Holle is an expert in all things dogs, gardening, and horses. She is a professional writer by trade.
Training Barrel Horses
I've enjoyed horseback riding for practically my entire life. I haven't done it in the last three or four years, however, and even then, it was just pleasure riding. Back in my youth, however, I loved barrel racing, and I've owned a couple of really good barrel horses. Barrel racing is a popular activity for horse enthusiasts. It’s done all around the US in horse shows, rodeos, play days, and backyard fields and pastures. Training takes months of hard work, discipline, and practice, and even then, you might not end up with a horse that wins consistently against the tough competition.
What is Barrel Racing?
Barrel racing is a timed event in which a horse and rider race around a barrel or barrels without knocking them over. The horse with the fastest time wins. The two most popular types of barrel racing are the cloverleaf and the arena race.
The cloverleaf uses three 55-gallon drums placed in a triangle pattern. Barrels 1 and 2 are placed 90 feet apart, directly across from each other. The #3 barrel makes the point of the triangle. It is centered between the other two barrels 105 feet away. If the horse or rider knocks over a barrel, the rider is penalized 5 seconds, which usually puts them out of winning or placing.
The cloverleaf is a popular event in rodeos. Only female riders are allowed to compete in most rodeo clover leaf events.
The Arena Race
The other type of barrel racing that’s popular is the arena race. In this event, one barrel is placed at the end of the arena in the center. The horse and rider race around the barrel and return home. The fastest time wins, and penalty time is added if the barrel is knocked over. The arena race is usually only seen at smaller shows and fun days.
The Right Horse for the Clover Leaf
Training a horse for the clover leaf is no small feat. You need to start with the right kind of mount to even hope to win. Any horse can be taught to run the barrels, but a real competitor has to have great speed, agility, and the right attitude. It should also have excellent, balanced conformation and sound legs and feet. Barrel racing is a punishing sport, so a horse that has any soundness issues will never make a consistent winner. Powerful hindquarters are also required for a winner. A stock-type horse is best, especially the American Quarter Horse. Most professional cowgirls ride Quarter Horses. Some prefer Appendix Quarter Horses with Thoroughbred blood, while others prefer the older foundation bloodlines. The American Quarter Horse is known for its intelligence, its calm temperament, its athleticism, and its powerful bursts of speed.
A horse should be well trained before beginning on barrels. By that I mean it should neck rein and respond to cues from the rider, such as leg pressure. It should have a lot of hours on trails and be subjected to unusual noises and sounds and strange people. It should also trailer load with ease. A good time to start barrel training is when the horse is about five years old.
Before ever showing your horse a barrel, get it used to loping in circles and figure eights in the pasture. You’ll get a feel for which way he turns best. Most horses’ natural tendency is to turn to the left best, but a few turn better to the right. It’s important for barrel racing training to understand this element because you’ll base your direction on which turn is easier for your mount. If your mount makes left turns better, you’ll want to run the pattern starting with the right barrel. That way, your horse will make one right turn and two left turns while running the pattern, saving you valuable seconds. If your horse turns better to the right, run the pattern from the left so that you’ll have two right turns.
Equipment You’ll Need
You’ll need to purchase or borrow the right equipment. A special barrel racing saddle has a high horn and a deep seat that will help keep you in the saddle. In addition, this type of saddle is lighter in weight than most other types of saddles, so it won’t slow the horse down. The saddle should be used with an appropriate saddle pad to protect the horse’s back. You’ll need a good breast collar to keep the saddle from sliding during the powerful lunges your horse will make when leaving a barrel. Reins are a matter of choice, but I prefer a short round rein. Long reins just tend to get in the way. You’ll also need a riding crop or bat with a loop at the handle that you can place your wrist in. a good pair of boots is also a must. They’ll protect your feet and ankles, and the ones with a slanted heel will keep your foot from sliding through the stirrup. You might also want to buy a pair of shin pads to protect your legs from the metal barrels. You might also want to invest in a barrel racing timer so you can check your progress occasionally.
In addition to protecting yourself, you also need to think about the other member of your team—the horse. To protect its legs, use nylon splint boots or wrap the legs with neoprene wrap. To protect the hooves, purchase a pair of hoof boots. They provide extra shock absorption and shield the hooves from blows. The boots come in a variety of patterns and colors, including wild patterns like zebra and vibrant colors like hot pink. Lighted boots for are also available and are great for nighttime shows. Check out the quality boots sold below.
Set your barrels up in an area of soft or plowed dirt, if possible. Not only does this mimic the surface of a typical show or rodeo arena, it also helps build your horse’s muscles and provides a soft place for you to land in case of a fall.
Make a “pocket” around each barrel by placing an object about two feet from the drum, at the point where the turn will begin. Some trainers use old tires, but I’ve always been afraid the horse might step in one and injure himself. Orange cones work better. They’re not only safer—they’re also more visible to the horse.
The First Day
On the first day of training, walk your horse to the first barrel and stop. Then proceed around the barrel. Do the same with the other two barrels. This will teach the horse to “rate” the barrels. Walk and rate the barrels a few times. Praise your horse and stop training for the day.
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The Second Day
- The next day, walk the horse around the barrels twice, rating the barrels each time. This will help him remember the lesson from the first day.
- Next, trot him to the first barrel and stop him. Walk him around the barrel and trot to the next barrel. Make him slow to a walk as he nears each barrel, trotting between barrels. Trot the pattern a couple of times and stop for the day.
- Repeat the trot-walk for several days, until it seems second nature to your mount. Once it does, begin to trot him around the barrel some without stopping before the barrel or slowing to a walk around the barrel.
As he trots around each barrel, his head should be low, and he should be giving to the bit. Guide him around the barrels with your legs instead of the bit. If you’re having a problem keeping the horse’s head down, try using a martingale until he learns to position his head correctly.
Vary the training. Make the horse stop before the barrel sometimes, and at other times, have him trot around the barrel. This will show him that you’re in control of the situation, and it will also keep him alert and thinking.
Once your horse knows the pattern well and can trot around the barrels without getting overly excited, you can increase the speed to a gentle lope. Have him lope to the barrels and trot around the barrels for several days. Make sure he’s still rating the pockets and not scrubbing the barrels. Once he does this consistently, you can ask him to lope to and around the barrels.
Pay close attention to how your horse handles the barrels at a lope. Each horse has his own unique style of rounding a drum. Some do a run around the barrel and others almost sit on their haunches and slide around the drums. If he’s got his head down and his shoulder dropped and he’s clearing the barrel effectively, don’t worry too much about his form.
Do not try to “help” the horse by leaning your body into the barrel. You must maintain a balanced center to avoid throwing off the horse’s balance. Learn to sit close to the withers, where the horse can carry weight the easiest.
When your horse is consistently loping the barrels correctly and rating each drum, gradually increase your speed from time to time. Don’t overdo it. You’ll only need to do a full-speed run once in a while. When you do, don’t forget the importance of the “run for home,” where speed really comes into play. Many barrel racers use the bat or crop at this point. By reaching back and tapping just behind the horse’s tail, he’ll be reminded to get his back legs up under him for more speed.
A Word of Caution
If at any point during the training the horse starts to exhibit improper behavior or get overly excited, slow down and go back to the previous step for a couple of days.
It’s easy to get caught up in barrel training, but you must remember that diligence is best. Don’t rush your animal, and don’t allow running barrels to become his entire life. He needs various activities to stay happy, calm, and mentally sound. Ride him on trails, longe him, and allow him plenty of pasture time with other horses, if possible.
Always end a training session on a positive note. In other words, catch your horse being good, then stop training for the day. You don’t have to stop riding for the day—just stop barrel training for the day. Always be consistent, and always praise your mount for exhibiting proper behavior.
Be Ready for the Big Day
Before your first competitive run, your horse should be in top physical and mental condition. Running circle eights and small circles in a plowed field is a great way to develop muscles and strengthen ligaments without punishing your horse’s bones and joints. It’s also a good way to fine-tune his turns. Make sure he has received plenty of “downtime,” too, away from barrels.
On the day of the event, don’t feed the horse four hours before the competition.
If you need to tape or boot your horse’s legs, do it before loading him onto the trailer. This will help him avoid straining his tendons in case he braces on the ride to the competition, and it will save time.
If you have long hair, tie it back into a low ponytail. You don’t want your vision to be obscured.
Warm your horse up just before your run, but don’t allow him to tire or get too hot.
If possible, have someone videotape your ride. You’ll be better able to see your mistakes. Videotaping some of the more experienced riders can also be a valuable source for learning their techniques.
After your horse’s run, cool him down before offering food or water.
Don’t expect to win your first few times competing. This is a learning experience, and even when you lose, you’ll learn something at each competition to help you improve. Watch the seasoned riders during their runs and learn from your observations. Be a good sport and always congratulate the winning riders. Many will be willing to offer you valuable tips.
Most of all, don’t give up. Always take excellent care of your horse. He needs quality food, clean water, daily hoof care, and exercise. Performance horses also benefit from dietary supplements, like the ones sold below. Always believe in your horse and in yourself. Keep practicing, and before long, you’ll be bringing home a ribbon.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is a horse that is about 14 to 15 hands a good size for barrel racing?
Answer: Yes, as long as the horse has an athletic build, speed, and sense of timing.
Question: What is the best age for a barrel horse?
Answer: It depends on the individual horse's legs, hooves, and overall health. From my experience, 5 to 8 years was best.
Question: Does it matter how athletic my horse is for barrel racing? If so, how do you tell if your horse is athletic enough?
Answer: A more athletic horse will score better times. Take into account your horse's conformation, speed, and muscle.
Question: How do I know if I'm getting the right size boots?
Answer: Sizes range among different makers, so you really need to try them on first.
Question: Does it matter how athletic my horse is? If so, how do you tell if your horse is athletic enough?
Answer: Judge your horse's conformation. Is it at a good weight? Is it fast? Is it well balanced? Does it have good feet and legs? It needs muscular hindquarters to power it around the barrels, too.
© 2009 Holle Abee
annie griggs on October 31, 2019:
i raced only one horse back in my day but i lost it all.
Savannah Driver on June 21, 2019:
I just got a OTTB gelding I’ve rode him three times two of which he took off and was hard to stop he’s about 7 years old now is it to late to start him on the barrels
Lexie Hamilton on January 19, 2019:
Thx 4 the help
Fran on August 23, 2012:
Hi and I'm 13yrs old I was woundeding if you think that my horse corona is good for barrel racing and she does not like to stop help me and give me avice
Thank you so much
Kayla on March 08, 2012:
Thoroughbreds are not the best horses to run barrels on...
Craig? on January 12, 2012:
Way do u think. Ab boys running, barrels
sidney on December 28, 2011:
hi there, i am getting a thoroughbred and i am on a high school rodeo team and i need to train him to run barrels.Now i know that it will be very time consuming and to be very patient. i was wondering if you could give me some info or tips on how to get him to be on his hind quarters.And how big of a pocket i should be using.
thank you hope to hear a reply.
Horselover1234 on December 01, 2011:
I don't exactly own a horse yet but I'm helping train one to do barrels, and this article helped a lot. Thanks!
Tori Burf on November 30, 2011:
I loved the article, im a barrel racer myself, but being a California kid you dont get a whole lot of horse history or experience, but it helps because my town has a rodeo every year, its the last PRCA rodeo to get points to qualify. but i love everything about barrel racing and so does my horse, an AQHA palomino gelding, hes 13 years old but everyone thinks hes 7, hes got a LOT of kick in him.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2011:
Abigail, most people prefer a horse to be about 5 or so before beginning barrel racing training. The boots and wraps are to protect the horse's feet and legs. Most are pretty adjustable.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2011:
Hailey, sounds great! Best of luck with your barrel racing training!
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 01, 2011:
Freeracingtips, many retired racehorses are used for barrel racing!
abigail on August 08, 2011:
email me at email@example.com
hey i found this very useful i don't have a horse yet but im soon getting one. an american quarter horse. how do you messure for the boots and... how old does your horse have to be. and why do they need the boots.?
thanks so much
Hailey jean on August 02, 2011:
Well I'm starting my training two years early but I have faith in my filly she's a quarter horse and is really smart she's doing great with the training so far thanks for the info
freeracingtips on July 24, 2011:
can this horses we use for barrel racing can also be run in horse racing?thanks for the information you shared.
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 19, 2011:
Molly, great to "meet" you! Good luck with your barrel racing!
Molly on April 28, 2011:
Thanks for the info!
Enjoy spending time with my horses and I think that my youngest one might take to it pretty well. got two more years until I can teach him though. He's a Mustang Quarter horse mix and I think he'll do great! He's the fastest in the herd, and the smartest too and I've run out of things to entertain him with.
gotta go see what sized boots he's gonna need.
-Molly Gard, Chase City, Virginia, US
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 25, 2010:
Shelly, I'm glad you found the info useful. Best of luck!
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on July 25, 2010:
Lucky, your mare will have an advantage because she already understands timing from roping! Thanks for reading!
Shelly on July 18, 2010:
the info has helped out :) thanks a bunch for posting it up
Lucky Lady on April 17, 2010:
Well, my roping mare is going to train to barrel race
Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on March 23, 2010:
I'm not sure I understand your comment, but thanks for reading!
rhianna on March 23, 2010:
i dident ask what to buy and ooooooooooooooooooo what can i spend 3,000 dollars on today.