Barrel Racing 101

Text and photos by Traci Durrell-Khalife


Gymkhana, pattern racing, timed events, gaming- whatever you call it, they all refer to exhilarating equine speed events. Without a doubt, the most popular is barrel racing.

From 4-H fairs and high school equestrian meets to exclusive barrel competitions and rodeos, men and women, youth and seniors alike enjoy the thrill of barrel racing. Most well known is the pattern in which three barrels are set up in a triangle. Riders cross the start line, head towards the barrel on the right, turn to the right, then cross over to the second barrel, turn to the left, then to the third barrel, turn to the left and race back over the finish line. Riders also have the option of running the pattern in the opposite direction, making a left and two rights. This event is called by various names - Cloverleaf Barrels, Texas Barrels, or simply Barrels- depending on the organization and the part of the country.

The National Barrel Horse Association is the largest barrel racing organization in the world, with more than 23,000 members in the US. There are also affiliates in Canada, Italy, France, Panama and Brazil. To date, the NBHA has paid out over eight billion dollars in prize money. They use a 4-D divisional time bracket format and welcome riders of all levels, from beginners to pros. There are divisions for youth 18 and under, seniors 50 and over, and open. In the NBHA, riders compete on a district, state, national, and world championship level.

As its name implies, the Women's Professional Rodeo Association sanctions rodeo barrels for female athletes 18 years or older. Founded in 1948, it now has more than 2,000 members. There is also the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and its Professional Women Barrel Racing (PWBR). Riders who compete on this circuit go to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), and can win a lot of money! Superstar barrel racer Sherry Cervi has earned over $1.5 million on the circuit.

In barrel racing, the triangular pattern is most common but it's not the only barrel racing event. For example, in addition to Texas Barrels, Western Horsemen of Oregon offers a different event, called Cloverleaf Barrels, with four barrels set in a square. Horses must cross through a limed circle in the center of the pattern before turning each barrel. They cross a line on the other side and have to back 10 feet to the finish line.
The POA Official Handbook has the well-known Cloverleaf Barrels, but also describes two events with three barrels set in a row; they are Straight Barrels and Figure 8 Barrels. The patterns are quite different as the diagrams show. Speed Barrels, popular in some riding groups, also has three barrels in a row, but with a different pattern than either of the POA ones.

Finally, there are single barrel events. In the POA Texas Rollback, a barrel is set 100 feet from the start/finish line. Riders approach on the right side of the barrel, turn 180 degrees to the right behind the barrel and exit on the other side. They also have the option of running it the opposite direction. Barrel Dash is another single barrel event in which riders simply ride down either direction around the barrel and race back over the finish line. This is a great class for very young riders.


While 55-gallon barrels are the norm, other requirements vary slightly by association. Most allow either metal or weighted plastic barrels. Some require a bicycle tire around the rim of metal barrels for safety. Rodeo barrels are often covered with a canvas sleeve with advertising on it, while others may be painted red, white and blue or other bright colors. Logos may also be added.

Almost any type of western saddle and bridle is allowed, as long as it's safe and humane. Lightweight saddles with little or no silver are desirable. Barrel racing saddles typically have stirrups that are pushed slightly forward, a forward slanted horn, and a very deep seat. Headstalls may be leather, nylon or other material. Snaffles, curbs, gag bits, and mechanical hackamores are all acceptable. It's interesting to note, however, in France the Fédération Française d'Equitation allows only snaffle bits in Barrel Racing. Looped (roping) reins are typically used, and are often required for safety in youth organizations. Breast collars, cavessons, tie downs, and protective boots are common.

Riders typically wear jeans and a long-sleeved western shirt. Boots and either a western hat or helmet are required. Some barrel racers have straps tied into their cowboy hats so when they are running their hats stay around their necks and don't go flying in the dirt. Shin guards are optional but often used. Riders often color-coordinate their attire along with their saddle pad, leg wraps, and other tack. Women customarily wear bright colors; fringe and sparkly fabric are also popular.


Stock breeds usually dominate in barrel racing, but any breed or mixed breed of horse can excel. In addition, ponies and mules can be good contenders. Even donkeys compete, but usually in Walk/Trot Barrels.


Since this is a speed event, the best entries will be galloping (such as Ruffian, Smarty Jones, or Black Beauty) or turning (such as Scamper). Slower equines may do well if cleverly photographed to give the illusion of speed, perhaps with the barrel hiding part of their legs. Standing horses can also give it a try. Show them waiting to begin the course. Electric timers can enhance the starting line.

A lightweight game saddle is ideal, but a plain western saddle is acceptable. Be sure that your tack fits properly and is correctly adjusted. Using boots and/or leg wraps will add to the realism. If using a rider, make him/her sit and hold the reins correctly. The doll needs to be in western attire.

When setting up your model scene, be sure to use a barrel that's in proportion to the size of your horse. About four inches high is appropriate for most Traditional models. Real barrels should never be closer than 15 feet from any fence or wall, so keep your model barrel several inches from your background.


Think about your horse's position - straight body or turning, left or right lead? Place him in a logical location on the pattern in relation to the barrel(s). Either an indoor or outdoor arena setting is appropriate, but it does need a fence or wall for photo showing. Use footing material that's in scale to your horse and isn't too deep.

Labeling your photo or live show entry will show your knowledge of the event and help the judge quickly see where your horse is on the pattern. If you choose to depict a different event than the standard barrel pattern, be sure to identify it and draw the complete pattern.

Attention to details will help your barrel entry race to the winner's circle!


National Barrel Horse Association

Western Horsemen of Oregon

Women's Professional Rodeo Association