Development of a Barrel Racing Conditioning Program

Among the numerous events within the Equine Industry, a very popular one is Barrel Racing. Often seen in rodeos, it is a western style equine sport that is accompanied by other working horse events such as reining and cutting. The horses selected for the competitions are usually of Quarter Horse breed origin and are relied on for their bursts of speed and limber movements around the barrels. Training programs developed for this sport would involve high impact and macrocycle conditioning.

Barrel racing

Figure 1: Barrel Racing, 2019

Barrel racing (Figure 1) currently plays an important role in rodeos and can also be seen in gymkhana events. It was originally developed as a rodeo event for women. Early on, the event alternated the barrels between a figure eight and cloverleaf pattern. The figure eight pattern was eventually dropped for the favorable cloverleaf pattern seen today. 

Something unique to the event is that it is solely based on time. The rider’s horsemanship skills and the horse’s athletic ability do not matter during judging. Riders of all ages may participate but will be split between their respective age groups. Horses of any age can participate as well, but must excel in speed, strength, and agility.

In order to win, the horse and rider needs to have completed the pattern with the fastest time. Times for the event vary, but each run per rider typically lasts between 15 and 30 seconds. Penalties of five seconds are added to the ending time if the rider knocks down a barrel. If the rider touches a barrel, but it is not knocked down, no penalties are given. Riders that deviate from the cloverleaf pattern or have ending times over the one-minute mark do not get a score.

If barrel racing professionally, the horse’s age often times is preferred to be younger. Although there are many ways to train, much of the conditioning is high intensity and done on a tight schedule. This tight schedule is to ensure that the horse is able to begin competing by the age of 3 at the latest. Often times, these horses have been bred to hold futurity status eligibility much like with reining or cutting competitions. They begin their training immediately at the starting-to-saddle age (18-24 months), training all year round with a recuperation period as reward for hitting major milestones (The Athletic Horse 2013). During the recuperation period, the horses are still exercised consistently (trotting and loping) to ensure aerobic fitness. Flexibility exercises should be implemented to maintain range of movement.

A more in depth look at one training program details an increase in a horse’s strength and agility. The trait of speed is anaerobic in nature and cannot be improved by itself alone. Thus, a three-phase regimen focusing on aerobic strength and suppleness conditioning is proposed to be implemented (ISU Equine Science 2019):

  1. Phase I – long, slow distance work

    1. Begin with low speed, long distance walking for 10 minutes each way and 20 minutes in total. Repeat three to four times per week. Trotting and loping can be added while varying the times and distances without risk of injury after 2 weeks. This exercise can be done riding or on a lunge line. It is recommended to do the exercises on flat ground. Lateral stretching exercises can be added to increases suppleness and can be done during periods of rest.
  2. Phase II – strength work

    Western dressage

    Figure 2: Western Dressage, 2014

    1. Basic dressage movements (Figure 2) such as leg yield, spiral circles, and shoulder in can help improve strength. Lengthening and shortening of the strides between and within gates work to improve muscle strength and flexibility. Other exercises may include work on walking hills or trotting poles. The use of poles are excellent for development of core and back strength which will improve the topline and core muscles needed for sprinting at full speed and quick turning.
  3. Phase III – fast work
    1. Through cavaletti work (Figure 3), elasticity and suspension are improved via exerting maximum muscle strength in a short period time (anerobic). Lunge line work can still be done. Adding variance in ground types such as different dirt, sand, grass, etc. help with footing. Better footing placement will ensure quicker movements and an ability to hug barrels tighter.

With each exercise it is also important to note the importance of warming up and cooling down. Warming up allows the horse to get their muscles ready to work while reducing risk of injury and cooling down allows the horse’s TPR (temperature, pulse, and respiration rate) to return within normal range after the exercises are complete.       

The effectiveness of the training can be measured by carefully monitoring TPR before, during, and post exercises as each week passes. Once the horse has relatively stable TPR range within normal limits for them before, during, and post exercises, the horse should be considered conditioned enough to compete. Another sign of readiness could be its willingness and easement to perform the exercises in variation. The training regimen will result in the formation of muscle hypertrophy and increase the volume of fast twitch muscle fibers. Muscle fibers will also increase in size with larger diameters. The production of lactic acid will decrease as the anaerobic capacity (speed) improves. Stroke volume and cardiac output also increase greatly with the high intensity aspect of training.

Cavelliti work
Figure 3: Cavaletti Work, 2017

Depending on the age and the amount of work the horse is doing, it is recommended to start feeding for maintenance. A recommended 50% should be comprised of forages while the remaining 50% can be grain. For western performance horses, much of the energy can be achieved by consuming around 17 lbs, 12 lbs, and 10 lbs per day respectively of high-quality forages such as grass, mixed, or legume hay. The amount of hay consumed should be 1-2% of the overall body weight based off of 1,100 lbs.  Assuming the horse still weighs 1,100 lbs and is doing moderate work, it is expected it will consume 9-10 lbs of grain per day. Amounts for both forages and grain can be adjusted accordingly based off of the training program energy requirements, weight, age, and the type of feed that is being fed. A consequence of a moderate to high intensity training may result in muscle complications. In order to prevent complications and fulfill the energy requirements of high intensity work, horses may be fed oil or fat intakes of 12 ounces per day. Concentrations with a high percentage (25%) beet pulp may also be fed.

Barrel racing is such a unique sport in that it relies solely on time. A lot of factors that matter in other rodeo events such as age and skill do not matter in this type of competition. By utilizing a high intensity aerobic strength and suppleness training program, speed, an anaerobic capacity trait, can be increased as an adverse effect. Managing the horse’s diet plays an important role on allowing the horse to fulfill such high intensity energy requirements but maintaining body confirmation and regulated hoof care will ensure long term fitness for the horse.

By Mindelyn Rettkowski and Peggy Auwerda.
The report is a project for ANS313 Exercise Physiology of Animals


  1. Images: Google Images – Barrel Racing, Western Dressage, Calavetti.
  2. Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “Patience and Long, Slow Distance Important for Conditioning Competition Horses”. March 21, 2009. Accessed December 6th, 2019.
  3. Forbes, Madison. Equine Science, Iowa State University. “Barrel Racing”. 2019. Accessed December 6th, 2019.
  4. Hodgson, David R. et al. “The Athletic Horse”. 2nd Edition, 2014. Chapters 19, 26, & 28. Accessed December 6th, 2019.
  5. Henderson BVMS MRCVS, Dr. Bri. Horse Canada Magazine. “Conditioning Strategies for All Horses”. December 20th, 2017. Accessed December 6th, 2019.
  6. Kentucky Equine Research. “Feeding Advice for Hard-Working Western Performance Horses”. Stable Management August 22, 2017. Accessed December 6th, 2019.