Find the Right Barrel Racing Approach

Use these tips to make crisp barrel turns with the right barrel racing approach.

A guided, driven barrel racing approach sets up your horse for a balanced, crisp turn. Kate Bradley Byars

When your barrel horse has problems, it usually means you, as a rider, have problems. When your barrel horse goes too far past a barrel, be it the first barrel or the second, it shows me that one of two things can be going wrong—a rider error or a problem with the horse’s body position. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to correct both of these problems.

[MORE WITH RON: Level Out]

Here, I’ll explain four problematic approaches and how your incorrect position affects your horse. Then, I’ll share tips on how to work on your barrel approach at home to make faster competition runs.

To improve your barrel racing approach, start by trotting a circle that’s large enough for your horse to move at a cadenced, forward trot. Keep your inside hand up and use your inside leg to push your horse’s ribcage up and to the outside of the circle. Kate Bradley Byars
After a few circles with your horse soft in the bridle and collected, trot back through the middle of the circle. Counter-arc your horse a few strides, putting him in a position where he must collect himself to continue moving forward. Your horse must stay collected to master your barrel racing approach. Kate Bradley Byars

The Wrong Approach

Working with riders across the country at barrel racing clinics, I see many horses that start their turns too early with their shoulders. A horse that does that, even if he doesn’t hit a barrel, is leaned over too far to make a good turn. This affects how your horse comes out of the turn and how he’s set up for the next barrel, as well as the overall run time.

In this situation, most riders are in what I call the “standing up” position. You anticipate the turn several strides before getting to the barrel, and you release your horse into the turn too early. Watch a film of yourself running the pattern to see if you’re guilty of any of the following mistakes.

• Lifting forward off your back pockets with your upper body and leaning toward the barrel.

• Putting your hands forward.

• Your horse loses his guide to go past the barrel.

• Without any cue from you, your horse moves in to the turn too soon.

[READ: 5 Barrels for Success]

You might not realize you’re asking your horse to turn early through poor horsemanship and body position. This causes your horse to shoulder-in to the barrel. Another result is that the momentum carries your horse too far past the barrel at the wrong angle for a good turn. This makes for a rough finish on that barrel and poor start to the next rather than a crisp finish and a solid setup.

You want forward motion in your horse, so you get forward in your body to achieve that. But I want you to get that drive by looking ahead, sitting on your pockets, and driving your horse forward with your feet.

Now, change your hands and feet to guide your horse onto a new circle with your outside leg and raising your old outside hand up to lift the other shoulder. Kate Bradley Byars
As you continue in the new direction, widen your outside hand to balance your horse. A horse that’s moving his shoulders up and out of his own way won’t have a problem changing directions while maintaining a soft cadence, and it’ll improve your guide as you approach the barrel during a race. Kate Bradley Byars

Ride Right

Maintaining the proper position going in to a barrel will keep you and your horse balanced for the turn.

First, check your position. Sit on your pockets in the saddle seat, and ride with your feet to push your horse forward. Stay in the middle of your horse, centered in the saddle all four ways—meaning no leaning front or back, or from side to side. A horse that wants to shut down might cause you to lean forward. That changes how you’re balanced going to a barrel.

When you lift out of the saddle, you lose foot power. The standing position puts your feet behind you so you can’t drive your horse forward. When you lose your hands and feet, you’re just a passenger and no longer the driver, which is unsafe and ineffective.

With a solid, balanced center, you can maintain a connection with your horse through your feet and consistent rein pressure. If you get too far forward, your reins get too much slack, resulting in a lost connection with your horse. That connection is the guide that directs your horse past the barrel before turning, keeping his shoulders up and his body in position for the turn.

Focus on riding in the proper position at all times, whether warming up, exercising your horse without barrels, or making a run. The repetition of riding right will become a habit that positively impacts your barrel run.

[READ: Barrel Racing Tack Adjustments]

Using guides, you can repeat the same path to the barrel with each practice run. To perfect your barrel racing approach, don’t look down at the barrel or at the guides, but forward until you can see the barrel in your peripheral vision. Kate Bradley Byars

Hind-End Power

My goal in training is to have the horse ride in a round and collected frame, with his back raised up, shoulders underneath, and a long stride powering his hind legs. A horse in this frame runs from behind with a powerful stride. You can improve how your horse rides by lengthening his stride from behind. The bigger his stride, with more drive from behind, the more his shoulders are up and the better equipped he is to make a good, balanced turn. Here’s how to get a longer, collected stride.

Start by trotting a circle with forward motion—not at a slow jog. Use your outside leg to keep your horse from pushing his ribs too far out. Slightly raise your inside hand, keeping your horse’s shoulder from dropping to the inside, apply pressure with your inside leg to keep your horse from dropping his ribs toward the inside.

When your horse has his nose slightly to the inside and feels collected with a round back, come through the middle of the circle and swap your hand and leg positions. Change which rein and leg apply pressure so the former inside leg is the outside leg and pushes your horse to trot a counter-arc for a few strides before beginning the new circle. Your hands change to pick the rein up the side of the neck—not across the neck—and widen the new outside hand out to the side.

This new position moves your horse’s ribs over while driving him forward in the counter arc. This will keep his shoulder elevated and drive his hind leg up under himself.

At first, your horse might brace against this new pressure. Keep your hands steady, and ride with your feet to maintain forward motion. Your horse should soften in a circle or two and keep his feet moving.

Once he softens, go through the middle of the circle, and repeat changing your hands and feet to a counter-arc for a few strides in this direction. Then go back in the direction of the original circle, with your horse’s nose tipped in and his back rounded.

If your horse leans into the circle he’ll lose his fluid stride and his feet will get quick. But, if your horse drives up underneath himself, he can easily travel around the circle and through the counter-arc strides with good fluid motion.

Work on this for 5 to 10 minutes during warm-up, just until your horse is soft and underneath himself. On a young horse, as soon as you feel a stride or two of improvement where the horse’s shoulder is up, move on to work on something else to keep him from resenting the work. Daily repetition will create a balanced horse.

[READ: Keeping Your Horse Sound with Sherry Cervi]

The circle exercise helps your horse move laterally while keeping his shoulders up, not dropping his shoulder into the barrel. This teaches your horse how to approach the barrel. Kate Bradley Byars
The approach in to the second barrel is as important as how your horse leaves it and moves to the third barrel. Place a guide on either side of the barrel to be sure you maintain the proper approach to the second barrel. Kate Bradley Byars

Set a Guide

Now that your horsemanship and your horse’s position have been addressed, it’s time to do the barrel work. Look past the barrel on approach. In truth, you should run a straight line, then turn. To work on this, set out guides in your arena. You don’t need cones or anything specific to set a guide. Use an extra pair of bell boots; what you have handy will work, as long as you can easily spot it in the arena.

First set your barrel pattern. You come in to the first barrel on an arc, and your approach is set completely different than the second and third. Walk out to where you normally ask the horse to turn the first barrel.

Think of the barrel as a clock. With 12 at the top of the barrel, and 6 on the side closest to the timer line. Set your marker at 10 o’clock. That’s where you want to start your turn. In these photos, I place the marker, in this case a pink bell boot, about 7 to 8 feet off the barrel. Then I set a second marker back about 3 feet off the barrel, in an even line toward the second barrel. This is the guide for your approach.

Get on your horse and go to the spot where you’ll start your run. Find a spot on the fence that’s in line with your approach. Look at a spot on the fence and go to it. When you see the barrel in your peripheral vision, ask your horse to turn. Ride past the guides, until your horse’s flank is almost to the barrel, before you turn. I don’t advise looking at the barrel as you make your approach.

Sit on your pockets and ride the horse forward with your feet until you’re past the guide where you’ll ask your horse to turn. As you go around the barrel, keep your horse’s shoulder up and his back rounded.

Finish the first barrel with your horse aimed straight at the second. Look beyond the second barrel as you ride toward it.

My guides are set out to either side of the second barrel, to be sure you’ll ride to and out of the barrel without hitting it. When you set the guides, allow at least 5 feet between your horse’s ribs and the barrel. Ride forward until your horse’s flank is even with or past the barrel before you turn. Ride into the second barrel in the same position as the first, on your pockets and riding your horse forward with your feet. Your good position carries over to the third barrel, and your guides will be set in a similar manner as the second barrel.

Don’t look at going faster as the goal. You must go faster correctly. To do that, you must first slow down and fine-tune your technique. Technique is horsemanship, and almost all problems link back to how you’re riding.

[READ: Do-It-Yourself Barrel Racing Patterning]

Ron Ralls, Gainseville, Texas, is a two-time National Reined Cow Horse Assocition World’s Greatest Horseman Champion and has multiple American Quarter Horse Association and NRCHA titles. He was inducted in to the NRCHA Hall of Fame and has nearly $1 million in career earnings. He’s recently added coaching barrel racers to his roster. For more information, visit

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