Barrel Racing Basics for Beginners

The Importance of Speed, Accuracy, and Safety

Young girl rider in rodeo barrel race
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Barrel racing is a common gymkhana or o-mok-see event, which are other popular ways of saying a low stakes competitive rodeo event. In barrel racing, you ride a horse in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels that are set in the middle of a ring in a triangular formation. It looks a bit confusing if you are seeing it for the first time as a spectator, but it is really quite easy to understand and fun to watch.

Barrel racing is one of the most popular rodeo events run by the Women's Professional Rodeo Association for women's competition. Also, barrel racing is a popular rodeo event for amateur riders and youths riders.

Setting Up the Barrels

A barrel race is usually held within an enclosed ring or arena. There is a starting line. The three barrels are arranged so that one is directly in line with the starting line. One is to the left, and one is to the right to form a triangle.

Different barrel racing associations may have different specifications, but generally, the distance to the left and right barrels is 60 feet from the start line. The distance to the center barrel from either of the other barrels is 105 feet. If your space is a bit smaller, you can adjust the distances. Just make sure there is enough space between the barrels and any fences or walls to safely go around the barrels—at least 15 to 20 feet.

Running the Pattern

You basically run a three-leaf cloverleaf pattern. The pattern starts at the gate, and you ride past either an automatic timer or a person holding a stopwatch at the starting line.

  1. You ride directly towards the barrel on your right or left. Ride around the barrel, and make a loop.
  2. Head towards the second barrel opposite the first. Change direction as you make the turn so that you are creating a figure eight.
  3. Now ride towards the third barrel, the one furthest from the start line. Make a loop around this barrel and now in a straight line, head back to the starting line, which is now the finish line.

You cross the line where the timer—either automatic or human—will record your time for the entire pattern. In rodeo barrel racing, winning times are less than 15 seconds.

Time and Penalties

The only determining factor in a barrel race is time. A rider is disqualified if they knock over a barrel, or go off route on the pattern. In official competition, hitting a barrel is a penalty of five seconds. Of course, at small play days or gymkhanas, the rules may be changed to suit the level of competition.

Tips for Running Barrel Races

Riding barrel races fast and precisely is not an easy task. Quite often you will find that if you ride the pattern slower and cleanly, you might actually get a better time than if you just try to go fast.

  • Slow and clean: When you are first learning to run barrel races, going fast will actually slow you down. You may go faster by going at a slower gait, by keeping your lines straight and your turns tight and accurate. Galloping wildly all over, making huge turns, and wobbly runs between the barrels may take more time than trotting but stay on the pattern. Control is just as important as speed.
  • Start fast, end fast: You can start your trot or gallop before you cross the starting line, so you will be doing your fastest speed right from the beginning. Also, do not start slowing down before you cross the finish line, so you finish at your top speed.
  • Mind your lead: If you are cantering or loping around the barrels, you will need to make sure your horse is on the correct lead. As you pass from the second to the third barrels, you will need to change your horse’s lead as you change direction from a right turn to a left turn (or vice versa). This will help your horse stay balanced and do tighter turns.
  • You can ride English saddle: Don’t think that you can’t ride barrel races if you ride English saddle. While you will not have the security that most barrel racers do in their deep-seated western saddles, barrel races are a good way to learn how to stay centered and use aids to accurately turn, speed up, or slow down your horse.
  • Ride safe and smart: Always wear your helmet and remember to keep your heels down, your eyes up, and your hands quiet. In the heat of competition, it is easy to get sloppy in the saddle, tug on your horse’s mouth, and generally forget the rules of safe riding.