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Ready to Race

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Ready to Race

A barrel racer negotiates a smooth turn.

Photo © Mary R. Vogt
Three barrels in an empty arena may not seem like the most exciting event at a rodeo, but that boring notion fades as soon as the gate slides open. Barrel racing is one of the fastest, most exciting sports in all of rodeo. A determined cowgirl guides her charging mount around a cloverleaf pattern of barrels, charging toward the finish line in the hopes of scoring the fastest run of the day. Barrel racing may look easy from the sidelines, but it is a precision event that takes years of training, practice, and the proper equipment.

The Basics of Barrel Racing

Before an aspiring barrel racer can take to the arena, she must first understand the sport and how it is judged. Barrel racing is a timed event that takes place in the arena. Three empty 55-gallon barrels are arranged in a cloverleaf pattern, with the start/finish timer set near the arena gate. Each barrel is set a minimum distance from the entrance and from the other barrels, with specific pattern dimensions varying depending on the hosting association. The horse and rider run past the start line, which triggers the timer as they maneuver toward the first barrel. The rider can choose to make two left turns and one right turn, or two right turns and one left turn depending on which direction their horse prefers to turn. After circling the first barrel, the pair charges toward the second and third barrels before running toward the finish line to end their run. Time stops as soon as the horse's nose crosses the eye of the timer. A 5-second penalty is added to the rider's overall time for each barrel they knock over, and no time is awarded if the pair does not complete their run.

For the Horse

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Barrel racing horses are, lean, fast animals, and a properly fitted saddle is essential for comfort and safety during your run. A saddle pad should be placed under the saddle, and the saddle tightened slowly to allow the horse time to expel excess air and prevent the saddle from slipping as you charge around the arena. The headstall should fit the horse comfortably without rubbing along his cheeks or behind his ears, and your bit should be the least harsh bit that it takes to control the horse. Barrel racers often depend on their hands for balance, and a harsh bit will cause unnecessary damage to the horse's mouth. A properly fitted breastcollar will keep the saddle from shifting backwards during your run, and should be tightened so that you can fit your palm between the straps and the horse's chest. Place protective boots on all four of the horse's legs, and attach a pair of bell boots or over-reach boots to his front feet if he's prone to clipping himself as he runs.

For the Rider

The rider's attire varies depending on which organization he or she is riding in. Small, local rodeo clubs often allow more casual attire than larger organizations who want to present a poised, professional appearance to the public. When in doubt, check the organizations rulebook or website for required clothing before heading to the race. As a general rule, most organizations require riders to wear sturdy denim jeans and boots with a heel of at least 1-inch tall. Long-sleeved shirts are generally acceptable, although some smaller organizations allow riders to wear short-sleeved shirts or tank tops. Cowboy hats are almost always a requirement, and felt or straw hats are acceptable. Some hosting arenas require the use of helmets or safety vests, and those rules should be made clear when you enter the event. Upon check-in, the staff should give you a number, which will identify you during the event. Pin the number to your shirt before heading to the arena so the judges and arena crew know you're a contestant. Some riders choose to wear spurs or carry a small whip to encourage their horses to run faster, but you should check the event rules to make sure these accessories are allowed to avoid a disqualification.

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