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How To Prepare For And Excel At Barrel Racing

Barrel racing began in the 1930s as a rodeo event designed for women. In this event, cowgirls on horseback competed to race around three barrels, set up in a cloverleaf design at top speed. The sport has grown steadily in popularity since its inception, and today many men compete in barrel racing. In this article, we discuss this interesting horse racing sport and provide tips to help you get started as a barrel racer. Read on to learn more.

How Do You Set Up The Barrels?

Begin by choosing an enclosed area with ample space and good footing. They type of ground underfoot makes a difference in your speed. Naturally, horses running on mud cannot run as fast as those running on firm sand or solid ground.

Take measure of the area to be sure it can accommodate barrels set up in a standard way. You’ll want to have a barrel on the left, a barrel on the right and another one at the center-back of the formation.

Your barrels should be put in placed in this manner:

  • Barrels one and two are set 90 feet (27.4 meters) apart. There should be 105 feet (32 meters) between each of these barrels and the third barrel.
  • You should be able to navigate around the barrels quickly without tipping them, so you should have a minimum of 30 feet (9.1 meters) between all barrels and the fence of the enclosure.

Once you’ve measured your space and marked your settings for barrels, it’s time to bring in the barrels. You can use three standard barrels, or you can purchase specially designed collapsible practice barrels, which are lighter and easier to handle.

8 Tips For Barrel Racing Success

1. Begin with the right horse

The type of horse you seek may be determined by many factors including, your budget, availability of horses, the horse’s lineage and/or his or her performance record.

Look for a healthy, sound horse with good hooves, straight legs, a strong back and a flexible, athletic physique. Many successful barrel racers prefer paints, pintos and quarter horses and claim that these breeds are especially good at attaining short bursts of speed quickly.

Your horse’s level of skill, training and manageability should be a good match for your own level of skill, training and ability to manage. If you are not very experienced, you need a gentle, stable, experienced, reliable horse. If you are a skilled rider, you may do well with a younger, more volatile horse.

Take your time to evaluate the horse’s temperament, and double-check the credentials of the seller/trainer. Be sure to have a vet examine the horse before you finalize your purchase.



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2. Take pride in your horse

Even if you are not able to spend a lot of money on a horse, you should make it a point to be proud of and happy with the horse you have. Your ability to partner with the horse and work together is more important than any specific, measurable attributes the horse may possess. Working positively and consistently with your horse ensures that the two of you will be able to work together to compete successfully.

3. Take good care of your horse

Remember that barrel racing is a sport. To perform well, your horse must have proper training and exercise and optimum diet and care. Be sure to give your horse a good workout at least once a week and do a little light riding daily. Consult your veterinarian to determine the best diet for your horse and stick with it. Be sure your horse has plenty of turn-out time to enjoy fresh grass and unstructured exercise. This is important for overall health, fitness and mental outlook.

4. Get the right tack and equipment

Your horse should have sport boots and good leg wraps to protect and support his hooves and legs. You may also wish to purchase equine ear plugs to prevent distraction.

Take your time to select the right headstall and bit for your horse. You want a set that conveys your wishes quickly and clearly with minimum pressure on the horse’s mouth or sensitive parts of the head.

You’ll also need a proper barrel racing saddle with a deep seat and short skirts. A no-slip saddle blanket will help protect your horse’s back and keep the saddle firmly in place.

5. Strengthen your seat

A good saddle provides a safe and stable ride, but you must also develop your seat so that you are maintaining your balance well, moving with your horse and not pulling on his mouth. If you are not in good physical condition, take steps to strengthen your legs, hips and core muscles for a firm seat in the saddle when running barrels and in everyday riding.

6. Learn from a professional

If you are new to barrel racing, it can be easy to develop bad habits without proper instruction. Once bad habits are in place, it can be hard to get rid of them. There are lots of good barrel racing schools, and there are many fine books and videos on the subject. Michigan State University offers a very good series of Barrel Racing 101 instruction absolutely free!

7. Practice regularly

Like any sport, you must practice consistently if you want to be skilled. In your light daily riding, you should do a few practice drills and also engage in steady, challenging riding to improve skill, stamina, communication and responsiveness.

Always warm up first and engage gradually. Perform practice drills and ride in circles and figures of eight to fine tune turning and response time. Begin practice drills with a slow test run and gradually increase your speed. You can begin with either the left barrel or the right barrel.

Long trotting for 6-8 miles, three days a week is a fine way to build up your horse’s heart and lungs. This is the equivalent of aerobic exercise for humans. It’s great for the cardiovascular system and builds stamina.

8. Know where to look

When you are running barrels, remember to keep your eyes on the space where your horse will be running – around the barrel. This space is called “the pocket” and it’s very important you pay attention to it and not so much to the barrel (which isn’t going anywhere!)

As you approach the turn, slow down a bit and use your voice, hands and body weight to guide your horse around the turn and immediately speed on to the next barrel.

As you approach the turn, your hands should be close to the saddle horn on either side. As you turn, pull the inside rein toward your hip pocket. Use light pressure of your inside leg to guide your horse away from the barrel to avoid toppling it.

Bring it home! When you’ve cleared the last barrel, it’s time to put on speed and head for the gate. Bring your hands low and lean forward a bit to build up speed as you cross the finish line.

Focus On Having Fun!

As with any form of competition, there is always a danger of becoming too serious. Don’t let that happen. Remember it’s just a sport, and the goal should be fun. When you rodeo, you meet lots of fascinating, supportive, positive people. Take advantage of this to learn more and make more friends.

If you have a setback or are not making the progress you hoped for, be patient. Step back and look at your experience from a different perspective. Take a breather and see it through fresh eyes. Time and a new approach work well as a solution to all sorts of challenges.

You’ll win some and you’ll lose some. When you lose, take the experience as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes and do better next time.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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