Barrel Racing

Barrel Racing

In England, this is one of the best known Western Riding competitions outside of Reining, Western Pleasure and Trail . Barrel racing is a multi-million dollar professional sport in America and the reasons for that are obvious. Barrel racing is fast, spectacular and uncomplicated. The horse that is the fastest around the clover leaf pattern of barrels (without knocking any of them over!) wins the prize.  Talk to anyone who aspires to western riding in England and it won’t be very long before the subject of Barrel Racing comes up.

Barrel Racing – the Rule

Barrel Racing course

The Barrel Racing course may be run left or right. Knocking over a barrel results in a no-run. A competitor may not touch the barrel with his or her hands. A competitor will be disqualified for not running the course according to the pattern.

The course size can be reduced 5 yards at a time until the course fits the arena, but the distance between barrels 1 & 2 must not go below 15 yards.

What I’ve learned

Like most things in life, it’s not hard to do – the trick is to do it faster than anyone else! And without acquiring a nasty case of “barrel rash” on your leg (the barrels can be a bit unforgiving if you get too close to them) and, of course, without knocking a barrel over.

If your horse has never seen a barrel racing course before, you might find that it will be a bit shy and it’s therefore a good idea to walk your horse quietly around the barrels to start with until he is at ease. Speed it up until you are jogging comfortably around the barrels without any hesitation. It doesn’t matter whether you turn barrel 1 or barrel 2 first providing you then take the other barrels in the right sequence. Always approach the barrel on the inside “line” so that you virtually do a 360 degree turn around the barrel as you head off to the next one. Choice of direction is something you make once you’re loping round the course and find which lead is your horse’s best. That comes later.

Thinking Time

It’s a good idea to let your horse relax and have some thinking time after you’ve got him working quietly around the barrels and before attempting to take them at any sort of speed above a walk. It never ceases to amaze me how much they remember and can build on. So, avoiding over stressing your horse as you build up to your first real run. A hard contact with a barrel in the early stages will inevitably be a setback and, unless you have a real enthusiast under you, it’s probably best to take these early stages over a few days.

When your horse is ready to take it at the lope, still take it gently and give him plenty of room at the barrels. You’re going the long way round the barrel and there’s a tendency to turn onto it (and knock it over/hurt yourself or your horse) if you approach it too tightly on the way in. There’s an optimum for this as you get up to racing speed and you win or lose the race in the approach to the barrel. Too wide and your horse may even lose sight of the objective altogether and rush straight past. Too close and you won’t be giving your horse any room to manoeuvre – and it’ll hurt!

At the barrel

At the barrel, you’re turning the horse more with rein than leg (too much leg will push the horse onto the barrel) but don’t pull him about. Give him the room to find his balance and as you’re coming round the barrel look out towards the next one which gives you perspective and works better than anything to keep you both well positioned. And don’t worry about holding the pommel – it’s what it’s there for in a barrel race and will help to keep you centred as your horse turns the barrel.

Speeding up

Once you can do that, it’s time to start working on out and out speed. Never go faster than your horse can comfortably handle. George never needed an excuse for a flat out gallop and his enthusiasm sometimes overreached my ability – it’s always a case of making haste slowly and building until you’re both comfortable. But flat out start to finish isn’t necessarily the quickest way either. Rating him as you approach the barrel will help him to poise himself for the go round whereas just rushing straight for the turn usually ends in an untidy muddle if not a complete stop.

Start on your horse’s best lead

You’ll find that it gains time if your horse doesn’t have to change lead as it gets to the first barrel. So get him started on the correct lead and the easiest way to do this is actually to start with your back to the course and then turn towards it away from your first barrel. So that if, with your back to the course, your first barrel is on your left, swing your horse round to the right to start your run in. It’ll then be on the correct lead as you approach the first barrel (in the pattern above). Of course, you’ll have to change leads as you head off for the second barrel but you get to the third barrel on that same lead. A flying change is of course essential for a fast time.

And, as you’ve turned the last barrel and are on the run down to the timing cones, don’t ease up in anticipation of reaching them. Flat out past the finish line is what can make the difference.

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