Ask Our Expert – Dena Kirkpatrick

Dena Kirkpatrick

Dena Kirkpatrick

This Month’s Expert Dena Kirkpatrick

Barrel horse trainer Dena Kirkpatrick grew up on a dairy farm in New Mexico, where her grandfather raised racehorses and her father roped. She was exposed early in her life to Thoroughbreds and racing Quarter Horses, and got her first experience with stock horses when she married Cliff Kirkpatrick 30 years ago and moved to his family’s ranch in Post, Texas.

Kirkpatrick has won many professional barrel-racing titles, and is a leading futurity trainer. She has trained multiple horses that have run at the National Finals Rodeo, including Frosty Feeling and Sugar Moon Express. Kirkpatrick also teaches clinics throughout the year. Kirkpatrick is featured in the April issue of Western Horseman in the feature story “Help or Hindrance,” in which she discusses how a rider’s body position affects a horse’s performance. For information, visit

Q: I just bought a 10-year-old mare that has run barrels before and is well trained, but it’s been several years. The previous owners bred her and turned her out. She is sound to ride and I really want to start taking her to some barrel races later this year, but she is out of shape. What’s the best way to get her started on barrels again? Should I incorporate that into my daily exercise routine, or wait until she’s in shape before I even take her back to the barrel pattern? And should I start her back as if she’s a young horse with a lot of slow work?

Deanne, Michigan

A: You could walk her around the barrels several times each day after you have exercised her. Walking the barrels after exercise would be a good way to cool her out and help her associate calmness and reward with the pattern. Even at a walk, you will be able to feel her tendencies around the barrels, and you can use this time in her life to correct any problems on the pattern that may exist.

Time off is great for healing a horse’s body and mind, and it will often allow the horse to forget pain and anxiety that may have existed before the break. I do find, however, that they seem to pick up on their barrels as if they have had no break at all. If her experience running barrels was all good, then this is great, but if she had any problems, they will still exist.

Horses learn best when they are calm minded, so you can improve her footwork around the barrels by walking the pattern perfectly. It will take months to get her back into running shape, so you have lots of time to do this. I wouldn’t overdo it, though; a few times each day will be good.

As she gets in better shape, you can trot the pattern several times in a workout session a few days each week. Then, after two or three months, when she gets stronger, you could start loping her around the barrels. At that point, I would probably lope her a couple of times through the pattern during a workout session, and end the session by walking the pattern. From this point on, you won’t need to incorporate the barrels in your daily exercise. Two or three times each week will be plenty.

Q: A friend of mine has a horse that constantly chews on the bit. For that reason, they always use a bitless bridle. What can they do to stop their horse from chewing the bit? Is it a problem with the fit of the headstall or bit, or more a behavioral issue?

Fred, New Mexico

A: Horses chew on their bits for many reasons. Some have really sensitive cheeks or bars and just don’t like a bit at all. Some do it because they are nervous, like a person chewing her fingernails. Others do it because they are dreading what may happen when the rider pulls on the reins. Finding a comfortable “bit fit” for a particularly sensitive horse can be tricky and may involve a lot of trial and error. It is very helpful to familiarize yourself with the anatomy of a horse’s mouth and jaw, and to be educated on the proper fit and intended use of the bits you are asking your horse to accept.

A caveson may be used to keep the horse from chewing and opening his mouth, but it must be used carefully. If a caveson is used with a gag bit, the horse’s cheeks can be pinched when the rider pulls on the reins, causing him to react violently.

I will tolerate a certain amount of chewing on the bit, as long as my horse is still very responsive to my hands. There is also nothing wrong with using one of the many varieties of hackamores we have available to us. If a horse is educated properly to it, a hackamore can work just a nicely as a bit.

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If you’d like to submit a question, please send an email to [email protected] by March 23. Please include your full name, city and state in your inquiry. Depending on the volume of questions received, some questions may not be answered. Western Horseman retains the right to edit submissions for clarity.

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