Barrel Racing

Barrel racing is an intense sport where the winner is determined by just thousandths of a second. No matter how talented the horse is, and how skilled the rider is, just one minor error can be the deciding factor whether they leave an event with prize money or not. The race itself is intense, but barrel racing in general is such an expensive sport, that to make a living at it or cover costs, the rider must be able to win back some money. To be successful at running barrels, a rider must understand the event and the rules of it, have a solid training program, and know how each program and movement affects the horse and its body.

Barrel racing2The winner is determined by who can run the barrel-racing pattern in the fastest time. The rider’s horsemanship skills, the horse’s mental condition, and the horse’s athleticism are all very crucial to providing a good time. Three barrels are placed in a triangular pattern, the rider must ride around each one, and whoever has the lowest time, wins. If a rider knocks down a barrel, a five-second penalty is added to their time. If the rider touches a barrel or if the barrel just tips, but does not fall to the ground—then there is no penalty. Any deviation from the cloverleaf pattern, and usually any time over one minute will result in a no score. Average times depend on how big the arena is, but usually they will range from about fifteen seconds to thirty seconds. Carlee Pierce is said to have one of the fastest times known, running at thirteen and forty-six seconds in the National Finals Rodeo (Wolf, 2011). The length of the event will depend on how many contestants are running. A rider may participate in barrel racing, no matter their age, but there will be different age groups for most events—the age of their horse does not matter either. Barrel racing is a unique sport, because everything relies on time. The rider’s horsemanship skills and the horse’s athletic ability are not judged. Although both of these are important in providing a fast time and clean run, the time clock is the only aspect that matters in the end. Barrel racing can be set up in many different formats, but usually it is in a 4D format. Meaning, the first division is the fastest time, the second division is the fastest time plus half a second, the third division is the fastest time plus one second, and the fourth division is the fastest time plus two seconds. Barrel racing is a very popular sport, and one of the top three most popular rodeo events (Casey, 2017). Barrel racing can be watched at rodeos, on television, and at national barrel racing events.

Barrel RacingBarrel racing training programs, as well as equine training programs in general, range very differently from equestrian to equestrian. Barrel racing is a high intensity, short duration sport, so it requires fast bursts of energy. In order to make a successful training program for a type of sport like this, you must first determine the goals your horse needs to achieve to accomplish better times during their runs. Usually for barrel racing horses, your main goals should revolve around increasing their speed or increasing their muscular strength. Although, you also need to make sure the horse maintains its willingness to work, you help delay the onset of fatigue, try to reduce the risk of muscular breakdown, and improve biochemical skill, as well as neuromuscular coordination. The training program should consist of three stages of training;

  • Phase I: Long, slow distance work
  • Phase II: Strength work
  • Phase III: Fast work

Also, note that during these phases of high intensity, short duration training;

  • The beginning of the exercise starts with anaerobic glycolysis; most of the energy is going to come from the muscle and liver glycogen.
  • Fiber hypertrophy will occur
  • The muscles will increase in diameter and protein synthesis
  • Aerobic capacity will decrease, while anaerobic capacity increases
  • The volume of fast twitch muscles will increase
  • Lactic acid production will decrease
  • Glycerol 3-phosphate dehydrogenase activity increases

In order to get the most out of the workouts, the training program should mimic demands of the sport. You should corporate skill drills and varied exercises into your program. As the proficiency increases, the exertion also improves fitness (Harris, 2016). You will want to maximize muscular ability, but make sure you are keeping long-term soundness as well.

First, the training program needs to start with a warm-up. This warm-up is crucial, because it will help prepare the horse for performance, prevent injuries, and help the psychological preparation. The warm-up is going to improve the muscular contractions and coordination of the horse, facilitate nerve transmission and energy production, and deliver oxygen to the working muscles. Warm-ups can be completed in many different ways, but I advise starting with some groundwork. Lunging the horse at a trot in both ways will help the horse focus their attention solely on you and gain their respect. It can also help get any jitters and spark out of the horse, before you get on. Once, you get on the horse you should flex the horse to each side, do side passing each way, and do other light reining exercises. Then, start galloping in circles, small and large, and transition into loping, be sure to do this both ways. Completing all of these both ways of the horse is very important during the warm-up, because you want to get all the muscles working and going. The warm-up is going to get the horse’s feet moving and help them pay attention to you and the commands you are asking.

The horse needs to begin the actual training session within several minutes after the warm-up is completed, if you wait too long you will need to do more warming-up. The actual training part itself will need to be tailored with exercises that meet the requirements of your horse. It needs to be designed to know their specific skill set, so you know what areas of strength and speed need to be improved. Keep in mind, that as your horse’s skills improve—you will need to continuously change this part of the workout, to keep advancing them. The drills you so choose will need to increase the speed of the horse and the strength. Working different muscles can help build strength and doing footing exercises will help the horse be able to move more quickly and hug the barrels better. Whatever drills you choose to do during this time should reach the goals you set earlier, but you need to make sure you are gradually increasing the workload. Each time you do this, it needs to be maintained until the horse’s body adapts to the additional stress. If you are not careful with this aspect of training, your horse is going to get over-worked and develop great fatigue, which will in return lead to injuries.

The last part of your training should be a cool down. There are several different ways you can choose to cool down your horse, but I prefer trotting for five to ten minutes, then walking the horse for another ten to fifteen minutes. This time is not only crucial to letting your horse’s muscles relax, but it gives the horse time to think about everything they just learned, and a great way for you to bond with your horse after workouts (McQueen, Urban, McQueen, 2017). Although, these cool downs can be an easy step to skip, they are extremely important. During intense exercising, there is a buildup of lactate, which is known to make muscles fatigue. By cooling down, the rate at which lactate is removed from the blood and muscle will increase. It returns ‘pooled’ blood from the exercising muscles to the central circulation.

Barrel racing is a very exciting sport—for both riders and spectators. It has definitely gained popularity over the years and has evolved to be larger than ever before. For riders to be successful in the barrel racing industry, they must understand the several rules of the sport and how to train the horse appropriately. Knowing what exercises and drills do to the horse’s body is very important in making sure you are getting the best results out of your horse.


  1. Casey, Steve. “Barrel Racing Is One of Rodeo’s Fastest Events.” ThoughtCo, 26 Mar. 2017.
  2. Griffin, Ashley. “Basic Conditioning of the Equine Athlete.” Extension, 8 Aug. 2013.
  3. Harris, B.C. “Comparison of exercise and stress parameters in barrel racing horses in the home and competitive environment.” Texas A&M University, Oct. 2016.
  4. McQueen, K. Erin, Urban, E. Sarah, McQueen T. Mike. “Equine Performance and Autonomic Nervous System Improvement after Joint Manipulation: A Case Study.” McQueen Animal Chiropractic and Research Institute, 11 May. 2017.
  5. Wolf, Jeff. “Pierce Posts Barrel Racing Record.” Las Vegas Review-Journal, 27 Feb. 2017.

By Madison Forbes, ANS 313

Photo credits: Madison Forbes