Last Updated on March 24, 2022 by Allison Price

Most horse people have heard of barrel race, a controversial rodeo that involves a three-leaf clover design around three barrels. The fastest time wins.

Barrel racing can be oversimplified. Barrel racing is often criticized for being cruel and lacking skill. It requires only whipping and spurring. It is a sport that requires far more skill than you might think. However, supporters of the sport often fail to explain the intricacies. This is complicated further by the countless, poorly-trained backyard barrel racers that give the sport a poor rap.


It is not necessary to be able to run three-leaf clovers in barrel racing. A barrel horse who is properly trained will know how to run a barrel-pattern before he has ever seen one. It sounds absurd, I know. Please bear with me. To be a good barrel racer, you must break down the pattern into its components and allow the horse to master each maneuver before putting them together to create a finished pattern. It’s easy to put the parts together in a pattern once the horse is familiar with them.

What makes a good barrel runner (rider)?


This is a major problem for barrel racers, including myself. It’s easy to get too involved in the heat and get all tense and infuriating for our horses. Your hands are not helping. Loud voices can cause problems for horses. A properly trained barrel horse knows his job, and should only require subtle cues to remind him. Joking on the horse’s head throws him off balance and creates national outrage. PETA is all over it. Don’t do it.


Many people don’t understand the meaning of “an independent chair.” An independent seat is when you can cue with different parts without affecting others. You can shift your weight to the left while still being able cue with your left leg. This allows you to move your weight to the right, but not lose your stirrup or slip your leg.

Lack of an independent seat can lead to rubber bands being used to keep the rider’s feet in stirrups. Banding advocates will argue that riders can have an independent seat but still require bands because of the speed at which the pattern runs. If you have an independent seat, it is possible to lose a stirrup mid-way through the pattern. An independent rider has the strength to move on and recover.


Starfishing is also known as loud, flapping legs. This is because they make barrel racers look silly. You don’t have to fit a basketball between the saddle and your butt.

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Your horse is actually being slowed down by you, while you are destroying their back. Try this: Let someone else stand beside you as you take deep, slow breaths. Then have them prick your sides with their thumbs. Does that hurt? That’s how the horse feels when it runs with a starfish rider. Add to that the pain the horse feels when it hits the saddle with its butt and the sharp spurs.

Starfishers may appear to be “riding hard”, but in reality, they are just slowing down. A quiet, independent horse will be more comfortable with quiet legs. You can encourage your horse by squeezing his thighs, or tapping him with a whip. If your horse is being helped by vocalization, it’s okay to use a lot of vocalization.Photo by Moosealope Barrel racing done right!


Many well-trained barrel horses could be ridden in snaffles, provided their riders take the time to properly ride them. There is no universal approach, and there may be times when a horse needs a correction bit or a lifter. Be cautious. You can’t fix what’s not broken. You shouldn’t try to fix something that isn’t broken just because you are embarrassed to use a snaffle, or because it’s what everyone else uses. It could lead to a problem that was not there in the first place. First, give your horse a firm foundation. Then look at his performance over time to determine if he needs a snaffle. Congratulations if he does not, and congratulations on your accomplishment. To learn more about the various types of bits, talk to a trusted equine professional.

What makes a good barrel horse?


A barrel horse needs to be under your control. This includes the forequarters. For shoulder control, it is important to yield the forequarters. This will allow you to correct the horse’s shoulder when it starts to drop as they turn. In barrel racing, dropping the shoulder during a turn is the most common reason for knocking a barrel. Depending on which race you are in, knocking down a barrel could result in a penalty of either 3 seconds or 5 seconds. You may be disqualified from certain races.


Hip control requires that the horse’s hindquarters be yewed. Horse’s hindquarters act as his engine. It is similar to turning on your 4-wheel-drive car with his hindquarters engaged as he turns. If the horse’s hip swings too far during a turn, it can cause him to lose a lot of momentum, balance, and slow him down as he exits the turn. This will also affect his ability to maintain momentum for the next turn. He will build momentum as he makes each turn, so long as his hindquarters are engaged. If your horse doesn’t have that vital hip control, he will lose momentum and speed and become slower.


Photo by jfinnirwin Horse with no bend in the ribcage and a dropped inside shoulder

The front and back ends are under your control, but the middle is not. You must be able to control how much bend your horse’s ribcage experiences throughout the pattern. Your horse should run straight between the barrels with no bend. However, it can get a little more difficult through the turns. You will have to rollback around the barrel if you don’t have enough bend. Although it may seem cool, this is not a winning strategy. It slows down your speed and drains momentum. This is dangerous as it’s easy to rollback on the barrel. You can also be penalized for knocked barrels. Too much bend can cause your horse to lose traction and cause him to try to wrap around the barrel too tightly. This will increase the chance of knocking it over. It will also slow you down because he cannot get under his engine (his hindquarters) properly. To gain momentum, you need just enough bend to slingshot around a barrel. You can control bend by using exercises such as leg yields and side passing.


This is perhaps the most popular barrel racing term. It gets used and misused daily. collection is another fancy term for rate. To be able slow down or rate your horse as you enter a turn, and to collect the horse and make it safely and efficiently. A barrel race is not possible without collection.

This is why I recommend cross-training in dressage for barrel racing, and why I started dressage. A “ratey”, or a horse that has been collected, is faster than raw speed. You can also get the fine-tuned control you need to meet all of the requirements.


A barrel horse should be gentle in the face. A barrel horse with a hard mouth that roots against the bit can be dangerous for himself, his rider and anyone around him. Many barrel horses have very little flexion at the poll. This stiff horse has no place in the barrel pen.

At different points in the pattern, a barrel horse can reach speeds up to 30 mph. This doesn’t allow for much time to correct course. If you feel your horse’s shoulder drop, tip out, or hip swing out of place during a turn, it is time to make an emergency course correction. You should not wait 5 seconds, 2 seconds, or even 2 seconds to cue. The entire run takes less than 14 seconds depending on how large the pattern is. This is amazing! 14 seconds. Most riders don’t think a horse that takes five seconds to respond is bad. But if you are in a 14 second race giving course corrections and your horse takes five seconds to respond, it means you have already either run the barrel over, blown past the barrel or been wiped out. You’re being taken out of the arena on stretchers.Photo by danxoneil

This is a sport where every second counts. There is no margin of error or second chances.

This isn’t a game. It is an adrenaline rush like no other and I would not trade it for anything. It’s thrilling, fun, and addictive. It is not something to take lightly. A 1000lb beast can race up to 30 mph and make 3 hairpin turns. Horses and riders are both highly-trained athletes. One mistake, one slip, or one swerve and that horse of 1000 lbs could crash into his rider with a force that would break the human body. You will not be saved by a helmet (although you should wear one), and no safety vest could protect you. Only by training and understanding the severity of the situation.

While I don’t intend to discourage or drive young women away from the sport, I do want them understand that this is not a pleasure area. Any equine event can be dangerous. Events that require speed and precision are more dangerous than others. However, “just running it for enjoyment” should be taken seriously.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!