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Barrel Racing Basics

Since the time when ranches sent their most capable cowboys to compete in riding bucking horses, professional rodeo has largely been dominated by men. However, the sport has undergone tremendous upheaval in the last 60 years as a result of women's desire to compete. In 1948, due to resistance from rodeo promoters, women created their own organization, the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA).

Today, the members of the WPRA compete almost exclusively in barrel racing events. It has become one of the most popular rodeo competitions and routinely attracts prize earnings in the millions of dollars. Below, you'll learn how barrel racing work along with a few tips for aspiring competitors.

How Barrel Racing Works

A rider and her horse must navigate along a defined path around 3 barrels. The barrels (55-gallon steel drums) are positioned in a triangle. The barrel at the top of the triangle (barrel 3) is approximately 105 feet from the 2 bottom barrels (barrels 1 and 2). The 2 barrels that form the bottom of the triangle are placed 90 feet from each other. The distance from barrels 1 and 2 to the starting line is 60 feet.

The rider maneuvers around each of the barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. From the starting line, the rider circles over the top of barrel 1 (from the inside of the triangle outward). She then races to maneuver her horse around the top and under barrel 2. The final barrel (barrel 3 at the top of the triangle) must be rounded from the right and over the top (in a counterclockwise manner). Finally, the rider races back toward the finishing line.

The competitor who runs the course with the fastest time wins the event. When a rider and horse overturn a barrel, a 5-second penalty is given. Also, if a rider deviates from the pattern, she is disqualified from the event. Therefore, it's critical that both rider and horse are agile, athletic and respond quickly to each other.

Tips For Better Performance

Professional barrel riders claim that your performance on the course is mostly a matter of what you do before you and your horse even enter the course. First, make sure that none of the gear and equipment is causing any irritation to your horse. If it is, he'll be less-responsive. Second, if you're feeding your horse a grain supplement that gives him a boost of energy, remove it from his diet. These types of supplements can make your horse hyperactive, affecting how he reacts to your direction during the race.

You may need to curb your horse's tendency to run right past the first barrel. While practicing, have your horse gallop slowly toward barrel 1. When you're several feet away, have your horse slow to a walk. Then, walk your horse around the top of barrel 1. Once you've reached the bottom of the barrel, direct your horse to gallop toward barrel 2.

Teamwork Is Critical

Barrel racing involves agility, athleticism and the rider's ability to communicate with her horse. Teamwork is crucial. The best competitors establish a level of trust with their horses. While speed is important, the rider must understand her horse's temperament while directing the horse's "rate" (or ability to slow down and shift weight around the barrels). While barrel racing attracts an entirely different set of fans than other rodeo events, it remains an immensely-popular attraction for spectators of all ages.