What Is Barrel Racing?

woman on horse racing around a barrel
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Barrel racing is a truly special event in the rodeo world, and one of the fastest. While cowboys are holding down bucking and spinning bulls, cowgirls on horses are charging through the gate in a race against the clock. The faster the rider completes the pattern, the higher up on the leaderboard the pair will land. 

Barrel Racing Basics

Barrel racing pairs horse and rider in a race against the clock. Three barrels are set up in a cloverleaf pattern in the arena, and the rider must cleanly negotiate the pattern. The distance between the barrels differs by the organization, but averages distance are: nine feet between barrels one and two, 105 feet between barrels one and three and barrel two and three, and six feet between the start line and barrels one and two.

The rider enters the arena at a gallop and runs toward the first barrel. A rider can choose between starting at the left-most or right-most barrel and turns a complete circle around the barrel. The rider then steers her horse toward barrel two, circles is, and charges toward barrel three. After rounding barrel three, the rider pushes her horse toward the finish line at top speed.


The ultimate goal of a successful barrel racing run is to negotiate the cloverleaf pattern in the fastest time without knocking over any barrels. A tipped barrel adds five seconds to the rider's final time, and any deviation from the cloverleaf pattern results in a no score. Most organizations use an electric timer with a sensor that automatically starts and stops when the horse runs past the sensor. These timers are much more accurate than a judge with a stopwatch and eliminate the chance of human error.


Most riders enter the arena at a full run, reaching maximum speed before they hit the timer. Riders aim to make a small pocket around the barrel, giving them a little cushion as the horse bends his body around the barrel. This pocket reduces the chance that the horse will tip over the barrel. The rider can choose to make either two left turns and one right turn or two right turns and one left turn, depending on which way their horse turns the best. After rounding the last barrel, the rider asks the horse to run as fast as possible back to the start line, and the timer stops as soon as the horse's nose crosses the barrier. 

Barrel Racing Gear

Outfitting a horse for competition requires a variety of gear. A barrel racing saddle is essential for comfort and safety. These special saddles have deep seats and short skirts, allowing for more contact with the horse's back for greater stability. Many riders add a breast collar to keep the saddle from shifting back during quick starts. A bridle with a gentle yet effective bit is vital for guiding the horse around the arena. The horse should be fitted with durable sports boots prior to every run. These boots support the horse's tendons as he charges around the arena, helping to prevent serious injuries. Some riders opt to carry a whip or quirt to encourage their horse to run faster, but rules on these items vary by association, so check in advance to prevent disqualification.

Competitors and Associations

The Women's Professional Rodeo Association is the oldest professional organization in the barrel racing industry. Originally known as the Girls Rodeo Association, the WPRA began holding sanctioned barrel races in 1948. The majority of WPRA barrel racing events are at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeos, and the 15 competitors with the highest yearly earnings are invited to the National Finals Rodeo to compete for the title of World Champion. The National Barrel Horse Association is the other major barrel racing organization in the United States. The NBHA runs a tiered format, which allows competitors of varying skill levels to compete together. This encourages both novice and experienced barrel racers, like Charmayne Jaymes, to work together and enjoy the fast-paced world of barrel racing.