What the Best Horse Is for Barrel Racing

a young barrel racer

Mary R. Vogt

For nearly 100 years, cowboys and cowgirls have been speeding their way around three carefully-placed barrels. A perfect barrel run is poetry in motion, with horse and rider working in perfect harmony as they race against the clock.

However, winning barrel racing teams don't normally happen by chance. Riders spend months, even years, looking for a horse with the perfect combination of conformation, speed, and athleticism.

Experience and Age ​

Before diving into your search, you must evaluate your own level of experience. Riders who are new to the world of barrel racing should focus primarily on an older horse with a solid barrel racing foundation.

Barrel racing requires split-second decisions, and a green rider paired with an inexperienced horse is a disaster waiting to happen. Barrel racing horses often run well into their teens and twenties, so novice riders shouldn't steer away from horses that are a little long in the teeth.

Experienced riders often choose prospects that have not yet been started in the ring, or who have just a season or two of practice. This allows the experienced rider to train the horses to their habits and specifications for a seamless ride.

Breed and Bloodlines ​

Horses of any breed can participate in most rodeo organizations, but Quarter horses are the predominant breed in the barrel racing world. They are one of the most versatile of all breeds and have the speed and agility to bend around the barrels.

There isn't a right or wrong choice for bloodlines when it comes to picking a barrel prospect. Each barrel racer has their favorite combination of bloodlines. Some trainers opt to go for horses from racing bloodlines, so they have the speed to outrun other competitors.

Other trainers choose horses from cutting or working cow horse lines because they tend to be a little smaller and more maneuverable, shaving time off their runs with faster turns. Still, other enthusiasts pair racing and cutting lines to produce horses with the ideal combination of speed and agility.

Popular bloodlines in the barrel racing world include Easy Jet, Dash for Cash, Firewater Flit, and On the Money Red, one of the leading barrel horse sires in history.

Conformation and Soundness 

The horse's build is one of the most essential factors to his success in the arena. Shorter horses are preferred by most serious competitors, although this isn't a hard and fast. When the horse's withers are closer to the ground, he has a lower center of gravity and will be steadier on his feet than a taller horse.

Many horses from cutting lines are on the shorter side, while some racing bloodlines average more than 16 hands tall. A barrel horse prospect should have a short, straight back, long underline and matching hip and shoulder angles. Stand back and look at the horse: his body should form a trapezoid-like shape.

This even build allows the horse to reach under himself with his hind legs for extra power and speed and he negotiates the pattern. A barrel prospect should be 100% sound with no hint of deformity or lameness. Check his legs over for unusual bumps or scars that might indicate a previous injection or tendon surgery.

Watch the horse move through all three gaits, and pay attention to any shortness or limping that may be a sign of underlying lameness. Ask your veterinarian for a complete physical exam, including x-rays and ultrasounds. X-rays are handy for detecting old broken bones or calcium buildup that may lead to arthritis, while ultrasounds can diagnose soft tissue injuries that may lead to permanent lameness.