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Barrel Horse Exercises for the Mind and Body

To keep your barrel horse fit, you need to not only exercise his body, but his mind as well. You want your horse to be healthy and sane, and really enjoy what he is doing, so you enjoy it as well. Most seasoned barrel horses do not need to see the barrels in between events , so all these exercises will not include the barrels.

The biggest thing I do for all my barrel horses is trail rides. It keeps them mental fit because they are outside of the arena, and physically fit because of the different terrain you can take them on. If you take your horse out of the ring at least 3 times a week, you both will benefit from it. Even if it is just a jog down the driveway, at least he is seeing something new. If you have nice open trails that are smooth, you can do some long trotting to get your horses muscles working, muscles they will need for barrel racing.

In the arena, you can do many things without using and type of obstacles. The exercises below are great ones for barrel horses.


This is probably the most important exercise to use through every phase of a horse’s training and career. It’s good to use on a horse just starting out, for a high-strung horse that needs to calm down, and for an old horse to keep him supple and limber. You can do this at a trot or a lope in either direction.

Pick up a nice big circle, at least half the size of the arena, and put him into a lope in the correct lead. Do not start spiraling in till your horse is relaxed and on the correct lead. Make smaller and smaller circles. Then, when you get to where your horse has to slow down, wait till he relaxes and gives you his nose. Then release him and walk back to your starting point and repeat in the opposite direction, making sure to pick up your correct lead.

This exercise helps a horse with his leads, reinforces his body suppleness, and helps him work off his hocks, the movements he will need when he runs barrels. The exercise also helps condition a horse. It’s also a good way to warm-up.

Fence Arc

It is good to teach a horse how to carry an arc while traveling in a straight line. Start by moving to a fence, have your horses nose tilted to the inside of the arena, and keep his body parallel to the fence. Walk first to adjust your horse to this movement, then into a trot. After your horse is familiar with it you can proceed to a lope. When you get to the end of the fence, let his nose back and slow down to a walk. Turn around and go back down the fence with the opposite side tilted. This helps balance a horse and strengthen him for the arc he needs to turn a barrel. It will also make him light when you ask for his nose.

Figure Eights

Figure Eights are a great exercise for barrel horses. If your horse is stiff, you can use the figure-eight exercise to help supple him. It will also help with his balance.

Start in the middle of the arena. Move your horse out straight ahead, and turn to the right. Ride your horse balanced and even. Move in a circle till you reach your start point, and then ride straight ahead and circle to the left this time. You can do this till your horse feels balanced, and also it is a good warm up.


The most important thing. Most problems, specially with the first barrel, come from horses that rate poorly. You should be able to rate your horse at any speed in any exercise. Meaning if you have your horse into a lengthened trot, you should be able to get him down to a collected trot. Practice this by getting your horse into that long trot, and when he feels steady, sit down in your saddle, and collect him, but keep his forward motion. A rate is not a stop. It is an adjustment of stride. A horse needs to collect himself in order to get around the barrel.


This exercise will teach your horse to get his weight off his forehand, so he uses his hindquarters more efficiently. Back your horse slowly at first, make sure he backs straight. Use your legs to bump him back straight if he veers off the path. It is ok to use a fence to help. Sit straight in your saddle and keep you head up looking straight ahead.


Some trainers prefer not to teach rollbacks. But they are great for strengthening and teaching a horse to really use his hind end. He needs this to propel himself around the barrel and to push off to the next one.

Begin walking parallel to the fence. Stop and back your horse till he has his weight on his hind end, usually about 3 or 4 steps back. Move you weight very slightly to the outside of the direction you are turning so your horse is able to pick up his front end to turn. Place your outside leg on him and use a direct rein, (indirect rein if needed, only to position, not to pull him around) and ask him to turn, with his nose on the fence.. So, if you are walking with your left side on the fence, you will be turning left, weight shifted to the right, right leg on. As soon as he has completed the turn, make a circle. Ride a around the ring a little, and choose a new spot to do a roll back in the other direction. A rollback is not always running to a corner or selected area of the ring and turning. Do not overdo this exercise. Two or three are good enough for one practice, and maybe every other session.

Reverse Rollback

Start parallel to a fence. Using the fence as an aid if necessary, turn your horses front-end around while keeping his hind end stays still.

Sit straight in your saddle. What you are doing is basically a reversed rollback. You want to start facing one direction, and end up facing the other. But this time, you are moving your horses front end to the inside of the ring, instead of on the fence.


Great exercise! What you are doing is balancing the horse and you. If done at a lope, this well help your horse with lead changes. You basically weave through the arena.

Start at the end of the ring in a corner. Move your horse out straight to the opposite fence on the short side of the ring. As you near the fence, bend your horse slightly, so he keeps forward movement, and do a half circle so you are now heading back the other direction. Do this the whole length of the arena. This can be ridden in a good trot or a lope.

Also doing reining patterns, or any thing you can think of should work! There are several books available with arena exercises in them if you are stumped on what to do next. You want exercises that help your horse to stay balanced, learn collecting and lengthening stride, and ones that will aid him in using his front and hind end.

Here are some exercises you can do using obstacles.

Pole Bending
This event is great for helping a horse with lead changes. It also helps with his mind because he really needs to listen to the riders signals.

Poles are 6ft high and 2 inches in diameter. They are set 21’ft apart and 21ft from the Start/Finish line. You can buy rubber bases for the poles, but they can be expensive. There are a few easy ways to make pole bending bases. Try using patio umbrella stands. They are filled with sand, and are usually adjustable for size. Christmas tree stands work well too. You can usually pick either up at a yard sale for a few dollars.

The pattern consists of 11 turns, your horse goes through the poles twice. You first run past the poles to the end one, turn it and continue weaving through the poles till you get to the end, then weave back. After you have turned the last pole, you run straight home.

You can set cones up in so many different patterns and take your horse through them. Set them up in different parts of the arena, and put a pattern in your head, then take your horse through it at different speeds. It will help your horse listen to what you are asking of him, instead of just running around what is in front of him.

Set up some low jumps, nothing high, to help your horse pick up his feet. Jumping can be fun too! Just watch out for that saddle horn! Be careful and make sure the ground is level where the jump is.

Be creative! Think up new patterns to try. Set the barrels up differently and have your horse go around them different ways each time you go through. Horses like to be stimulated with new things, it helps them to think and to listen to what you are asking next. Have fun with your horse, you both deserve it.

Article Source/Author: Billie McNamara


Running Past the First Barrel

Your first barrel is a different set up and turn then the other two. At the barrel you are coming in at a full out run from the start. You also turn this barrel at a different angle than the others. This barrel is called the “money barrel” because if you knock this barrel, your run is over with, if you leave it standing, you have a good chance of bringing home some money.

The reason many barrel horses run past the first barrel is because the lack of rate. Since they are charging full force, some seasoned barrel horses tend to get too aggressive about this barrel. To fix this you need to go back in your training and work on rate with your horse. Work on asking your horse to slowly trot or lope to the barrel. When you get to your rate point, ask your horse to stop and back up. By doing this your horse will learn to listen to your cues when you ask him to slow down for the barrel.

Rating or Ducking out the Second Barrel

When you come off the first barrel and are heading to the second, you are running straight at a fence. Some horses have a problem with this and will tend to turn to early at the second barrel. A good solution is to try putting the barrels in an open area such as a field and taking your horse through the pattern. Also, work in an arena loping your horse straight to a fence and ask them to stop at the fence. Mix in stopping at the fence and turning at the fence, but only turning the direction you ask. Pretty soon your horse will be asking you what you want him to do, stop, turn left or turn right. When your horse looks to you for direction, you are ready to run a solid barrel pattern.

Coming Wide off the Third Barrel

This is a common problem because the horse knows this is the final turn before they get to dig for home. The rider also knows it and their anticipation can also allow the horse to come with off of this barrel. If your horse is just in training, or if you sometimes do practice runs to tune your horse up, never run back from the barrel. Always complete the turn and head to the fence and come along the fence back to the start/finish line. Doing this completes the barrel turn for the horse and also for the rider. Another good exercise is too set up a few barrels in no particular pattern, and have your horse turn them in your order. Doing this will help the horse listen to you when you want him to turn, and not just drill a pattern into his head.

Dropping the Shoulder into the Barrel

If your horse has a habit of knocking barrels over, one of the common causes is a dropped shoulder. This exercise is a good way to help your horse pick up his shoulder. While going to the barrel aim your horse for the normal rate point and the point where you would ask your horse to start turning the barrel. At this point, ask your horse to turn the opposite direction away from the barrel. Do a complete turn so you are facing back the direction you came. Ride back a ways and turn again aiming for the barrel. You can repeat this exercise if you feel your horse again dropping into the barrel.

Wanting to Go back to Start after the First or Second Barrel

A very common problem in barrel horses. They will come around the first or second barrel and want to head right back to the ‘Out’ gate. There are a few ways to try to deal with this problem. The most important thing is be ready for it. Don’t let your horse think he has gotten the best of you by doing this. An exercise to try is setting the pattern up the opposite way then you usually do. In other words, put the first and second barrels on the side of the arena that the third barrel usually is, so you are coming into the pattern from the other side of the arena. Just by a change of scenery may help your horse to listen to what you are asking of them. Another thing to try is having a crop or quirt in your hand. It should be on the side your horse usually goes to after turning the barrel. So if your horse comes around the second barrel and tries to go right instead of going left to the third barrel, hold the crop in your right hand. You probably wont need to use it, just hold it there as a barrier. If your horse gets really pushy, lay it on his neck as a more forceful barrier. For the training aspect of this problem, try setting up barrels in no particular pattern and having your horse go through the pattern you set in your mind. If you want to turn a barrel to the left, you ask your horse to do it. If you want to run by a barrel, your horse should do it with no hesitation. You two need to be partners in this, but your horse should also look to you for guidance.

Not Entering the Arena

A horse that will not enter the arena for a run is a ring sour and/or barrel sour horse. This horse has probably been run too much on barrels. The best thing is too take this horse off of barrels for a while. The reason for this is a horse that refuses to enter the arena can become dangerous. They can rear up, bolt, spin, try to do anything but go in the arena, and most of the time they do not care who is in their way. The best thing to do is go on trail riders, do anything but barrels. You can also work in the arena without the barrels there. This gets the horse comfortable with just walking in the arena and playing around instead of having to run, run, run.

When your horse if comfortable walking into the arena, set the barrels up in there, but don’t pay attention to them. Act like you don’t even see them. Play around a little in the ring, then just ride out. Do this a few days, then ask your horse to go around the barrels a slow pace. Try to only do this once. Than ride around the ring a little and end the session for that day. After this, try doing a slow test run with your horse. Just lope slowly through the pattern once and that’s it. If your horse did this willingly, walking into the arena and didn’t try to bolt when you set up to do the barrels, try taking your horse to a show and see how they do. Just stay calm, be confident that your horse will walk into the arena calmly and ready to run.

Not Stopping at the End of a Run

If your horse has no brakes, you really shouldn’t be running at all. If is extremely dangerous to not have control of your horse. Work on getting your horse to listen to you at slower gaits. As you progress, move up in speed until you feel comfortable and confident that you can control your horse at any speed he is going. Also, just because your horse will not stop, doesn’t mean you need to get a harsher bit on your horse, but sometimes a bit change is necessary. If you are looking to change bits and not sure what to try, contact a professional to help you in your decision.

Proper Body Position while Barrel Racing

Even though barrel racing is a fast paced sport, it doesn’t mean you can leave your horsemanship behind. If you keep correct body position throughout a barrel run it will cut precious seconds off your time, seconds that decide if you are in the money or just out of it. There are the basic things to remember, along with a few extra details while turning the barrels.

The Basics

Always sit straight in the saddle, keeping your belly button facing the saddle horn. Keep your elbows in and your shoulders up. If you drop your shoulder, your horse will drop his, so in turn if you keep yours up, he will keep his up. The same practice can be done for the rib cage and the hip. If your horse is having problems in the turn, check your body position through pictures, videos or having someone watch you. If you sit straight in the saddle, you will be more balanced and allow your horse the same opportunity. Keep your hands low. This will give you the chance to straighten your horse out easily if needed.

At the Rate Point

The point where you are going to ask your horse to slow and down and collect himself to turn the barrel. To give your horse this signal, sit deep in your saddle and roll back on your back pockets. This is what we have trained our horse to know means slow down and collect, or rate. You can use your palm of your hand on the saddle horn to push yourself down into the saddle if your horse is a hard turner or you have problems staying in the saddle.

Pick up your reins if the horse doesn’t rate on its own. This is only to reinforce if he doesn’t slow down with your body in the saddle. At this point you want to be straight in the saddle to help your horse collect evenly. If you are leaning off to one side, it can interfere with his ability to prepare for the barrel turn.

When Turning

Even though you are going pretty fast, you need to make sure you weight is properly balanced while turning the barrel. Otherwise, you can throw your horse off taking seconds off your time and possibly hitting barrels. At the point you start to turn the barrel, shift your weight slightly to the outside stirrup, just your weight, not your body. This frees up the horses inside shoulder, allowing him to pick up his inside legs and shoulders. If your body weight is on the inside, the horse can’t move his inside leg and can not properly balance going around the barrel.

To help you keep your position during the turn and also holding on because you are turning so fast, you can drop hand to horn. You can do this at this point or at the point your horse had collected. This all depends on your horses turning style and if you have to balance him between your reins right up until you turn. The horn is there for a reason, use it! During training you can use two hands to help direct and balance the horse between your reins. When you start adding speed you’ll want to use the horn for those fast turns.

Make sure you stay seated in saddle. You can use your hand on the horn to push yourself down into the seat if necessary. You are going to use your inside leg to soften the horses rib cage and put the bend in, having him wrap his body around your leg. This is what we have practiced before while doing circles. It picks up the rib cage and the horse bends around your leg, helping with that tight turn.

After Turn

The most important part of the end of the turn is to not finish before your horse does. If you are ahead or behind your horse, you can throw off the rest of the run for both of you. Stay with your horse throughout the entire run. This will take time to get accustomed to, especially if you are riding a new horse, but it will come with time.

After you have turned the barrel, look to next pocket/rate point. This will tell the horse where to go next, and drive your horse by using your body. Your horse will go where you look. Don’t look down or behind you, look up. If you look to the next barrel too soon, you can cause your horse to come in and knock over the barrel you haven’t even completed yet. Looking up also will help your horse to go faster because you will be in the GO position. It also helps you to not look at the barrel, if you look down at the barrel, you can knock it over.

The weight that we slightly had to the outside will come back to the center at this point. You want to also shift slightly forward to free up your horses hind end enabling him to push out of the turn. You can use your horn to pull you out of the saddle if needed.

After you have turned that last barrel its time to let your horse run home! Stay centered in the saddle and let your horse have his head. Keep your weight off the hindquarters so your horse can run freely. Ride all the way past the timer so you don’t cut seconds off your time by slowing down too soon. When you ask your horse to stop, sit deep in your saddle and say whoa. Walk him around to cool him out and give your horse a good pat, you did great.

To compete in any event and win, you need to have the right equipment. Barrel racing is no different, but something you don’t need to do it to run out and buy everything at the tack shop that says “Barrel Racing” on it, and you don’t need to go buy the most expensive saddles or other equipment. I will break down the specific things you need to barrel race, and to win.

There are several bit selections available on the market today. But, not every barrel horse needs a “barrel racing” bit. You should always start as low as you can, because you can always go up a notch, but you usually can not come down once you have gone so harsh. Most properly trained and conditioned barrel horses do not need a combo or gag bit. When you start your horse, try a regular snaffle bit or a hackamore. If you have an “older” horse, you can usually use the bit you have always used on them. By older I mean a horse that is already had his basic training. Different bits have different outcomes. There are bits that lift, bits that flex, that Whoa, that make your horse flip over backwards. If you have a problem, it is not always your bit, and you don’t need to go out to find your wonder bit that will make everything go away. Re-evaluate your problem, and go from there. Seek professional help from a trainer, vet or other horse specialist if you can not figure it out.

A rider must also respect the control she is gaining over the horse with the equipment. Through patience and correct selection of headgear, a horse will learn he can't beat the bit, and he will respond. Control does not come just from the head and head gear. Correct body positions, consistent cues and leg aids all work together to make the horse and rider become a team.

Common Barrel Racing Bits and their purposes

Draw/Gag bits: add pressure to the poll adding flex and collection
Combination bits: for training and competition. The broken mouthpiece adds bend, the nose band distributes the bit pressure, and the chain adds rate. These are good for heavy handed riders as they spread out the pressure. These bits come in short and long shanks for the amount of whoa needed.
Hackamores: great for horses already seasoned. They can take the bend out of a horse that flexes too much.
Snaffles: for direct/lateral control. Most barrel horses do well in a regular snaffle bit, but they can lack rate.
Polo/Roper Bits: for rate/collection.

The options for bits and what they do:
Twisted wire mouthpiece: good for horses that are heavy in the bridle. Remember, the thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more severe.
Longer Shanks: for more whoa
Short Shanks: for more lateral work
Chain mouthpiece: shoulder control, rating, and help in the turn
Noseband: comes in rope, wire or chain.
Curb Chain: for rate:
Solid mouthpiece: for horses with too much bend.

You usually want to have a one-piece rein for barrel racing so you don’t loose it when you are running. There are different styles and types out there for you.
The Martha Josey Knot Reins are a good choice, they can be adjusted in length and the knots are always right where you want them. Plus, they come in all different colors. They give you grip, but not too much that you can’t let the reins slide when you want them too.
Leather reins can be stiff when they get wet, and they can be slippery sometimes too. Along with flat leather reins, they have braided leather.
Rope reins with knots work well too, or without knots if your prefer.
There are also wax reins, but they can be sticky. You have to really watch your hands with those types of reins, otherwise you will be pulling your horse around the barrel when you should be guiding him. It is mostly up to rider preference in rein selection.

To adjust your reins to the proper length, sit on your horse and hold the middle of the reins at the loop in front of your horn. You should have a few inches between the horn and your hand with your horses head being relaxed and little tension in the reins.

A tie-down should complement the bit. It provides security and support for the horse in his turns and stops. A tie-down is something that contributes to your run, it helps your horse balance. You can ride a horse in the open or on a trail ride with out a tie-down.

When you adjust your tie-down strap, in the middle between the horses head and chest, take the strap and press it to your horse’s neck, it should easily reach. If it doesn't you need to loosen it, but if it has loops on either side, tighten it up a bit. You want your horse to be able to stretch his nose out when he is running, that is how they keep their balance.

If you have a tie down on your horse, make sure you have a breast collar on him, because you need to keep the tie down strap from getting tangled in his legs. You do not always need a tie-down. If your horse is properly balanced then it would be better to not have one on him. If you have been running without one, and think your horse may need one but you may be uncertain, ask a professional for their opinion.

There are three common types of tie-downs; soft leather, rope (uncovered or covered), and chain.

Leather tie-down is the most common. It is wide so the horse can support against it without it digging in to his nose. It is a leather noseband with a strap going over the poll and a ring under the chin for the tie-down strap to attach through the breast collar to the cinch.

Rope tie-down can be harsher because it is usually made of lariat rope. It can be covered though, either with leather, plastic or vet wrap works just as well. It has the same design as the leather tie-down.

Chain or wire are the harshest tie downs. There are two different styles of chain or wire. There is the typical halter type that puts pressure on the poll and the nose. That comes in chain or wire. Then there is the bonnet type that just goes over the ears to put pressure on the poll. Most well trained barrel horses do not need this type of restraint. Before you move your horse over to a harsher tie down, make sure he is not having pain anywhere making him throw his head up. He could have teeth issue and is trying to get away from the bit pressure.

Saddle pads are something that is up to the riders choice and the horses needs. There are so many different types out there for you to pick and choose from. You want something that will not slip, but fits comfortably on your horse. You do not want too much bulky as it can make your saddle slip. You don’t want it too thick so it causes your horses back to be sore. Make sure it compliments your horses back and saddle.

There are many brands and types of saddles to choose from. You do not have to have a barrel saddle to compete, but it sure can help. A good saddle choice is one that is light weight, has a high horn and a high cantle, forward hung stirrups are a great option as they help keep your feet under you while competing. You probably want it at least to a full size smaller than you usually ride in, you want to be able to stay in the saddle, but be comfortable. Mainly it is up to the rider, and make sure it fits your horse properly.

Cinches, Breast collars and Back cinches
There are many type of cinches out there to work with. When you have a cinch, make sure it is the correct size for your horse so it prevents rubbing your horse. You want it comfortable for your horse and kept clean.

A Breast collar is something good to have. They have breast collars specially designed for barrel racing that have a loop in the middle to run your tie-down strap through so it doesn't get caught up in your horses legs. You want your breast collar to ride in the right place and not be too tight that your horse can not breathe properly when they are running. You want a breast collar that isn’t too thin because this could create pressure points, and cost seconds off your run. Again, make sure you keep your breast collar clean.

If you can, have a back cinch on your saddle. It keeps your saddle down, which in turn keeps your butt in the saddle. When you adjusting your back cinch, you want it so it is tight enough to keep your saddle down, but not too tight that it makes your horse show you his best bronco routine. Take time for your horse to adjust to this. It is also a good idea to have a strap that runs from the back cinch to the front cinch to keep if from sliding back and irritating your horse.

Barrel racing is a tough, rough, and agonizing sport that is hard on both horse and rider. Horses have to be real athletes to barrel race, so they need to protect the areas they are hardest on

Protective Boots
You don’t always need protection on your horses legs. If you are just going out for a trail ride, you can leave them at home. They should be used for ring work and competition to protect horses of all ages.

Overreach boots or bell boots are used on the front legs of the horse. They help protect when a horse overreaches, which can happen during a run, and protects the coronet band and the bulbs of the horses heels.

There are many options for leg boots. Professionals Choice Sports Medicine Boots are a good choice. They provide protection from being hit from the outside by hooves, legs or other debris, as well as act as an Energy Absorber. With these boots, make sure you remove them between runs so your horses legs can breathe and to make sure there is no dirt inside them. You can get these boots for both the front and back legs. There are several types of medicine boots, you don't have to use just Professionals Choice. You can also use splint boots or polo wraps. If you decide to use polo wraps, make sure you wrap them properly so you don’t cause more harm than good.

For the front legs, you can also get a Combination boot, that has the SMB and the Bell boot/Overreach boot all in one.

The back legs have options too. Most times you don’t need anything on the hind legs, but if you notice your horse putting a lot of wear on them, you may need to consider it. You can use skid boots, that protect the hind fetlocks from rough stops and slides. SMB’s are also available for the hind legs, or polo wraps.

Whenever riding, you should always wear heeled boots for your safety sake. Always wear jeans when riding to save my legs from bumps and bruises.

Most barrel racers don't wear a helmet when riding, and it will be the never ending debate. But at the 2004 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Delores Toole wore a helmet instead of the traditional cowboy hat. She wanted barrel racers to know it is OK to wear a helmet when you race. If you choose to or not, it is only up to you. At some shows the require you wear a helmet, so it is good to have one just in case.

If you have any questions about selecting or fitting tack properly, contact a professional for help. After you have everything selected and fitted on your horse, enjoy the ride, you look sharp!