Barrel Racing Basics for Beginners

Learn to Run a Barrel Race

Young girl rider in rodeo barrel race
This youngster would be much better off wearing a helmet, which is perfectly acceptable in most speed games. Alvis Upitis/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Barrel racing is a common gymkhana game as well as being a highly competitive rodeo event. At first, the clover leaf pattern that you have to ride around the barrels seems a bit confusing. However, it is really quite easy, even if riding barrel races fast and precisely isn’t. Quite often you'll find that if you ride the pattern accurately, you might actually get a better time than if you just try to go fast. In rodeo barrel racing winning times are less than 15 seconds.

Setting Up the Barrel Pattern

A barrel race is usually held within an enclosed ring or arena. There is a starting line, and three barrels. 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.

How to Run the Pattern

You’ll basically run a three leaf clover pattern. The pattern starts at the gate, and you’ll ride past either an automatic timer or a person holding a stop watch. You will ride directly towards the barrel on your right or left. Ride around the barrel, and make a loop. Head towards the second barrel opposite the first. Change direction as you make the turn, so that you are creating a figure eight. 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 over the start line. Check the diagram for a map of the barrel pattern. Head back across the starting line where the timer—either automatic or human will record your time for the entire pattern.

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

When you’re first learning to run barrel races, going fast may actually slow you down. You may, in fact, 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 staying on the pattern. Control is just as important as speed.

You can start your trot or gallop before you cross the start line, so you’ll be doing your fastest speed right from the beginning. Also, don’t start slowing down before you cross the finish line, so you finish at your top speed.

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 visa versa). This will help your horse stay balanced and do tighter turns.

Don’t think that you can’t ride barrel races if your ride English. While you won’t have the security that ‘real’ 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.

Always wear your helmet and remember to keep your heels down, your eyes up and your hands quiet. In the heat of competition, it’s easy to get sloppy in the saddle, tug on your horse’s mouth and generally forget the rules of safe riding. Always stay in control and have fun!