Starting Barrel Racing
by Billie McNamara

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 you injured.

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!

First Steps

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.

Second Steps

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.

Third Steps

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 safe!

________________________________

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 www.barrelracinginmaine.com

Barrel Race in Maine
http://www.barrelraceinmaine.com/
Brrlrcer3@maine.rr.com

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