The first thing Lee Jackson said to me when I cold-called him to ask if I could try riding one of his barrel horses was “How good a rider are you?” Lee, the National Barrel Horse Association Ontario director, warned me his horses were too hot and fast for the tastes of most riders. It’s true that in riding my preference runs towards mellow, but since he’d thrown down the challenge I knew I needed to step up and prove I had the skills to whip around some barrels at high speed. After all, I conquered the Mongol Derby barely a year ago! So, on a chilly but sunny day in early May, I headed out to his farm in St. Anns, Ontario to try my hand at barrel racing.
When I got there, Lee introduced me to Spook, a grey Quarter Horse mare ridden and raced by his 27-year-old daughter. The mare was about 15 hands, short-backed and well-muscled. I haven’t spent much time with Quarter Horses, let alone barrel racing ones, so I was shocked at how solid and powerful she appeared to be, and for the first time, I took Lee’s warnings to heart and wondered if I was really up to the challenge.
Wearing riding breeches and an English helmet, I climbed aboard Spook in Lee’s wide sand ring. Cautiously, I walked her around in both directions and then asked her for a nice steady trot. “Don’t worry, most barrel racers rise the trot,” he shouted as I tried to sit into the western saddle, worried my posting would look odd. Phew. So far, so good.
Spook was forward, but responsive, and I felt confident in asking her to canter. But as soon as I slid my outside leg back to depart, she leaned down on the bit and shifted to Mach 10. Instinctively, I pulled on the reins asking her to come back to me, but she just leaned harder and tore around the ring faster. “SIT BACK AND STOP PULLING,” Lee yelled from the far end of the ring.
I relaxed and shifted my weight deep into the cantle of the saddle. Spook abruptly stopped.
“That was fun,” I said, laughing nervously, trying to catch my breath.
After a few more warm-up laps, Lee figured I was ready enough to try my first barrel pattern.
I made a small 15-metre circle at the bottom of the ring and urged Spook into a canter. As soon as I pointed her towards the first barrel I felt her dig in and move again to warp speed. She took the first barrel so tight I felt like I was in a slingshot, with her shift of weight pulling me back and then shooting me forward in the saddle.
“Ahhhhh!” I screeched as we rounded the barrel and headed towards the next. This one I sat deep into the saddle and stuck my feet forward and I felt more in balance as she rounded the second barrel. The third was the best, as I kept my eyes up and turned my head towards the direction we were turning. Spook galloped home and I circled her twice to bring her back to a trot, then walk.
“Nice work,” said Lee.
Despite my heaving breath, I grinned. I’d survived riding a barrel horse.
Lee said to stay in balance going around tight turns, barrel riders need to sit back and bring their feet forward as this helps the horse shift his weight back onto his haunches to make the turn. Some riders even grab the horn of the saddle to help them stay back and deep in the seat.
Lee said a mistake people make when they start riding barrels is not looking ahead towards their next turn. “So many people focus on the barrel they’re turning around, but you need to keep your eyes up,” he said. This helps the rider stay in tune with the horse and react quickly to shifts in the horse’s balance.
Barrel riders can use two hands or one on the reins, depending on preference and the horse. Lee advised me to start with two hands and shift to one hand if I felt comfortable.
Unequivocally, the Quarter Horse is boss of this sport, although Thoroughbreds, Appaloosas and Paint horses are common to see at barrel events as well. In fact, there is even an Arabian Barrel Racing Association in the US.
But breed aside, the biggest thing a barrel horse needs is heart, according to Lee. After that, you want good solid legs, strong hindquarters and good gaskin and rump muscles so the horse is able to shift their weight back on their hindquarters and make tight turns.
Lee said there aren’t many riding school settings and lesson horses on which you can learn barrel racing. But the good news is entry cost into the sport isn’t that high, compared to other equestrian sports. He estimated that you can purchase a good, fun barrel horse to get you started in the sport for between $2,000 and $4,000.
In prepping and training for a barrel event, Lee said that barrel racers do a lot of flat work with transitions and figures like circles and serpentines – they’re not running barrels every day. “You want the horse to not get bored of it and be excited to run,” he said.
“And we don’t ask for speed until we have the foundation down. Too much speed too early can blow a horse’s mind.”
Lee and his wife also do a lot of trail riding to keep the horses happy.
Barrel racers use a western saddle specifically designed for barrel racing. These saddles have a higher cantle, higher horn and deeper seat to keep you secure in those tight turns. They’re also lightweight compared to other western saddles. The thing I noticed most about riding in this equipment was how short the reins were. Apparently this is a personal preference in barrel racing and some prefer much shorter reins so there is no slack when they choke down on the reins in a turn around the barrel.
The National Barrel Horse Association has chapters and events in the US, Canada, Brazil, Italy, France, Panama and Australia and membership is growing, according to Lee. He said there can be more than 160 competitors at any given event, with four separate divisions. The most popular class is Open 4D (where competitors are placed based on how close they are to four set time divisions – 15.5 seconds, 16 sec, 16.5 sec and 17 sec). There’s also a youth division, a division for seniors and a leadline division. “The leadline is the best,” laughed Lee. “You see the kids yelling at their parents to run the barrels faster.”
With four time divisions in the Open category, riders have a chance at placing and winning prize money in multiple categories and Jackson says this is what is appealing to him and other riders. “You can pay $22 for an entry fee and win $400 or $500 back,” he said.
He also thinks people are moving away from western pleasure and more towards speed events because of the objectivity of the sport. “Barrel racing is a timed event; it’s not based on someone’s opinion. Nobody can dispute a clock,” he said.