The first thing Lee Jackson asked me when I asked him if I could take one of his barrel racers for a spin was “how good a rider are you?”
As I quickly learned, barrel racing is fast, fun and not for the faint of heart.
Jackson, Ontario director of the National Barrel Horse Association, invited me to his farm in St. Anns, Ont. for a ride on his daughter’s barrel racing Quarter Horse mare named Spook.
It was spring, it was sunny but chilly and there was a breeze. Spook was feeling frisky, and as I swung my leg over her, I noticed how solid a horse she was. She may have just been over 15 hands, but I might as well have been sitting on a rock. Her shoulders and haunches bulged with muscle sculpted from the quick sprints barrel racing requires.
Jackson told me to take her for a quick warm-up around the outdoor arena. I walked her once around, then pushed her into a trot. So far, so good. She was responsive to shifts in weight and seemed to listen when I half halted and asked her to walk again.
But when I asked her to canter, it was quickly apparent I wasn’t riding a pleasure horse. The first few strides were calm and quiet, but then it seemed something flipped in her mind and she grabbed the bit, threw her shoulder down and started charging.
“Sit baaaackkk,” I heard Jackson yell at the far end of the ring. I tried to find a deeper seat in the saddle, but it being an unfamiliar saddle and unfamiliar horse, I struggled. Spook went faster. I knew if I was going to slow her down, I had to calm myself, relax and shift my weight back.
I took a deep breath and dropped my seat bones as deeply as I could in the saddle. I ignored my instinct to pull on the reins to slow her and eased up my contact with her mouth.
Spook started trotting.
Finally! I was figuring out her buttons.
Next step was a test barrel run.
“Always keep your eyes up, looking towards the next barrel,” Jackson advised.
He added to keep my hands on both reins to start out, to help me with steering.
I urged Spook to pick up her right lead canter and aimed towards the first barrel. Too late, I caught myself staring at the barrel instead of focusing on the turn and what was ahead. Spook rocked back and whipped her body around the barrel, leaving me behind the motion and clinging to the saddle horn.
Next barrel, I learned my lesson, sat back, dug my heels down and kept my eyes up. Spook took it handily and we ricocheted around towards the final barrel at a flat gallop. Once again, as we approached I sat back and kept my head up. The turn was quick and she galloped home.
I needed two 20 metre circles to slow her down, but when she finally did, I was elated (and seriously winded).
Barrel racing is incredibly fun and worth trying out if you love speed. It gives you a new appreciation for the agility of Quarter Horses.
Out on that barrel pattern, I had flashbacks to Mongolia, being on such a quick, athletic mount. I haven’t ridden at that speed since last summer and I have to say, it was a blast.
Here’s a video of my first crack at barrel racing:
See the July/August issue of Horse Canada magazine for more details.