Bypassing Burnout

You might not have spent as much time in the show pen this spring as you normally would, but burnout can still be a problem for your reiner.

By Sebastian Petroll, With Abigail Boatwright; Photos by Abigail Boatwright

Sometimes the key to avoiding burnout or working through a phase of it is simply getting outside the reining pen and doing something else—trail riding, moving cattle, or even a stress-free stroll in a meadow.

Raise your hand if you’ve spent a lot of time at the barn during the hiatus from showing, trying to perfect every maneuver. As you focus that energy on your horse’s training, does he seem accepting and happy? Or does he act like he needs a change of scenery as much as you did by week two of stay-at-home orders? 

(If you didn’t have access to your horse during this time, you might consider yourself lucky because you saved him from potential burnout.)

Burnout is a real concern, and it can ruin your reiner and take the fun out of your riding.

We know that young horses in training—2-, 3-, and 4-year olds—learn through structure and constant repetition. Maintaining a daily routine working on the same things is very important. 

However, once your horse is trained, the pace has to change. You must recognize at what level your horse is comfortable and keep the maneuvers at that level. If you keep drilling and pushing your horse too hard every day, you’re going to push him toward burnout and a bad attitude. 

Here, I’ll talk about burnout in horses of all ages, what causes it, and how you can avoid it to keep your reiner fresh and happy, which leads to more fun for you as a rider.

What Is Burnout?

When I was in school, I worked for a big company that sold business software. The salespeople were under enormous pressure. Reaching a quarterly sales goal only meant the goal for the next quarter was going to be higher. I watched people who were once excited and motivated about their jobs get pushed by a “never good enough” corporate culture. The turnover in the sales force was immense—people can only work under pressure for so long. It’s the same way with horses: They can only be pushed for so long without reward.  

A horse that’s burned out—or headed in that direction—generally has a bad attitude and tries to avoid his job. But you can help your horse recover from burnout by going back to the basics, making his job easier, and finding ways to bring back his motivation to work.

I’m not saying you should let your horse walk all over you and perform maneuvers poorly. You need to hold him accountable. But you don’t need to ask him to give you all he has every time you saddle up.  

A horse experiencing burnout can resent his job, which makes him unpleasant to be around and diminishes your enjoyment of having horses.

We often deal with older horses that have been trained a little different than our program would have. A lot of times, there’s a maneuver that I personally don’t care for how the horse executes it. But, if that maneuver is what I consider efficient—able to mark in the show arena—I’ll leave it and not try to retrain it. Sometimes trying to totally change or redo a maneuver can frustrate a horse that has performed it in that manner for several years. That doesn’t mean I won’t touch that particular maneuver at all, but it does mean I’ll try to find a healthy balance in maintaining that particular maneuver that works for me and doesn’t confuse the horse.

Over-training in situations like that is a major cause of burnout. Just like the salespeople who are looking for a bit of relief, finding a balance is all it takes to keep your horse happier with his job, too. 

You should always avoid over-practicing, but especially during the process of getting a horse over a phase of burnout. It takes a lot of experience to know how much you can push in training without taking the “try” out of a horse. Young horses in training get burned out when they don’t understand the training concept on a regular basis. It’s normal for your horse to not comprehend something every once in a while, but when it’s a daily occurrence, he’ll get frustrated. Some people think you train a horse to be perfect every day, but that’s not correct—that will lead your horse to resentment and burnout. Instead, you should train him to try his best and to understand every day, then perfection will come over time as a result of that consistency.

Addressing the Problem

You can’t force your horse to work through a phase of burnout. You either need to address it before it becomes a problem or recognize the problem and change what you’re doing to handle the issue. That said, it’s a lot easier to avoid burnout in the first place. 

Between shows, keep your horse legged up and fit. He doesn’t need intense training every day if he’s a seasoned show horse.

Tactic 1: Avoid. A lot of older reiners really do enjoy their jobs. They don’t resent going out and showing, even if they’ve been doing it for years. I notice for some show horses, when you take away their routine and job, they aren’t as comfortable as they were when they were busy. But you can drive any horse to burnout. Keeping a regular work structure helps with their mental health. It’s a balancing act to offer just enough variety within the routine to keep them motivated without causing them to experience burnout.

At some point, when you’re riding a trained horse, you have to remove daily pressure and keep him happy with little touch-ups. That doesn’t mean that you can’t routinely practice maneuvers. You’ll have to find what I call a “neutral gear” in each maneuver. 

For example, with a spin, you can still turn daily or every other day, but you should focus on the correctness of the maneuver, slowed way down. The same goes for working on your circles. You can still run circles, but don’t take your horse out and ask him to give you everything he has, every time—especially if you don’t have a show coming up. Ask for correct, relaxed maneuvers at a medium pace, and don’t overwork your horse. As you get closer to a horse show, that’s when you want to step it up and ask for more speed and a little more degree of difficulty in each maneuver.

You need to be realistic. If your horse is limited in a maneuver—maybe you’ve been working with your horse on this maneuver for two years and it’s still not great—it’s not going to be perfect before a horse show next week. You don’t want that one maneuver to consume your riding and preparation. Identifying your horse’s limitations and accepting what he can do will help avoid resentment and burnout.

Save more intense maneuver schooling for the days leading up to a show. That way, you’ll know your horse will be sharp and can work on any issues while he has a fresh mind.

Tactic 2: Change. Recognizing when you’re pushing your horse too far with his workload or if you’re doing too much, too early allows you to make important changes to keep your horse fresh. So much of that depends on the individual horse.

If your horse seems to be getting worn out mentally or physically, he might need a break—either from you as the rider or in general.

Change can also mean doing things other than reining maneuvers to vary the routine. Reiners are so well-trained that you can do lots of other things with your horse to vary his routine. Once your horse is “finished,” he can go and do ranch riding, trail riding, gather cattle, rope—things that will keep him legged up but give him something else to think about. You’re not going to hurt anything on a trained horse by varying your activities with him. The key is to provide distractions that are within your horse’s physical and mental capabilities. For example, it’s probably not a great idea to take your reining horse to a barrel race or other similar highly intense endeavors.

Now, is it a good idea to throw all these things at every 2-year-old? Probably not. Young horses need a daily routine until they “get it.” But once a young horse is at a level where he’s considered finished, it’s pretty hard to mess one up by giving him new jobs to do. For the most part, if it’s done correctly, your horse can do other activities and then return and do his job just as well. You can definitely venture out and do other things. That keeps him fresh and keeps him going.

However, the day before a show isn’t the time to take your horse roping. Save your trail ride or cattle work for after the event.

If you have access to cattle, quietly working them can be a great distraction for your horse. Be sure that any new activity you try is suitable for your horse’s temperament.

Fitting in Your Goals

Your horse’s mental and physical freshness is important, but so are your goals. There’s a way to meet in the middle. Look at your schedule and the shows you have ahead of you. You want to prep for those goals with your horse’s needs in mind. Depending on your horse, you may need to plan on taking a month to prepare for a particular event, while another horse may only need 10 days. Learn how long your horse needs to be tuned up, and structure your schedule accordingly.

Prior to an event, you’ll want to make sure all your maneuvers work at speed—they should if you’ve been working on correctness and confidence the entire time. It shouldn’t be difficult to add speed.

With any horse, especially a young one, you may come to a point where you feel your horse needs to just take a break. Go ride in a field for a while, or take a walk down the driveway and let him see some cattle. Your horse may have a big workload, but you can take a little time to give him a break to help avoid burnout. And when you offer him something new to think about, it can help you, too.


Sebastian Petroll grew up riding and showing horses. In 2001, he moved from Germany to the U.S. to further himself as a horse trainer. The NRHA Professional and Judge now operates Petroll Reining Horses LLC, a full-service operation in Whitesboro, Texas, alongside his wife, Melanie.