Oklahoma barrel racer and trainer Karla Oller teaches horses to run barrels one grade at a time.
By Michael Mahaffey
Barrel racing champion Karla Oller has built a reputation as a talented barrel racer with her 13-year-old gelding, Ollers Scat Cat (“Scat”). But the owner of Oller Performance Horses in Enid, Okla., has also earned accolades as a skilled trainer of barrel horses. Her “Kindergarten through college philosophy” is a methodical training process that ensures that her horses are ready to eager to learn more by always being patient.
Karla Oller and her top mount, Ollers Scat Cat, at the 2009 BBR Finals. (Kenneth Springer)
“I want control of every part of their body,” she says. “I want them extremely broke. I want to be able to control every part of their body with finger-tip pressure.”
One Grade at a Time
Oller refuses to push her horses until she feels it has learned all it needs to at it’s current “grade level.”
After sending her horses off for 30 days to get broke, Oller and her daughter, Kami, 14, do the rest of the training themselves.
She takes things slowly, wanting them to understand their job, and what she expects from them, before pushing her horses harder or adding more to their education. She starts them on barrels very early at a walk, teaching them to simply go around a barrel, to reverse arc, side pass and do all the basics. Once they have matured enough to get on the pattern, she lets them progress at their own rate, at “their speed.”
“I want my horses to stay really honest,” she says. “When I’m finished, I’m not one that really wants to touch my horse. I kind of want them to do as much on their own as possible, and I just try to stay out of their way. So it takes a very slow, steady, smooth training to get that horse that comfortable and that confidence to go out there and make a run without me doing everything for them.”
Oller and her other prized barrel horse, KO Lets Go. (Fessler Photography)
She lets her horses turn the barrels, however it is must comfortable for them. It’s more important to her that they stay relaxed and melt in the turn than getting them to run in a particular style.
“I’ve had some people say, ‘Wow, your horse almost turns faster than he runs in between,’” she says, “and I feel like that’s because I’m allowing him to completely melt, to completely relax in the turn versus being uptight and tense. I think they stay sounder longer if they do. I want them to bend every part of their body and do it effortlessly.”
The End is the Beginning
For Oller, there are two critical times in training: when you start to ask a horse for speed and keeping that horse consistent once you start competing. She believes it is vital to have extra patience at this juncture to achieve the end result of taking a horse from a 3D runner to a 1D contender.
“Whenever you’re taking them from the high lope to a run is extremely critical,” she says. “It’s so easy for someone to push them beyond where they’re at. I see so many people let their horses go smoothly from Kindergarten to 8th grade, then jump them from 8th to college and wonder why the horse is confused or why they can’t handle the speed.”
She views the process of asking for more speed as climbing a ladder. If a horse isn’t comfortable taking that next step up, she backs them down until they develop the confidence to take that step and follow through.
“I want them running 100 percent in there and drop and turn with very little on my part,” she says.
Oller compares the second critical phase of training, keeping a horse consistent when you start competing, to doing college class work versus doing hands-on work in the work place.
“The training is there, but then you have to get the experience of hauling, new arenas, different types of ground, etc.,” she said. “These horses need proper seasoning before they can become confident winners in all aspects.”
According to Oller, there is no mysterious, secret technique to training a 1D-caliber barrel horse. She believes anyone can do it. All it takes is patience, time and knowing your horse. The hard part is keeping that horse solid and winning year after year.
“I think a true trainer is one that can keep a horse at the top of their game,” she says. “I see a lot of self-called trainers get to the winner’s circle, but then their horses fall apart. It takes a truly solid and knowledgeable trainer to not only get to the winners circle, but to stay at that winning circle. Those who don’t skip grades in the training process are the ones who are able to stay at the top of their game consistently.”
Oller and Scat in 2009. (Kenneth Springer)
Oller believes barrel racers should know their horses extremely well before trying to compete.
“I think you need to know how your horse feels,” she says. “You need to be in tune with if they feel a little bit off, if they feel a little bit stiff. Are they stiff because it’s a soundness issue or a chiropractic issue, or are they stiff because they’re just being a horse, or being a colt or being a kid and just not responding to you. Is it a training issue? I think a person just has to take that in stride and be attentive to it.”
She also believes barrel racers should educate themselves as much as possible about every aspect of equine health and care.
“Not only do they need to have a great understanding of basic horsemanship, but they also need knowledge of dental care, farrier, vet, nutrition issues,” she says. “It takes such great teamwork to get to the winners circle and stay there. Working on being compatible with your horse and learning to ‘feel’ even the most subtle changes in your horse early on can lead to early detection of problems or issues your horse may be having.”
Once these elements are in place, the foundation for continued success starts and ends with a happy horse that is physically sound and wants to do its job.
“I want my horse, when I’m going to a barrel race, to enjoy their job, so I treat them with respect and to keep them happy and sound and enjoying what they do,” she says. “That’s the thing that I’ve seen with my horses is that they love their job, and I want to keep it that way.”
Michael Mahaffey is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. E-mail comments on this article to