is a horse who really knows what he’s doing, and used to be able to do it really well. Now, he makes the perfect beginner barrels horse, and seemed perfectly comfortable (and having a lot of fun!) despite his navicular.

First, we warmed up and I got used to the western saddle. I’ve never really ridden seriously in western tack – and definitely never taken a western lesson – so it was great to have some time to really feel how my seat was different in the big saddle. Kim emphasized that I had to really sit on my butt with Tonka, or he’d either run away from me or lurch into a back. A good lesson for me, since I have a horrible habit of perching.

Kim and her daughter insist that their barrel horses have good dressage foundations, so we next moved onto getting Tonka round. This was a perfect exercise for me; Tonka was a little harder to get round than Hollywood, and I learned a few tricks I can use on Robbye. Again, I did more moving of the head and neck than just “playing with the reins”.


Also, as a western horse Tonka has more of a “set it and forget it” type headset. He doesn’t have to be held constantly like Hollywood. I’d never really experienced this phenomenon – it was neat. I’d tell Tonka where to put his head, then just remind him if he deviated. This let me have the looser, more relaxed frame and reins that you see in western.

For my actual barrel lesson, I started out with some basic theory. Each barrel has a “pocket”, which is even with the rider’s leg. The rider must ride straight into the pocket, not turning or even looking to turn until she’s in it. For the turn, the rider should stay an even distance from the barrel the entire turn around it, and absolutely must NOT look at the barrel! Looking at the barrel pulls the horse into the barrel, risking a knock-down.

So I started my barrel racing career by first walking the pattern, stopping in each pocket. Then I trotted the pattern, stopping in each pocket. Finally I cantered the pattern!

At one point, Tonka got a bit strong and wanted to control the pace (I wanted a slow canter – I was nervous – and he wanted to run). After a few repetitions of making Tonka canter into the pocket and then stopping in the pocket, he started listening to me and cantering at the pace I chose. This was such a great illustration of being the boss and getting an immediate reaction to that dominance.

I learned a lot about Robbye during this lesson – and even a few things about dressage. More than that, I had a sudden realization to what I love about riding. After my barrel lesson, I suddenly wanted to start jumping again. At one point I was “galloping” home from the third barrel and let out a happy whoop.

I love dressage. I think it’s really fun. I’m wondering if the fact that Robbye doesn’t think it’s fun has ruined the fun in it for me, too. And I wonder if her own boot camp will instill that joy for both of us.

I remain optimistic!

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