Gaited horses have smooth moves and agreeable personalities that make them suited for a variety of disciplines – including barrel racing!
You can generally teach a gaited horse to do anything their non-gaited counterparts can do, but whether or not they’ll be any good at it (or enjoy it) is up to you and your horse.
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What is a gaited horse?
Horses have several different gaits, which simply describes their several ways of moving. Because they travel on four legs, most horses can walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
Gaited horses can perform different ways of moving outside of these standard gaits.
Tennessee Walkers have a characteristic “running walk”, many American Saddlebreds can rack, Missouri Fox Trotters can “foxtrot”, and so on.
For more information about these unique equines, you can check out our article that goes into details about the various horse gaits.
Gaited horses are most known for their smooth ride over long distances, as well as their pleasant and trainable dispositions.
They excel as trail horses, but many gaited horse owners train them to be inter-disciplinary champions, excelling at western and English disciplines such as ranch work, pleasure riding, dressage, or even jumping!
The high-speed sport of barrel racing is fun to watch – but it’s even more fun to participate.
In this timed event, horse and rider pairs complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. The team with the fastest time wins.
Popular Barrel Racing Breeds
While these are all well-known qualities of gaited horses, most top barrel racing breeds include Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, Appendix horses, Arabians, and other athletic sport horse breeds.
These horses are designed for speed and stamina, and their compact and agile bodies have the right conformation to perform well in the competition arena.
Barrel Racing Considerations for Gaited Horses
While a gaited barrel racer may never reach the upper echelons of top competition, that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed at the sport.
However, gaited horses will probably need a little extra training and time to learn how to manage the tight turns and hard gallop towards the finish line.
Conformation and Build
Good conformation isn’t the only thing that matters if you’re looking for a good barrel racer, but it helps.
A fast horse needs to have strong hindquarters to achieve high bursts of speed, and strong legs to support the stress of a high-impact sport.
They also need to be flexible and have good balance while turning tightly around the barrels.
These things can be built up over time, but if your horse is naturally lazy and stiff – you’ll have your work cut out for you. (source)
One thing that most gaited breeds have going for them is a good work ethic and willingness to please their owners.
A good barrel racing horse wants to win, and has the heart to go forward (and having more “go” than “whoa” certainly helps).
Many gaited breeds are bred with a strong desire to work – and that includes taking their owners around barrels.
Even if your Rocky Mountain Horse or Tennessee Walker doesn’t make it to the big leagues of barrel racing, there are plenty of local shows to enter that often don’t have any breed restrictions to enter.
Several gaited breed organizations will hold special gaited breed shows that include barrel racing events, specifically so gaited horses can compete against each other on a similar playing field.
Teaching a Gaited Horse to Barrel Race
When it comes to barrel racing, the faster your horse can race – the better.
While there are certainly walk and trot barrel racing events for young horses and riders, most competitions require a good canter and gallop foundation for a speedy time.
This can be challenging for gaited horses, especially those that don’t canter naturally.
Teaching the Canter
Before even attempting a cloverleaf pattern, your horse should have a good handle on the canter.
This gait can be particularly tricky for some gaited breeds that are particularly “pacey” (Standardbreds, for example) and easier for others (not all Saddlebreds are gaited, so many of them will canter with no trouble).
If you’re just having fun around some barrels with your gaited horse, then feel free to trot or shuffle around them to your heart’s content – but if you want to compete, you’ll want a horse with a good canter foundation.
Tips for Teaching a Gaited Horse to Canter
If your horse seems interested and keen to learn a proper canter, here are some tips and tricks to get you off to a good start (source):
- Use trot poles or small jumps to start the 3-beat canter rhythm properly. Your horse will have to engage his hind end to jump, and will often launch into a canter on his own.
- Find a cantering buddy. Horses are herd animals, and when their buddy takes off at a canter –
they’ll often want to try to keep up too.
- Utilize a hill or incline. It’s easier to push off from behind when going up a hill, so your horse will have an easier time understanding what you want from him if his weight is behind him, and isn’t relying heavily on his forehand.
Putting in the work to get a proper canter from your gaited horse can mean the difference between getting the barrel racer of your dreams, or sticking to events gaited horses are traditionally suited for.
But remember, barrel racing should be fun for both you and your horse. If one of you isn’t enjoying it, try something else with your gaited companion.
Best Gaited Breeds for Barrel Racing
If you’re looking for your next gaited horse, but you want to find one that will excel at barrel racing, consider the following horse breeds:
While these high-stepping horses are often gaited, they can trot and canter (and gallop!) as well.
American Saddlebreds are high-spirited and fast out of the gate, and many tend to enjoy the fast-paced excitement of barrel racing.
Missouri Fox Trotter
Tennessee Walking Horse
There are a lot of misconceptions about these horses if you’ve only seen them in “big lick” style classes. But the truth is, Tennessee Walkers are versatile ranch horses often love to run barrels too!
Mixed-Breed Gaited Grade Horses
If your gaited horse isn’t papered, that’s okay too. A gaited horse mixed with an AQHA or Thoroughbred may have the best of both worlds – the athleticism of a sport horse with the smooth gaits and trainability of a gaited breed.
Plus, barrel racing competitions are often open to horses of all breeds, registered or not.
The only horse that shouldn’t barrel race is one that is uncomfortable or doesn’t enjoy it. If your gaited horse enjoys the thrill of competition and loves going fast, give barrel racing a try!