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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.

Qualities of a Great Barrel Racing Horse

In the fast-paced and thrilling sport of barrel racing, choosing the right horse is crucial for achieving success. A great barrel racing horse possesses a unique combination of attributes that enable them to excel in this demanding discipline.

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

Good Barrel Racing Horses are agile.

Agility is a key attribute for a successful barrel racing horse. In this high-speed, precision-based sport, horses need to be able to navigate tight turns and quickly change direction, showcasing their exceptional agility and responsiveness to their rider’s cues.

Barrel racing requires a fast horse to reach 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.

In barrel racing, having a horse with sound conformation is essential for success. A well-built horse not only possesses the physical attributes necessary for the sport but also tends to be more durable, ensuring a promising and lasting career on the barrel racing circuit.

quarter horse sorrel edited
12-year-old quarter horse mare for barrels

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.

Barrel horses require a unique combination of quickness and speed to excel in their sport. These remarkable equine athletes showcase their agility and power as they navigate challenging courses, making for a thrilling competition.

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 were former racing quarter-horses. 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. If you’re interested in seeing a list of the top barrel racing sires check out Equi-Stat.

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.

For a racehorse to successfully transition to barrel racing, it must be a quick learner and adaptable. For barrel racing, racing Quarter Horses are the perfect fit as they are versatile, athletic, and intelligent.

Good barrel racing horses are willing learners.

To excel as a barrel horse, the horse must be eager to learn. Both you and your horse must dedicate time to mastering the barrel pattern. It’s essential to have a horse that is cooperative and capable of learning rather than one that resists training.

Horses require more than just speed; they must learn to modulate their pace, execute turns, and burst with power. Specific bloodlines possess a strong desire to win and an innate willingness to train and learn. Dash for Cash horses are renowned for embodying these qualities.

Picture of a quarter horse that is in training for racing.
Racing quarter horse

The American Quarter Horse: The Top Choice for Barrel Racing

The American Quarter Horse has long been a favorite among barrel racers, and it’s no wonder why. Known for their exceptional speed, agility, and athleticism, these versatile horses have all the right attributes to excel in this exhilarating sport. With powerful hindquarters and a compact build, the American Quarter Horse is built for quick bursts of speed and nimble movements, making them the ideal choice for navigating the tight turns of a barrel racing pattern.

The origins of the American Quarter Horse can be traced back to the early colonists, who bred their imported English Thoroughbreds with native horses to create a breed that was not only fast but also hardy and adaptable. The result was a horse that could sprint over short distances at remarkable speeds, setting the stage for their success in barrel racing.

In addition to their physical abilities, American Quarter Horses are also renowned for their exceptional temperament and trainability. They’re known for being level-headed, eager to please, and quick learners, making them excellent partners for barrel racers of all levels. Their willingness to work in harmony with their riders allows for a strong bond to form between horse and rider, a connection that is essential for success in this demanding sport.

When it comes to choosing the best breed for barrel racing, the American Quarter Horse undoubtedly stands out as a top contender. Their innate speed, agility, and willingness to learn make them a popular choice for both novice and experienced barrel racers alike. If you’re considering entering the world of barrel racing, you can’t go wrong with an American Quarter Horse as your trusted companion.

American Paint Horse: A Colorful and Agile Performer

The American Paint Horse, with its striking coat patterns and remarkable agility, has also gained popularity as a competitive barrel racing breed. Combining the best qualities of the American Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred, the Paint Horse is known for its speed, athleticism, and eye-catching appearance, making it a standout choice for those looking to excel in the barrel racing arena.

A descendant of both Spanish and English horses, the Paint Horse boasts a unique combination of beauty and performance. Their distinct coat patterns, featuring a mix of white and other colors, set them apart from other breeds and add an extra element of visual appeal to the sport. However, it’s not just their looks that make the Paint Horse a fantastic barrel racing partner; their physical attributes also play a crucial role.

Like the American Quarter Horse, American Paint Horses possess powerful hindquarters and a compact, muscular build. These characteristics enable them to generate explosive bursts of speed and nimbly navigate the sharp turns required in barrel racing. Paint Horses also inherit the Quarter Horse’s exceptional temperament and trainability, which are key factors for success in this challenging equestrian sport.

The Paint Horse’s combination of beauty, athleticism, and agility make it an increasingly popular choice among barrel racers. Whether you’re a seasoned competitor or just starting your journey in barrel racing, the Paint Horse offers not only a visually stunning partner but also a highly capable and talented performer that can help you reach new heights in the sport.

The Thoroughbred: Speed and Athleticism in the Arena

The Thoroughbred, a breed synonymous with speed and athleticism, has long been celebrated for its prowess on the racetrack. However, these magnificent horses have also proven themselves to be highly capable performers in the barrel racing arena. With their impressive speed, stamina, and natural athletic abilities, Thoroughbreds bring a unique set of strengths to this demanding equestrian sport.

Originally bred for horse racing, Thoroughbreds possess long, lean bodies and powerful muscles, which contribute to their exceptional speed and grace. Their innate athleticism, coupled with their strong competitive drive, makes them well-suited for the fast-paced, high-pressure environment of barrel racing. With the right training and conditioning, Thoroughbreds can easily transition from the racetrack to the barrel racing arena.

In addition to their physical abilities, Thoroughbreds are known for their intelligence, sensitivity, and willingness to learn. These qualities make them highly trainable and adaptable, allowing them to excel in various equestrian disciplines, including barrel racing. However, it’s essential to remember that Thoroughbreds are often spirited and high-energy, which may require a more experienced rider to handle and guide them effectively.

While the American Quarter Horse and Paint Horse might be the more traditional choices for barrel racing, Thoroughbreds are steadily gaining recognition for their potential in this sport. For those seeking a versatile, athletic, and fast barrel racing partner, the Thoroughbred offers a unique combination of speed, agility, and an unmistakable competitive spirit that can help you succeed in the arena.

Picture of a standard colored appaloosa horse.
Appaloosa Horse

The Appaloosa: A Versatile and Eye-Catching Competitor

The Appaloosa, a striking and versatile breed, has captured the hearts of many equestrians with its distinctive spotted coat patterns and adaptable nature. This unique horse is not only eye-catching but also a formidable competitor in the world of barrel racing. With its agility, speed, and trainable disposition, the Appaloosa is well-suited for the challenges of this demanding equestrian sport.

Originating from the Nez Perce Native American tribe, the Appaloosa has a rich history as a versatile mount known for its ability to excel in various equestrian disciplines. The breed’s hardiness, intelligence, and endurance have made it a popular choice for riders seeking a horse that can easily adapt to different competitive environments, including barrel racing.

Appaloosas possess a compact, muscular build, with strong hindquarters that contribute to their quick bursts of speed and impressive agility. Their ability to navigate tight turns with ease and maintain a steady, powerful stride makes them a competitive force in the barrel racing arena. With the right training and conditioning, an Appaloosa can be transformed into a skilled barrel racer capable of holding its own against more traditional barrel racing breeds.

In addition to their physical prowess, Appaloosas are also known for their even-tempered and gentle nature. These horses are typically easy to train, responsive to their rider’s cues, and eager to please. This combination of traits makes them a great option for riders of all experience levels, from beginners to seasoned barrel racers.

The Appaloosa is a breed that offers a perfect blend of beauty, versatility, and athleticism, making it an excellent choice for those looking to enter the thrilling world of barrel racing. Whether you’re an experienced rider or just starting your barrel racing journey, the Appaloosa can provide a unique and unforgettable competitive partnership.

Grade Horses: The Underrated All-Rounders in Barrel Racing

Grade horses, or horses without a registered pedigree, can be exceptional choices for barrel racing as well. While they may not have the prestigious bloodlines of other breeds, grade horses often possess a unique blend of traits and abilities that can make them highly competitive in the sport.

Their diverse genetic backgrounds can result in a horse with the perfect combination of speed, agility, and temperament for barrel racing success. One of the advantages of choosing a grade horse is that they can be more budget-friendly compared to purebred horses.

This makes them an attractive option for riders who are just starting out in barrel racing or those who want a versatile horse for various equestrian disciplines. When evaluating a grade horse for barrel racing, it’s essential to consider their individual conformation, temperament, and athletic ability.

Look for a horse with strong hindquarters, a well-balanced build, and a keen willingness to learn. With proper training and a strong bond between horse and rider, grade horses can be fantastic partners in barrel racing, proving that it’s not always about pedigree but rather the individual horse’s qualities and the dedication of their rider.

Lesser-Known Breeds for Barrel Racing Success

While the American Quarter Horse, Paint Horse, and Thoroughbred tend to dominate the barrel racing world, there are several lesser-known breeds that have the potential to achieve success in this exciting equestrian sport.

These underrated breeds possess unique qualities and capabilities that, with proper training and dedication, can make them formidable competitors in the barrel racing arena. Let’s explore some of these lesser-known breeds that are worth considering for your barrel racing endeavors.

  1. Arabian: Known for their stamina, agility, and intelligence, Arabians are a versatile breed that can excel in various disciplines, including barrel racing. Their compact build and responsiveness to rider cues make them well-suited for the tight turns and speed required in the sport.
  2. Morgan: The Morgan horse is athletic with a strong work ethic, making it an excellent option for riders looking to try their hand at barrel racing. Their muscular build, agility, and willingness to learn make Morgans a competitive choice in the arena.
  3. Standardbred: Often overlooked in favor of their Thoroughbred cousins, Standardbreds possess exceptional stamina and athleticism. With their strong hindquarters and powerful stride, these horses can be trained to perform well in barrel racing, showcasing their speed and agility.
  4. Pony breeds: Welsh Ponies, POAs (Pony of the Americas), and other pony breeds can be surprisingly competitive in barrel racing, especially for youth riders. Their smaller size, agility, and quickness make them well-suited for the tight turns and rapid acceleration required in the sport.
  5. Mustang: The American Mustang, known for its hardiness and adaptability, can also prove successful in barrel racing. With their strong, compact build and natural athleticism, these horses can be trained to excel in the sport, especially when paired with an experienced and patient rider.

These lesser-known breeds demonstrate that success in barrel racing is not limited to the most popular choices. With dedication, proper training, and a focus on the unique qualities of each breed, riders can achieve barrel racing success with a wide variety of equine partners. Keep an open mind, and you might just discover an unexpected star in one of these underrated breeds.

Picture of horses

Choosing the Right Horse for Your Barrel Racing Goals

When selecting the perfect barrel racing partner, it’s essential to consider your individual goals and preferences in order to make the best decision. Here are some factors to keep in mind while searching for the ideal barrel racing horse:

  1. Skill level: Assess your riding experience and skill level. If you’re a beginner, look for a horse that is well-trained and experienced in barrel racing. This will make your learning process smoother and more enjoyable. On the other hand, if you’re a seasoned competitor, you may be ready for a younger or less experienced horse that you can train and develop together.
  2. Budget: Determine your budget for purchasing and maintaining a horse. High-quality barrel racing horses, especially those from renowned bloodlines, can be expensive. However, there are many talented horses available at various price points, including grade horses, that can excel in the sport.
  3. Breed preferences: While certain breeds are more commonly associated with barrel racing, it’s essential to choose a horse based on its individual qualities rather than solely focusing on the breed. Research various breeds and their typical traits to find the one that best aligns with your barrel racing goals.
  4. Conformation and athletic ability: Look for a horse with sound conformation and the physical attributes necessary for success in barrel racing, such as powerful hindquarters, a balanced build, and good overall athleticism.
  5. Temperament: A horse with a willing and trainable temperament is crucial for success in barrel racing. Choose a horse that demonstrates an eagerness to learn and a strong work ethic.
  6. Try before you buy: Always take the time to ride and interact with a potential barrel-racing horse before deciding. This will give you a better understanding of the horse’s abilities, temperament, and suitability for your goals.

By taking these factors into consideration, you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect barrel racing horse that aligns with your individual goals and preferences, setting you up for a successful and enjoyable partnership in the arena.

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.

In the exciting sport of barrel racing, the key to success is mastering the iconic cloverleaf pattern. This distinct arrangement of barrels tests a horse’s agility, speed, and precision, making it a thrilling spectacle for competitors and spectators alike.

The standard barrel pattern:

  • The first two barrels are 60 feet from the starting timers;
  • 90 feet separate 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. 

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 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 fall, 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.