Fast, furious and fun. That's barrel racing to the average spectator, who cheers for each competitor team as the horse and rider "run for home." While the pattern barrel racers run is simple -- making a right turn and two lefts in a cloverleaf around three barrels placed in a triangle, with time the deciding factor -- it requires a lot of training to compete successfully. Training your horse for barrel competition means making him a more supple and responsive mount.
While you can train just about any horse to barrel race, whether the animal has a chance of winning is another story. Ideally, a barrel horse stands between 15 and 15.2 hands and is well-proportioned. He should also like to run. Barrel racing is a Western sport, so many top barrel competitors are quarter horses; but crossbreeds like appendix quarter horses -- thoroughbred and quarter horse mixes -- also do well. Of course, any potential barrel horse must be sound. It's a demanding sport, so horses must be sound enough for hard work.
Before you start practicing with barrels, your horse must respond well to basic leg and hand pressure. While this shouldn't be an issue for well-trained horses, a green horse should start with groundwork before you ask for these responses under saddle. Your horse should know how to yield to pressure and side-pass -- stepping to the side laterally -- in both directions. Once you're in the saddle, practice lots of circles with your horse. You can do these exercises in the ring or while riding trail. Circles are the essence of barrel racing.
The Outside Rein
In dressage, the outside rein is all-important. It's the same in the completely different equine sport of barrel racing. In Equisearch.com, top barrel racer Sharon Camarillo says the outside rein helps in balancing the horse's body and head, as well as in controlling speed. While Western riders generally hold the reins in one hand, Camarillo says, barrel racers must learn to support their horses during each barrel approach by using both hands, one on either side of the animal's neck. Using the outside rein can "certainly make the difference in an efficient turn and a winning run," Camarillo says.
Correctly rating your horse, or controlling his speed, means the difference between winning and losing in barrel racing. The first barrel, referred to in the sport as the money barrel, usually determines the outcome of your ride. As a horse become accustomed to barrel racing, he's likely to get excited and go at that initial barrel full-throttle, no longer listening to your cues. Don't let that happen -- you can't ride on autopilot. If your horse starts calling the shots, take him back to basics and practice until he becomes responsive again.
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.