Horse Barrel Racing 101: answers to all your questions

Written by Beulah Martin
Gracie by Danielle Poteet

I was watching barrel racing last night and had many questions about the sport. Where did it come from? What are the rules? Is there money to be made in barrel racing? What kind of horse makes the best barrel racers? Is it only a female sport?

I decided to share my barrel racing research with you in this article. Whether you are interested in becoming a barrel racer or you are new to following the sport, this article will be a great starting point for you.

History of barrel racing

It is believed that barrel racing got its start in 1928 as the first female competition in the predominantly male world of rodeo. Back then barrel racing was about showing off the decorated costume of the rider as well as how skilled she was in handling her horse.

Before barrel racing came to be, women were mostly involved in the “show” entertainment of rodeos.

Calamity Jane (1852-1903)

For instance, in the late 1800 and early 1900s, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, the famous female pistol shooters and trick riders were hot ticket items at rodeo events. During this time a few women started competing in horse bronc riding, relay races, and roping.

By the 1920 it became more and more popular to have a handful of women compete in the rough stock riding events at certain rodeos.

That was until an unfortunate accident happened in 1929 at the Pendleton Round-Up rodeo in Oregon. That is when a bronc rider named Bonnie McCarroll fell off her horse and got her foot caught in the stirrup. She was dragged around the arena to her death for all to see. That almost completely ended women competing in the rough rider divisions of rodeo.

After that women were encouraged more than ever to take the role of competing for Rodeo Queen.

Rodeo Queens in a Parade. By Holly Jo Martin

During WWII there were a few “all female” rodeos created to entertain the men going to war. They were focused on performances instead of rodeo competitions though.

It wasn’t until a large rodeo held in 1942 at Madison Square Garden that horse barrel racing found a place as a regular event in rodeos across America.

All female rodeo association changes barrel racing for good

In 1948, a group of 38 women in San Angelo, Texas formed the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) after a debate over a calf roping event.

GRA wanted to create rules and regulations for all the women division events in rodeos. This group solicited rodeos across the country to uphold their standards for women competition and championships.

The $29,000 in prize money for the women winners that year was spread out between 60 contests in bronc riding, calf roping, and barrel racing events. Bronc riding and calf roping were mainly male dominated competitions at rodeos, along with bull riding.

The GRA turned barrel racing into a new and exciting women’s event in 1949, when barrel racing became a speed sport instead of a showcasing event.

Cassidy by Danielle Poteet

At first, barrel racing consisted of both a figure-eight and clover-leaf style race around barrels that gave riders the opportunity to show their horsemanship skills. Eventually, the clover-leaf style became the sole pattern used in barrel racing as the speed increased and is still used today.

As a side note, the GRA officially changed its name to Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) in 1981 and is still strong today with over 2,500 members. The prize money has grown as well, with over $5.2 million covering 500 rodeos and 800 contests in 2012.

Rules of horse barrel racing

The objective of barrel racing is for a horse and rider to circle around three strategically placed barrels, at a dead run, and make it back to the start/finish line in the fastest amount of time. Depending on the association running the rodeo different rules apply when it comes to touching the barrel, either by the horse or the rider.

Some associations, like the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA), will allow some touching of the barrel without any penalty, but will give a “no time” score if the barrel falls over, even if it falls over and stands back up.

Other associations take off a certain number of seconds from the rider’s race time if the barrel is touched or knocked over.

A horse will start and finish a race in the same area of the arena, which is in line with the third barrel and in-between the first and second barrels.

It will look like a three leaf clover shape: the long stem is symbolic of the start and finish, with a three leaf clover represented in barrel one, two, and three.

Barrel racing pattern from wikipedia/Barrel_racing

A rider can be disqualified for not circling one or more of the barrels, going off the pattern, and/or falling off the horse.

There are lenient rules when it comes to which way the horse can turn around the first barrel and which barrel they will run around first. They can choose a right-hand turn around the first barrel on the right side of the course or a left-hand turn around the #2 barrel on the left side.

Depending on whichever turn they decide to do first (most riders choose the right-handed turn) they will have to follow up the next two barrels with a turn in the opposite direction of the first turn.

For example, if a rider chooses to start with the #2 barrel on the left side of the course, in a left-hand turn, they would next circle #1 and #3 barrels, respectively, with right-hand turns.

Switching the leading leg around the barrel. By Danielle Poteet

Switching up the direction in which the horse will run around the barrel is an important point to the race. It shows the agility and ability of the horse as well as the horsemanship of the rider, because the horse has to switch its leading leg in each turn.

Barrel distance and placement

There are two different things to consider for the proper distance of the barrels. The size of the arena and the organization standards that the rodeo is following.

WPRA set the first barrel placement standards with 90 feet distance between the first two barrels and 105 feet distance between the 1st/3rd barrel and likewise 105 feet between the 2nd/3rd barrel. There should also be 60 feet distance between the start/finish line and the 1st/2nd barrels.

The maximum distance for barrels in a large arena is 105 ft. between the first and second barrels (instead of 90 ft. as stated above) and 120 ft. between the 1st/3rd and the 2nd/3rd barrels (instead of 105 ft. as stated above). A good rule to follow is to always keep the barrels no closer than 15 feet from the fencing of the arena.

The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA) follows this same guideline for barrel placement as stated above. But, the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) has a slightly different measurement standard. They state the minimum distances only.

NBHA requires a minimum of 15 ft. distance between the first two barrels and in like manner, 15 ft. minimum between the first two barrels and the fence of the arena. A minimum of 30 ft. distance needs to be between both the 3rd barrel and the back fence, as well as 30 ft. minimum between the start/finish line and the first two barrels.

How barrel racing is measured

Rae at the start. By Danielle Potett

Barrel racing is a race against the clock, with each rider trying to get the fastest time during that rodeo. Before electronic devices were invented a human timer would stand near the start/finish line with a stopwatch or a flag (if the timer was further away).

The timer would start the stopwatch as the horse crossed over the starting line and stop it when the horse crossed the same line at the finish. This is still a common way to time barrel races at amateur rodeos.

The professional rodeos use an electric eye to time most rodeo events nowadays. This is a laser-beam photodetector that will accurately time the barrel racer as they start and end their race.

Historic record times in barrel racing

Considering there are different barrel measurements for arena size and different association standards it is hard to know an official list of history making, record breaking times in barrel racing. But here is a list of some of the most notable racers in barrel racing history.

13.11 seconds – 2017, 23 year old Hailey Kinsel (TX) broke the arena record in Las Vegas at the Wrangler National Finals (WNFR). She has won $497,516 in her barrel racing career as of 2018.

13.36 seconds – 2017, 35 year old Kassie Mowry (TX) broke the arena record in Vegas’s WNFR right before Hailey Kinsel took it over with her 13.11.

13.46 seconds – 2011, 21 year old Carlee Pierce (OK) broke the arena record after 27 years at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

11 time Barrel Racing World Champion – between 1984-1993, 2002. As of 2019, 48 year Charmayne James (NM) has won the most Barrel Racing World Championships of any other barrel racer. She was also the first barrel racer to win over $1 million in total earnings for her barrel racing career.

Charmayne’s horse, Scamper, was the first barrel racing horse to be inducted to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2017 – and was voted the Horse with the Most Heart six times by WPRA.

The famous Friday the 13th ride in 1985. By Kenneth Springer

Scamper is famous for a Friday the 13th barrel racing ride in 1985 when the bit broke and fell out of his mouth at the 3rd barrel yet he still kept running to the finish line. They won that race with 14.4 seconds.

Charmayne had Scamper cloned. Clayton was born in 2006 with hopes he would be another World Champion barrel racing horse like Scamper.

What makes a winning barrel racing horse?

The most common barrel racing horse is a Quarter horse, but there is no restrictions about that, any horse type can race in rodeos. Quarter horses are the popular choice because they are built shorter and more compact than fast horses like the Arabians or Thoroughbred horses.

Because of the smaller build the Quarter horse can make sharp turns around the barrel faster than the long, tall horse racing breeds.

A good barrel racing horse needs to be able to run fast, but also be smart enough to gage their speed in order to make a tight turn around a barrel. They need to be ready to run but not too hot to handle. They need to be sure footed and strong because sometimes they are almost sideways in the turn with a rider on their back.

Charmayne James said of Scamper, “I knew how he was going to run every day. He knew he was loved, but he wasn’t spoiled. He knew he had a purpose.”

Scamper and Charmayne

Charmayne’s husband, Tony Garritano, remarked about Scamper, “I don’t think there’ll ever be a horse like him. His mental toughness set him off of the chart.”

Many barrel racers talk about the heart of the barrel racing horse. It is said that the horse needs to have a big heart. This means that the horse absolutely loves tearing around the barrels at tops speeds. They are all in.

The style of saddle and tack for barrel racing

To have a winning Barrel horse, you have to have the right kind of equipment. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you do have to know what works best in the Barrel Racing Event.

Type of Bit

Horse wearing a halter
by Danielle Poteet

Where your bit is concerned, it’s best to start out with the least severe bit that you can. Usually a regular snaffle bit works best. In fact, you can even use a hackamore (which are similar to a halter) that does not have a bit, if your horse will work well with it. Especially for an older horse that has had a lot of training, then you would not be prone to jerk his mouth around so much.

If you are just introducing your horse to the barrel pattern, you will probably want to continue with the same bit you have been using on him. As long as it is not too severe. Control does not come just from the bit, but from the position you put your body in. Looking in the direction you want to go, leaning your body with the horse, your cues and leg aids. Sitting down and back as he slows down to turn at the barrel.

Reins

It’s common practice to use a one piece rein so there will not be the chance to lose one of the reins, as there would be with two reins. It’s good to try out a few options to decide which works best for you and your horse. With a one piece rein you can hold it in one hand and grasp your saddle horn with the other to give yourself a real secure seat and not take a chance of wobbling. Then you can reverse the hold with the other hand when you do the next turn.

Breast collar and reins by Beulah Martin

Tie-Downs

You might not need a tie-down if you are not use to using one. The main reason for using a tie-down is so it can help your horse balance. You will need to have a breast collar if you are going to use a tie-down. It will keep the tie-down from tangling up in his legs.

To properly adjust your tie-down reach under your horse’s neck between his head and chest. Stretch the tie-down up against the neck. If it is too tight a stretch, you have to loosen it so it fits comfortably. If it has loops and does not fit against his skin you have to tighten it up. Soft covered leather is the best to use.

Saddle and Saddle Blanket

You will want as light weight of a Western style saddle as you can. The lighter weight will shave time off your run. Usually a barrel racing saddle is smaller and has a deeper seat than a regular saddle. The cantle is higher and the saddle horn is usually slender and taller so that you can grasp onto it during the turn.

The stirrups should be forward hung to help you keep your feet under you. A balanced ride is very helpful. You might want to choose a saddle that is a half size smaller than you regularly use, as it will help keep you in the seat better.

The main question to consider is does it fit you and your horse? Will it allow him to bend and turn and run without anything hampering him? The saddle pad should also fit the back of your horse well. Not too thick to be burdensome or to slim to not give enough padding.

Cinches

Your cinches and your breast collar should fit your horse well and be kept clean. You should probably have a back cinch on your saddle. It will keep the back of your saddle from flopping up and down and will give you a more secure seat.

Your back cinch should be adjusted tight enough to keep your saddle down but not too tight to cause it to constrict your horses movements. You should be able to slide your hand in between the cinch and your horses belly without it being tight.

Protection Boots

Be aware that there can be some injury to your horse’s hoofs when you are making these speed runs and fast turns. The horse will probably need some type of bell boot or protection boot on his front legs to keep his back legs from overreaching. There are many choices to make. You might also consider skid boots on the back legs.  

Your safety considerations

You should also consider what you select to wear that will keep you safe and allow you to perform at your best. It is common to wear cowboy boots because of the heel on the boot. The heel will prevent you from sticking your foot through the stirrup and getting hung up.

Rae riding in a safety helmet by Danielle Poteet

It is good to wear a pair of chaps when you are competing for various reasons. It will protect you from bruises and sore spots that occur with your gripping your legs. Also your legs will not slip around as much.

If chaps are not available, at least a strong pair of Levis will give you some good protection on your legs. Most competitions require the rider to have long pants and long sleeved shirts.

Most barrel racers do not use safety helmets when they compete, even though it would be so much safer if they did. They will usually choose to wear a western hat. Although, there are some rodeo’s that require helmets so you should have one on hand just in case

Practice Good Horsemanship

When introducing your horse to the barrel pattern you should always start with slow work. It will take lots of patience and time, do not rush him and try to get speed at the beginning. Start with the walk, then trot, then a slow canter.

You should work at developing your horsemanship skills even over and above the barrel racing pattern. It will be almost impossible to reach real success in your barrel racing until you and your horse have gotten a thorough education on the skills and tools you will need.

Circling the barrel by Danielle Poteet

It is good to practice circles. Circles are really important because they are the foundation of the whole pattern.

Practice circling your horse in a perfect circle with his body position in a good arch and collected, which means they’re not strung out and sloppy in their turn.  His nose is slightly into the circle. He must be on the correct lead for the right or left circle.

I know this next suggestion goes without saying because I am sure you are already doing it, but you should work on building a good relationship with your horse. Sometimes less is more. So instead of always drilling on the pattern, spend time just being together and enjoying each other.

Just remember that the most fun and intense pleasure you will have is in the journey you will be making together. Enjoy it and take your time it will be worth it in the end.

Where and when do you find barrel racing events?

It appears that Barrelhorseworld.com has a list of all the rodeo events and competitions.You should be able to find any event near you that you could attend. It is good to go to as many events as you can because not only will you learn a lot but you can make acquaintances with people who might be able to help you.

The WPRA and PRCA has a circuit system established which divides the US into 12 geographical regions. At the end of each rodeo season, each circuit holds a finals where the top barrel racers are invited to compete.

You can also google for information that might be closer to your home and the size and type you would be interested in.

Is there money to be made in barrel racing?

Yes, there is definitely an opportunity for money to be made in barrel racing, but most people have other occupations they are involved in. Horse and barrel racing are usually in the form of hobbies.

There are prize monies awarded in the different rodeo’s and competitions. Sometimes there is a single go-around and the fastest time gets the money. Or there are several runs and the average times are considered for the prize money.

First place monies are usually from $1,000 to $4,000.

The earnings are very seasonal. The total earnings made all year are what determines the overall prize winners.

There is a handful of top riders who are making over a hundred and two hundred thousand dollars in their year’s earnings. The prize money is getting greater each year as the competition is growing in popularity.

Is this a gender specific sport?

At this time the answer is NO! Because the men are starting to enjoy competing in the events and usually there are no rules to keep them out. However at the college and professional level it is predominantly a woman’s competition.

As stated on the WPRA web site,

“The competition is tough and the standards are high but the WPRA is the finest women’s sports organization in the world.”

Hopefully this gives you some important things to consider as you are contemplating whether to get involved with barrel racing or not. Here’s wishing you the courage and skill to excel in whatever you choose to do.  Good luck and bring ’em home!