What is barrel racing?
How do you start? What is barrel racing really about? You have
heard people talk about it at shows. The sport was started when
women wanted an event to compete in with each other that would
be a challenge, but still fair. They came up with the idea of
taking “Texas Oil Drums” 55 gallon barrels, and setting
them up in a cloverleaf pattern, with one right turn and two lefts.
Then they would take their husbands roping horses and see who
could get through the course with the fastest time.
Today barrel racing is
more complex. It is an event that you and your horse have to be
physically and mentally steady to compete in. It demands stamina,
concentration and synchronization from rider and horse. Just running
fast will not win a barrel race, but it could get your horse or
When you decide you want
to try barrel racing, there a few things you and your mount must
know. Training for barrels takes time and effort on both of your
parts. You need to set a good foundation before you can actually
take your horse to a show and start bringing in the ribbons. Your
horse should know his leads, be supple, know whoa very well, back
up, and have acceptable transitions. Meaning, he should be able
to go from a walk, to a trot, to a lope and down to a walk, and
stop. He needs his leads for making sure he can turn the barrels
and keep his balance. Being supple is a must! Barrel horses are
some of the most athletic horses there are. They go from running
full force to stopping and turning a barrel tight to full force
again. Your whoa is very important because your horse must have
decent rate. If you don’t slow down for the barrel, you
can knock it over, go wide and lose seconds off your time. Backing
up teaches your horse to disengage his front end, and put his
weight on his hind quarters. This allows him to get down and get
around the barrel. After you have a well-established foundation
on your horse, you are ready to begin the barrels.
Beginning a horse on
the barrel pattern is something you need to take your time with,
make sure you do it right the first time, so you don’t have
holes from your training later on. Depending on the age of your
horse, and what he has done before will vary, but usually it is
a good idea to start with a snaffle bit, but most of the times
whatever you are currently using on your horse will work. "If
it ain't broke, don't fix it!" But be careful, there are
a lot of bits that are not good for training, or barrel racing.
First things first. Do
you have an area that you are able to set up barrels? Don’t
worry if the pattern is “regulation” size for now.
If its available, try not to have the barrels on a grassy area,
it can make it slippery for the horse, and dangerous for the rider.
Most people aren’t able to, but if you can, find large tractor
tires to put around your barrels. They are very helpful!
Start by walking. Walk
to the barrels, stop at your rate point, for a beginning horse
this is about 10 feet from the barrel, by sitting down in the
saddle and if you have to stopping your horse with your reins.
Make sure you always stop at the same point. Repetition is what
horses learns from. Then, back your horse up at least three steps
or until he gets his hind end under him. Then sit slightly forward
to ask your horse to go, and walk around the barrel. Keep your
horse a little wide and then bring him in as you leave the barrel.
Stay straight in your saddle and don’t look at the barrel.
Look to your next pocket, he area in which you will start to turn
the barrel. Do this at each barrel. When doing any type of practice,
after you leave the third barrel, go left all the way to the fence
and back down the start. This should only 3-4 times a week when
you first start, you don’t want to sour your horse before
you have even begun.
After your horse has
mastered walking the pattern, and will basically stop on his own
at the rate point, you can move on to trotting the barrels. Do
the same thing, stopping and backing up at your rate point, the
same rate point you established in your walking exercise. Your
horse should remember this. So now you are trotting to the barrels
and walking around them. Make sure when you get to the point you
start to move away from the barrel, push your horse right into
a trot so he knows that’s when he is supposed to move out.
Do this at each barrel, making sure to go back to the fence after
the third barrel.
When your horse does
well at trotting the pattern, you can move on. Don’t rush
your horse into doing this perfectly. It may take quite a bit
of time, and you don’t want him to get bored. Make sure
you do other things like trail riding, other events like poles,
cones etc. Go out on a trail ride or at least out of the arena
several times a week, even after you work on the barrels. So now,
you can start loping the barrels. At this stage, it is going to
be the time you will need to concentrate on lead changes between
the first and second barrel. Most people can feel if their horse
is changing leads ok, but if you have problems, have someone watch
or better yet, video tape you If your horse naturally slows down
at his rate point you have made great success! You should now
be loping between the barrels and trotting around them. Make sure
you push your horse right into a lope after you leave the barrel
though. Repetition is your main training resource.
By now your horse should
know the pattern pretty well. I would not put any serious speed
for at least one year of showing, rather it be just exhibitions
or small shows. Just to get your horse exposed to running in different
arenas and you used to his reaction. When you are practicing at
home, don’t put a lot of speed on your horse, and don’t
do it often. Once your horse is well seasoned, it usually isn’t
necessary for your horse to see the barrels between shows. One
thing I always stress to everyone is make sure you keep your horses
mind sane. Go on trail rides, go to a team penning! Do anything
besides barrels. It will keep your horse and you happy.
If you find and deficiencies
with your horses pattern, go back to slow work and fix it before
it gets out of control. Most times if your horse is have problems
it is pilot error, but these things can be fixed.
Most of all, barrel racing is about fun. You are being judge by
the clock and the clock only. Go out there have a blast and be
Billie McNamara has
been barrel racing for 14 years, competing and winning in several
events. Since moving to Maine from Georgia she offers coaching
and training in barrel racing. Billie can be contacted through
her website at
Barrel Race in Maine
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