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Barrel Racing: What is the Best Horse Breed for You?

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I often look at barrel horse prospects with my friend and his daughter. We never agreed on the same horse, and this made me wonder what traits I should focus on when choosing the best barrel horse for her.

The best barrel horse is athletic, smart, fast, and has sound conformation. The best breed in barrel racing is the Quarter horse. Quarter horses dominate every prestigious barrel racing competition, and no others are close.

Selecting a good barrel horse is more about the individual than the breed. However, if you are looking for a horse to compete against the best, then you should start with a quarter horse.

Good Barrel Racing Horses are agile.

If you are looking for an equine activity that combines speed, athleticism, and teamwork, then barrel racing is the sport for you. To be competitive in barrel racing, you need to partner with an agile, powerful, fast horse.

picture of a horse turning a barrel during a barrel race,

Barrel racing requires a fast horse to get to each barrel quickly, agility to bend around the barrels, and power to explode out of the turns. Horses that can develop these qualities need good conformation.

Good barrel racing horses have sound conformation.

Conformation is the term used to describe how a horse is put together, the overall structure of a horse. It includes the bone length, the angles of the joints, muscling, and the total balance of a horse. Conformation impacts a horse’s athletic ability and soundness.

picture of a horse barrel racing,

Good conformation is critical to the performance of your barrel horse. A horse with poor conformation is prone to injury, harder to train, and subject to lameness.

Some general conformation tips in choosing a barrel horse:

  • A horse’s neck should be one and a half times the length of the head or one-third of the horse’s total body length.
  • The neck should tie into the horse’s body relatively high, and the base should be level with the point of the horse’s shoulder.
  • The shoulder and pastern angles should be between 40 and 55 degrees to distribute weight properly and prevent injury.
  • Horses with short backs and long necks move easily and are more balanced. A horse’s back should not be longer than its underline.
  • Straight front legs. From the front of a horse, the shoulder, the center of the leg, and the hoof should be aligned. Correct legs are essential for performance horses.

Good conformation for a barrel horse requires proper balance and structure. Successful barrel racing horses come in all sizes.

Barrel horses need quickness and speed.

Competitive barrel racing is a timed event requiring a horse and rider to complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels without knocking a barrel over. The pair that ends their run the fastest wins. Having a fast horse is a critical trait in a good barrel horse.

The barrel pattern involves setting three 55-gallon drums in the shape of a triangle. The first two barrels are placed 90 feet apart, and the third is the triangle’s point.

This final barrel is 105 feet away from the other two and centered between them. Horses circle the barrels as fast as possible and sprint in between and to the exit. Knocking a barrel over is a 5-second penalty. Speed is essential.

Many competitive barrel racers come from quarter-horse race tracks. Most top-end barrel racing horses have running in their pedigrees. The two leading sires of barrel horses, Frenchmans Guy, and Dash Ta Fame, are from Quarter horse racing stock.

In fact, Dash Ta Fame won nearly $300,000 in racing and has sired 80 stakes winners and earners of more than $17 million on the track. Equi-Stat publishes a list of the top barrel racing sires.

Frenchmans Guy’s offspring have earned nearly 10 million dollars, and he is consistently among the leading sires. Essentially, a barrel horse is a racehorse running a cloverleaf pattern in an arena versus running straight on a track.

A racehorse must be an apt pupil to transition to barrel racing successfully. To read more about Quarter horses, click here.

Picture of horses

Good barrel racing horses are willing learners.

To be a good barrel horse, one must be willing to learn. You and your horse have to spend time training the barrel pattern. You need a horse that is willing and able to learn, not one that fights you during training.

Horses not only need speed; they need to learn to adjust their speed, turn, and explode. Certain bloodlines have a desire to win and a willingness to train and learn. Dash for Cash horses is known for having these traits.

Picture of a two year old thoroughbred horse.

What is the best age for a barrel racing horse?

Horses start training young; they’re typically broke for riding when they are two years old and start working on lead changes and general riding cues at three. But working on competitive barrel training is tough on a horse.

The best age to start a horse on the barrels is generally five years old. A barrel horse needs time to develop the basics before it starts on barrels, and this takes time.

A horse should know the natural cues conveyed by mouth pressure, leg pressure, seat weight, and voice cues. A horse needs to know to stop, go, back up, turn, side pass, haunch turn, forehand pivot, and bend.

Each cue should be applied with ease and understood directly. To train a horse properly takes patience. After a horse learns the basics, it is essential to spend time under a western saddle, riding trails and pastures before being trained for barrel racing.

Casual riding is needed for a young horse to grow and develop mentally and physically. Hauling young horses with other horses to barrel races and rodeos is an excellent method of exposing them to the excitement and crowds.

Frequently we would saddle the young horses and ride them around during rodeos before they were ever started on barrels.

It is important for a barrel horse to be comfortable around people and other horses. If a horse runs a great barrel pattern at its home arena but washes out around crowds, he is no good as a barrel horse.

The barrel racing pattern is a cloverleaf

The standard barrel pattern:

  • The first two barrels are 60 feet from the starting timers;
  • 90 feet separates the first and second barrels;
  • The distance between the second barrel and the third barrel is 105 feet;
  • The first and second barrels should be at least 18 feet from the fences, and the third barrel should be 25 feet from the back wall.

A good barrel racing time in a standard pattern is 18 seconds 

Eighteen seconds is a good time for a standard pattern, but there are factors to consider, such as the running surface and the relation of the barrels to the fences; both can slow a horse.

Barrel racing is calculated to the 100ths of a second, and one wrong move can make the difference between winning and losing. If you don’t complete the pattern, you are disqualified, and if you knock, a barrel over five seconds is added to your score.

In 2011 at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Carlee Pierce ran one of the fastest recorded times, at thirteen and forty-six seconds. 

Picture of a barrel racing saddle.

Barrel racers can earn a lot of money.

According to the National Final Rodeo standings, the top money barrel racer is Hailey Kinsel; she won $192,832.00 in 2018. In 2019 she earned $154,610.50 and has yet to compete for the biggest prize, the National Finals Rodeo championships, in December.

The top four money earners in 2018 were:

  • #1 HAILEY KINSEL: $192,834.
  • #2 NELLIE MILLER: $146,826.
  • #3 BRITTANY POZZI TONOZZI: $137,267.
  • #4 LISA LOCKHART: $123,515.

But it’s not only the money competitors win in the arena. Many also make money from endorsement deals and through selling products. Fallon Taylor has a line of western wear and tack named Ranch Dress’n, one of the industry’s top brands.

The fastest barrel racing time at the NFR is 13.11

In 2017 Hailey Kinsel established a new arena record at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) held in Las Vegas with a time of 13.11 seconds. In addition to setting a new record, she also established a new earnings record for the NFR by winning $189,385 in barrel racing over the entire ten days of competition.

Carlee Pierce previously held the barrel record. Ms. Pierces’ record time was set at the 2011 NFR with a time of 13.46.

The NFR championships in Las Vegas are perfect for determining the fastest riders. The competition is held indoors and runs over ten days. Competitors have to earn points throughout the year to qualify for the event, so you get the best barrel racers under one roof competing each year.


Who is the youngest barrel racer?

In 2018 London Gorham, at ten years old, became the youngest barrel racer to advance to RFD-TV’s the American Semi-Finals. She broke the age record previously held by Chayni Chamberlain. In 2015 Chayni Chamberlain won the RFD event and also advanced to the Elite Rodeo Associations World Championships at 11 years old.

What happens if a barrel falls over in competition?

If a barrel falls over you, get penalized for five seconds. Five seconds are added for each barrel you knock over during your run. So if all three falls, add fifteen seconds to your time.

Can you use your hand to keep a barrel from falling?

You can touch a barrel during a run and even try to steady a barrel when riding. You only get penalized if the barrel falls over. If a barrel moves during a run, it is reset before the next competitor starts. Barrel racing rules are listed on the National Barrel Horse Association’s website.