The Science of Barrel Racing

By Barrel Horse News Magazine
Dena Kirkpatrick discusses three basic ingredients needed to develop better feel, correct position and faster times.


I always start a clinic by saying that there are many ways to train a barrel horse. Obviously, it is a timed event, and the fastest time wins. Horses learn by repetition, so consistency in practice is very important. I believe some horses are so naturally talented that they would be great, no matter who rode them. However, these horses are very rare. We, as trainers, have a responsibility to help each horse reach his full potential and one way we do this is by working with his body instead of working against it. 

The topic I would like to cover in this issue is the "science" of barrel racing. I will try not to get too technical, but we must understand the horse's body, the way it moves and simple mathematics and physics to comprehend the best way to execute a proper barrel pattern. A "proper" barrel pattern is not the same for each horse. Conformation, speed, stride length and athleticism all play a very important role in the way each horse turns a barrel.
I talk a lot about "efficiency" in a turn, but what does this really mean? In most cases, there is what I like to refer to as a "happy place" where the horse is in the correct position to turn a barrel in two strides, much the same way an athlete may three-step the high hurdles. Much practice and repetition are required, as is correct body position. The horse should be balanced on his hindquarters, which is made possible when the rider is centered and sitting deep. The body of the horse should be slightly and evenly arced with his shoulder lifted, and the circle around the barrel is executed at the proper radius. The barrel should remain just behind the rider's leg, ensuring the horse is using his hindquarters to turn rather than bouncing on his front end.
While some riders seem to be born with the ability to feel this "happy" turn, most who finally acquire it do so through repetition and trial and error, only to find that it changes with each horse. However, through an understanding of the science, mathematics and physics behind this turn, a rider can develop this feel. There are three basic things we must pay attention to:
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