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Barrel Racing - Riding Styles & Disciplines

Rider and mount during barrel racing, bending and flying around one barrel. Barrel Racing Article and Photos Copyrighted - see credits below

In barrel racing, not every fast horse is competitive. Speed is surely important, running from barrel to barrel and zooming down the straight-a-way, but the flexibility and ability of the horse to be agile and maintain balance in acute turns around a barrel are even more important.


Barrel racing is a discipline sport that does not require many props, other than having a good horse of course, and it is an incredible amount of fun for both amateurs and professionals. All that is needed is three 55 gallon oil drums and enough ground to practice on.

To compete in a barrel racing, horse and rider must run a cloverleaf pattern around three exactly spaced barrels, then race all-out straight back to the starting line. It is on this last straightaway where the absolute speed of a horse comes into play.

The barrels are set up like a triangle; two barrels form the base of the triangle and are 20 yards from the starting line, which also ends up being the finish line. The third barrel, the one farthest away from the start, forms the top end of the triangle and is at a 35 yard distance from the other two.

Time is everything and every knock-down costs dearly. The horse must be able to complete tight turns, change leads or direction without loss or stride, moving forward at all times. Because there is a time penalty of five seconds if a barrel is knocked down, no one can afford to lose that time if he/she expects to be highly competitive.


Few events anywhere show off the combined speed and agility skills of the horse better than barrel racing. Of course these skills are skills used by all old time and modern ranch horses as well to handle stock and stay out of harm’s way.

The start of a barrel race is a flying start. The horse is in a full run as he passes the starting line. The horse must stay controllable, since it must be checked before reaching the first barrel, and give it a birth in order to be able to turn quickly around, coming out tightly at the barrel for the next straightaway. A good barrel horse then takes but two jumps to be at top speed towards the next barrel, where the procedure is repeated. Speed is important, but so is control. The horse must turn tightly around each barrel, and he often gets down in the ground so deep that the rider’s inside boot comes close to scraping the ground.

As odd as it may seem to an uninitiated spectator, control is everything in this race. Barrel horses must stay controllable at high speed, responding to the rider’s cues, letting the rider guide the horse to approach the barrels in a pocket, not leaning in (which would increase the risk of a knock-down), but allowing the rider to guide him around, then accelerate towards the next barrel, only to be checked there again.

The barrel horse must speed into the pattern, often with not the best light if indoors, focus on and find that first barrel. Attention must be riveted to turns with speed and always that next barrel so far away. The ground may be slippery, falls can happen. The good horse stays on its feet in the tightest and fastest turns.


Riders can run the cloverleaf pattern clockwise or counterclockwise. The most common way is to cross the starting line and head for the barrel on your right, circle that barrel clockwise, then tear off toward the barrel straight across from you, the one that was to your left when you were crossing the starting line. Circle this second barrel counterclockwise, and as you come out of this turn, race to circle the far barrel, again counterclockwise. Then, leaving that barrel, race madly back to the finish line.

Which way the barrel racing pattern is run depends on the preference the horse has in its leads and turns, as the pattern can also be begun by heading first for the barrel to your left, then run the pattern the opposite way, as a mirror image of the pattern explained above. A barrel race is always a race against the clock and the tighter the turns, the move time is saved. A horse’s strong preference of lead and of turns can be helped by expert training, but some horses can be by nature or conformation better suited for one job than the other.


Riders usually hold the reins in the left hand, and grabbing the saddle horn is fine. Riders stay over the horse’s withers to aid the horse’s run to the next barrel and stirrups are usually a little shorter for barrel racing than is usually the case in more normal work or riding for pleasure.

Many a beginner asks the horse for speed in barrel racing, and gets what there is, but with the adrenaline of the horse pumping, the rider often fails to control that speed and direct it. Much training of both horse and rider and much practice is needed. Too much racing can sour a good barrel racing horse, practice at home on the control part is essential.

Make no mistake though, a barrel race is a lightning-fast event, times are measured in fractions of seconds, and even the slowest of barrel horses is very fast. To reduce those seconds and fractions of a second , the professional rider will go for an ideal line through the pattern.

In barrel racing as much as in all other disciplines, innate talent is needed for high success as well as good training.

Both the rodeo and shows offer the barrel racer ample opportunities to race and this event is highly popular with both male and female riders, kids and adults.

Article © HorseShowCentral.com Submitted by Hardy Oelke and Photos © Oelke or Oelke Archive. Reproduction of any portion of this copyrighted website without written permission of the publisher is prohibited and subject to legal action.<br.
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