Barrel racing is a traditional western horse sport in which riders race to complete a course around a set of barrels. The horse travels in a clover-leaf pattern in this exciting rodeo event. The sport requires agility of both horse and rider. Barrel racing is a sport that people of all ages can participate in, and it is a fast-growing sport in many nations.


Barrel racing began as a hobby at rodeos. When the men would compete in the rodeo competitions, the women would set up barrels in order to race around them. The women took 3-55 gallon barrels and set them up in their own arena. When the husbands were finished the roping, the women would ride the horses around the barrels and whoever completed the course first was the winner.

In its conception, barrel racing was considered to be more of a hobby, but in the 1950’s, the equestrian world began to realize its merits as a competitive sport and possible rodeo addition. The rules were more standardized, and both men and women began to compete.


Barrel racing is, as the name implies, a timed race. Riders compete for the fastest time completion of the course. In professional competitions, a laser is used to determine the times. In more amateur competitions, however, a judge and stopwatch are used to time the riders within a hundredth of a second. Usually the winning rider completes the course in a time of 13-17 seconds.


Barrels are arranged in a cloverleaf pattern on the arena. Typically, the first and second barrel are placed 90 feet apart. The first barrel is on the right side and the rider cuts right around the barrel. The rider then proceeds to the second barrel, which is directly across the arena. The rider cuts the second barrel to the left side. The third barrel is located 105 feet from the second. The rider cuts the third barrel to the left as well and then exits the arena the same way he/she entered. The course is ridden at a full speed gallop, with the horses making hair-pinned turns around each barrel.


Although the sport of barrels is becoming more refined, it is still gaining popularity in some countries. Beginning barrel racing is not difficult but requires training. Any horse will improve from training in obedience, suppleness and endurance. The horse must be able to explode quickly in bursts of speed, halt instantly, turn and then explode in speed once more.

In the beginning training stages, horses should be taught to walk around the barrels. A very imortant aspect of barrel racing is training your horse to stop on command. When training, riders aim to stop their horses before they reach the barrel by sitting back in the saddle. Riders should pull back on the reins only if necessary to stop the horse. Over time, the horse should learn the signal for stopping or slowing without use of the reins.

The key to training a horse for barrel-riding is patience. The horse needs to learn the motion at a walk, then at a trot and then at a full gallop. Impatience on the part of the trainer will lead to improper technique and the horse will not enjoy the training and then will refuse to continue. A horse should not be overtrained on the barrels. Focusing on other training that will allow the horse to increase obedience and suppleness, like dressage, will help the horse better prepare for barrel racing.

Barrel Racing Horse

Thoroughbreds make excellent barrel-riding horses because of their speed and build. A good barrel racing horse should have straight legs and a strong back. The hooves need to be healthy for the quick turns and bursts of speed. The horse must be athletic and flexible for hair-pin turning.

In any equestrian discipline, temperament of the horse is very important. An obedient horse will train better than a horse with its own mind. For professional barrel racing, the bloodline of the horse is a good indicator of athleticism as well as temperament. For those hoping to compete for fun, this is not quite as important as a horse with a good blood line can be very expensive.

Horse sports are about horse and rider, and the relationship between the two will make or break any equestrian competition. Riders must be in tune to their horses and horses must be responsive to their riders. If this relationship is broken, or this is any degree of mistrust, the race will not be successful. For this reason, horses should train for quite some time with the rider before entering competitions. Once the strong bond of relationship is built along with the skills to race quickly around the barrels, the horse will be ready for competition.

Tack and Equipment

There are not many regulations in barrel racing for the kind of tack and equipment that should be used. Many riders, however, have determined which sort of equipment is the best for this quick and action-packed equestrian sport. In barrel racing, many riders use draw/gag bits, which help the horse to learn collection and to stop more quickly. Combination bits are also popular in barrel racing and are particularly useful in competition. Hackamores are used by advanced riders. Hackamores are actually not bits at all, but instead a hackamore is a type of headgear. The band ties around the nose of the horse and applies pressure to turn the horse.

Barrel racing riders should use a one-piece rein for their horses. One-piece reins are easier to recollect, should the rider drop the reins riding at such high speeds. A popular one piece rein that features good grips is the Martha Josey Knot rein.

The saddle used for barrel racing should be very light-weight. Since riders sit in the forward position while barrel racing, the stirrups should be set forward to keep the rider in the proper position.

Riders typically wear western apparel for barrel racing competitions. Many of the women’s leagues feature stylish western-wear designed especially for female competitors. Riding boots are a must. Western hats can be either straw or felt. A button-down, western shirt is also typically required. Nice, new jeans are typically worn in riding competitions to give a smart and put-together appearance. While appearance is not judged specifically, putting forth a strong representation is never a bad idea.

Barrel riding is an exciting sport that has made its way from a hobby among rodeo wives to a competitive equestrian discipline alongside all the other western disciplines. It is a sport to excite spectators. Barrel racing requires a lot of training and patience to ensure that the horse and rider are in unison. The winners must be flawless as this race can be determined by a fraction of a second. The sport is one of high discipline and high reward.