Barrel Racing

Success in barrel racing depends on the skills and training of both rider and horse, as well as on the quality of the communication between the rider and her horse.

Contestants compete for the fastest time in running a triangular, cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. The horse and rider are allowed a running start and time begins and ends upon crossing a visible starting line. Touching a barrel is permitted, but a 5-second penalty is assessed for knocking over a barrel. The pattern can be started either from the left or right, and contestants who go off the prescribed course are disqualified.

The pattern at a National Barrel Horse Association show must meet the following safety conditions:

  • a minimum of 15 feet between each of the first two barrels and the side fence
  • a minimum of 30 feet between the third barrel and the back fence
  • a minimum of 30 feet between the timer line and the first barrel.

Graphic example of barrel racing pattern.The rider can choose to start on either of the front two barrels. A pattern that starts with a right turn around the right hand barrel must be followed by two left turns. A rider who chooses to go left first must make two right hand turns for the second and third barrel. Either start produces the desired “clover leaf pattern.”

Racing times are measured in hundredths of seconds. Clearly, knocking over a barrel is disastrous in a race that may take as little as fourteen seconds from start to finish.

Barrel Racing: A Woman”s Sport?

Barrel racing became popular as an event that would keep wives, girlfriends and daughters busy and involved when men were competing in the rough rodeo sports. In some circles, barrel racing is known as a woman”s sport.

However, many argue that it”s a great sport for men, and some male racers have proved that by winning millions of dollars and numerous trophies in barrel racing. Women, indeed, have the advantage of being lighter in a sport where lightning speed is expected. Enthusiasts, though, have no trouble viewing barrel racing as a “manly” endeavor.

Tack and Grooming for Barrel Racing

Rider: Dress codes are enforced at rodeos or western riding events at the national level, particularly those sanctioned by the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA). Riders must wear a western hat, long sleeve shirt and cowboy boots. Sleeves must be rolled down and buttoned or snapped, and shirttails must be tucked in. Local and regional organizations may have additional requirements such as chaps or shotguns. In many barrel races, points are lost or fines are assessed if the rider”s hat falls off. In some cases, particularly events for children, participants are encouraged to wear safety helmets. Riders may elect to wear spurs, neckties or other decorative items, but these are not required.

Horse: The NBHA regulations have no specific tack requirements. Clearly, competitors will require a good saddle, with appropriate stirrups and cinches. Bridles and bits are usually up to the rider”s discretion, but should be suitable for western competitions. Saddle pads are recommended. Barrel racing reins are made of nylon or leather, and can be plain or braided. Reins should be sturdy with a non-slip grip. Rodeo and Western riding events are great opportunities for showing off a fine horse. Some riders like to use breast collars, headstalls, and saddles adorned with silver. (Some riders even have matching boots!) For many, having attractive attire for both horse and rider builds confidence.

Grooming Your Horse for Competition

Barrel racing horses are not judged on their appearance. No particular grooming rules or requirements exist. However, good grooming may include trimming or braiding manes and tails to prevent interference during the race. Many western riders prefer longer tails and manes. Competitors who wish to show their horses in other events must meet the requirements for those events.

Choosing a Horse for Barrel Racing

The wildest colts make the best horses.Plutarch (46 — 120) Greek author

Quiet horses kick the hardest.Armenian Proverb

No particular rules or requirements exist for horse breed, size, age or gender in barrel racing. If you already have a horse that you”d like to train for western riding events, check with your veterinarian to be sure the horse can handle the type of riding that appeals to you.

Most barrel racers ride Quarter Horses, known for their good temperament, speed and agility. Paints, Appaloosas and Pintos are also quite popular. Larger horses (draft horses) aren”t the best choice for barrel racing. Their conformation is suited for heavy work, not speed, which is vital in this event. A high-strung breed like the Thoroughbred is also not a good choice for barrel racing, because turns have to be made with controlled precision and accuracy.

Besides a good temperament, a good barrel racing horse should have athletic ability, which means agility and speed. Quarter Horses are good at running short sprints and they typically outrun Thoroughbreds in the quarter mile.

Training a horse for barrel racing is not a matter of running the barrel pattern until the horse is bored and exhausted. A good balance of activities and fitness programs is best. You might develop your horse”s agility with pole bending or arena work, for example, and use simple trail rides for developing stamina.

Barrel Racing Competitions

Barrel racing is usually one of many events at a competition. Rodeos and gymkhanas, for example, feature a broad range of equestrian contests, including showing events (such as reining) and cattle-handling events (such as calf roping).

Competition classes include youth for entrants 18 years and younger, open classes (for everyone, usually including youth and senior), and senior, for participants aged 50 and older.

Barrel racing has world championships for both Youth and Open divisions and a Senior World Championship. The United States” NBHA (National Barrel Horse Association) has a National Championship Tour that goes by region through Utah, Illinois, Colorado, Virginia, Alabama, and Texas.

The International Barrel Horse Federation (IBHF) has been established “to promote international awareness and interest in the sport of barrel racing and provide international competition for member countries.” The United States, Panama, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada have National Barrel Horse Associations with a number of competitions throughout the year.

Other organizations that sponsor barrel racing events are the American Quarter Horse Association and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. The American Barrel Racer Circuit, founded in 1998, also publishes schedules of numerous events.

The National Finals Rodeo is held each year in Las Vegas, Nevada, with prizes totaling more than three million dollars. This event is a major draw for barrel racers in North America. The Indian National Finals Rodeo, the Women”s National Finals Rodeo, and the National Championship High School Rodeo Association hold their own events, usually in the United States, although members come from Canada, Australia, and other countries.

If you”re interested in the history of barrel racing and other professional rodeo sports, you should visit the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.