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Getting Started with Barrel Racing

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Embarking on a new adventure with your horse is one of the most exciting features of owning a horse. Sure, first learning to ride and trust your horse can be fulfilling in its own right, but participating in a sport together is a whole new rodeo. 

Barrel racing might just be the sport you have been looking for and getting started may be easier than you think. With the right training, a good horse and a lot of practice, many riders can compete in barrel racing at a local level. Many barrel racing events are designed to encourage and support beginners in the sport.

What is Barrel Racing? Barrel racing is a timed event where the rider and horse must work together to complete a set pattern around 3 barrels inside of an arena. The objective is to run the pattern in the quickest time without breaking it or knocking over any barrels.

Understanding the concept is easy, but knowing how to prepare before you step into the arena is the key to competing in and truly enjoying the sport of barrel racing.

horse and rider running around a barrel

Things Your Horse Should Know to Barrel Race

You and your horse should be well in tune with one another before you decide to enter into any sporting event together. If your horse doesn’t listen to you outside the arena, it definitely won’t listen to you inside the arena with music playing and hundreds of spectators cheering in the stands. Barrel racing entails a combination of running, teamwork, and body posture.

Your horse has to follow all of your commands to slow down and turn when asked, or you risk possibly hitting the side of the arena, or even worse, coming off of your horse. You and your horse will need to learn how to complete the pattern correctly and spin in a tight circle around each barrel without hitting it, all while you are trying to go as fast as you both can.

let's see you ride a 1200 pound animal at full-speed, turning barrels on a dime and still keep your balance.
Barrel Racing Quote: Let’s see you ride a 1200 pound animal at full-speed, turning barrels on a dime and still keep your balance.

You will need to work with your horse to teach it how to turn closely around the barrels without getting so close that they risk hitting them. This is often referred to as the pocket and staying in the pocket keeps you from hitting the barrel.

Most beginner barrel racers will need to work closely with a trainer to truly understand the basics of barrel racing. The best trainers for barrel racing are fellow equestrians who have participated and done well in the sport. They will offer you the kind of advice that only an experienced barrel racer can provide and they will be able to point out the small changes that can make a big difference in your runs.

If you want to try barrel racing without a trainer, I recommend first starting with local level gymkhana’s and then, moving up to specific barrel racing events as you and your horse gain confidence.

How to Setup a Practice Barrel Racing Pattern at Home

If you have enough open land at home where you can set up your practice pattern, you will have a much easier time teaching your horse how to run barrels and you will be able to get some much-needed practice in.

You will need to acquire 3 practice barrels which you can often find for sale on local sales apps or you can order collapsible barrels online. Your barrel pattern should be set up with the same measurement that it would be during an event.

Decide where you want your start line to be and follow the chart below. These measurements are typical for most barrel racing events. Each event may vary somewhat on the exact measurements, but these should be close enough for you to practice.

Tips for Practicing Barrel Racing and Improving Your Time

Once you have your practice pen set up correctly, you can start practicing the barrel racing pattern with your horse. Before you start practicing the pattern, it is recommended that you start off working with your horse on simply trotting or loping in a circle. You can progressively make it circle smaller. This helps to get them ready for the small turns around the barrels.

The barrel racing pattern is essentially a clover design where you begin at the start line, going around each barrel in a consecutive line, and after rounding the third barrel, you will head straight back towards the start line. You can do the pattern starting with the first barrel on the right OR starting with the first barrel on the left. Most riders turn right first but it really is just personal preference. See the graphics below.

Right Hand Barrel Racing Pattern - Learn more about how you and your horse can get started barrel racing at helpfulhorsehints.com
Right-Turn Barrel Racing Pattern

You will want to start slow, walking the pattern at first until you have it down. Once you and your horse feel comfortable, you can start trotting through the pattern. It is important not only for you to learn the pattern but also for your horse to learn it.

You want your horse to know what is coming; it will help prevent them from possibly breaking the pattern when you are running with them later. One suggestion that may come to some naturally is how you hold your reins when barrel racing.

As you go to the first barrel, you will want to hold the reins with your right hand when you turn right around the barrel. On your way to the second barrel, you will want to switch hands so that you are holding the reins with your left hand as you turn left around that barrel. As you head towards the third and final barrel, you will keep the reins in your left hand.

Once you round that final barrel, as soon as you are facing straight towards the start line, you will want to ask your horse to run as quickly as you can handle until you cross over the line. This is a great opportunity to shave off some time as you finish your pattern.

Left Hand Barrel Racing Pattern - Learn more about how you and your horse can get started barrel racing at helpfulhorsehints.com
Left-Turn Barrel Racing Pattern

Classes/Divisions Available for Barrel Racing

Associations and local barrel racing events vary on the type of classes and divisions that they offer during a show. You will need to verify the regulations for each event. Some will offer different classes based on a combination of age and experience. These will most likely be youth, junior, senior and open classes.

In an open class, anyone, regardless of experience, can enter. At an event set up like this, each class runs consecutively. The next class does not start until the previous one has finished. Other barrel racing events may be divided into divisions.

In a division barrel racing event, everyone runs consecutively regardless of experience. The final times of each rider will be separated into 4 or more categories. The 1D class will be the riders with the fastest times.

The 2D class will be riders who are slower than the 1D, and so on.  The top riders in each division will be awarded monetary winnings. This type of event allows novice and beginner riders a chance to place and possibly win money. Most events also have a low-cost exhibition class so that beginner riders can practice in an arena setting. This is a good opportunity to try out a new horse or to help them get familiar with riding in front of spectators.

Barrel Racing Division Breakdown

What division you and your horse will qualify for may vary a bit from show to show. The reason for that is the divisions are determined based on the fastest time at the event. If horses are running slow that day, you may place in a higher division. Here is how the division breakdown works at a NBHA Barrel Race:

  • 1st Division – Fastest Time + those who place in this class.
  • 2nd Division – Fastest Time + .5 second
  • 3rd Division – Fastest Time + 1 second
  • 4th Division – Fastest Time + 1.5 second
  • 5th Division – Fastest Time + 2 seconds

This means that if the fastest time at a barrel racing event for the day is 15.000 seconds, the breakdown of divisions at the event would be:

Barrel Racing DivisionTime Bracket (seconds)
1D15.000 - 15.499
2D15.500 - 15.999
3D16.000 - 16.499
4D16.500 - 16.999
5D17.000 - All Other Finishers

For more information on how division breakdowns work as well as how points are earned, check out the National Barrel Horse Association rule book.

Barrel Racing Rules You Should Know

The most basic rule of barrel racing is to follow the pattern. You can start your pattern from the left or the right, but you must turn your horse around the barrels in a continuous clover pattern.

You will not receive a score in barrel racing, but instead, you will receive a time based on how quickly you complete the barrel pattern.

Your time will begin when you first cross over the start line and will end when you cross back over the line.

Typically, this will be timed with an automatic timer that turns on and off as soon as your horse’s nose crosses the invisible start line. If you break the pattern, by not going around a barrel or going the wrong way around a barrel, you will be disqualified.

The more advanced you get in the sport, the closer you and your horse will get to the barrel. It is easy to accidentally hit the barrel with your knee or even for your horse to hit the barrel. If this happens, it can easily knock over the barrel. In this event, there will either be a 5 second time penalty added on your final time for each barrel that you knock over or you will get a ‘no time’. The type of penalty depends on the specific rules for that event.

Where to Look for Barrel Racing Competitions and How to Get Entered

Most local and national barrel racing events can be found online. The details of the event should specify the class or division set-up and whether or not you need a membership to ride in that particular event. 

Most call-ins, or requests to ride in the event, are at the beginning of the week prior to the show. When you call-in, that is also a good time to ask any specific questions you have about the event.

You will want to arrive before the show starts so you can get your horse prepared and loosen him or her up in the arena before the show starts. This will allow them to loosen their muscles and help them get familiar with a new arena.

What You AND Your Horse Should Wear

Even though it’s a high speed sport, barrel racing is still relatively safe. Barrel racing organizations do have some rules regarding rider dress code and horse tack that help to increase the safety level.

Barrel Racing Dress Code for the Rider

For the rider, most events have a dress code that you must adhere to in order to ride. Usually, the dress code includes a long-sleeved, button-down western shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and often a cowboy hat.

The required length of the shirt sleeves may be relaxed according to the weather, but it depends on the event coordinator. If you do not adhere to the dress code during an event, it is possible to be disqualified. 

Barrel Racing Dress Code for the Horse

For your horse, there is usually no specific rule on tack, however, there are some things that will help make running barrels more comfortable for you and your horse.

There are saddles that are specifically made for barrel racing. They are designed to improve your balance and stability while in the saddle. Breast collars are often utilized to keep the saddle from moving backward at you take off running.

Many riders also invest in special support boots for their horses that help to prevent injury from their legs and from overstretching tendons.

Barrel Racing Quote: THE ONLY THING CRAZIER THAN A BARREL RACER IS HER HORSE

Best Breeds of Horse for Barrel Racing

When choosing a horse specifically for barrel racing speed and good conformation are key. You need a fast horse to get the fastest times. The higher divisions pay the most money but are also the most competitive.

How much does a barrel racing horse cost? A 1D barrel racing horse sells for $20,000 – $30,000. Top level competitors with excellent pedigrees can easily fetch $50,000 or more.

You can find barrel racing horses for sale at local events and usually online anywhere else you might normally search for a horse to buy. One common website for higher level horses especially is the Barrel Horse World website.

Don’t be discouraged though, it is possible to find a horse that hasn’t been started on barrels yet and move it up through the ranks.

Some breeds of horses that do particularly well in barrel racing include:

  • American Quarter Horse
  • American Paint Horse
  • Thoroughbred Horses
  • Appaloosa Horses
  • Grade (unregistered) Horses

Keep in mind that barrel racing isn’t typically a breed specific sport (though breed shows often have breed specific barrel classes). This means that barrel racing is an excellent sport for those of you who own a grade (unregistered) horse.

In barrel racing, your horse’s papers don’t matter. What matters is how fast you can get through the pattern and across the finish line!

Making sure your horse has good conformation will ensure the best chance of them staying sound. Running and tight turns can put stress on tendons and joints so it is important that horses have good structure.

Poor conformation doesn’t necessarily mean your horse can’t excel at barrel racing or will run slower, but it can increase the chance of him getting hurt depending on what the conformation issue is.

Barrel Racing Quote: A winner is a dreamer that never gave up.

Barrel Racing Tips

  • Start slow. You can learn the pattern at a walk, trot or slow canter.
  • Don’t over school your horse. Mix things up, take him trail riding. Over schooling can cause your horse to go sour on the pattern.
  • Watch an event before you ride in one. Going to a rodeo ground or barrel racing event without your horse lets you get an idea of how things run. Pay attention to where entries are, how riders run, mistakes that are made, scoring etc. You’ll be glad you did when it comes time to compete in your first event.
  • Look where you are going, not where you have been. Don’t look down at the barrel you are turning around, look up and towards your next barrel.
  • Practice balance when riding. The better you are able to keep your balance, the easier it is going to be for your horse to navigate turns.

Final Thoughts

Learning the basics of barrel racing is the easy part, the difficult part is practicing with your horse and becoming a team, but it can be achieved with enough time, patience and effort. Once you are comfortable running the pattern with your horse, the next step is getting in the arena and competing in events. Whether you win or lose, the most exciting part is that you and your horse are working together to achieve your dreams.

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April Lee

I've owned horses for 25 years and have a particular love for gentling wild horses. I write these articles to help others learn more about horses. If you enjoyed the article please take a moment to pin it to Pinterest or share on social media. It really does help! Check out my about page for more detailed information.