Barrel racing is an exciting form of horse racing where participants compete not just against each other but the clock as well. Like dressage and unlike other races, only one rider enters the arena at a time. It is a fascinating speed event in which a horse, along with its rider, gallops in a 'cloverleaf' pattern making agile turns around three barrels placed in a triangular fashion. Contestants must circle all three barrels - touching the barrel is OK but knocking it down is not. Each knocked over barrel invites penalty in terms of time, making the racer slower. Racers enter the arena at full speed and try to circle the three barrels as quickly as they can in the predefined pattern. They steer as close to the barrels as they can in order to steal precious seconds from the clock. An electronic 'eye' accurate to a hundredth of a second is used to time the racers. The race is normally over within a quarter of a minute.
It is a rodeo event which originated from the manners of cattle herding practices of the Spanish cattlemen, known as 'vaqueros', and which later greatly influenced the cowboys of the North and South American continents. In the present form, it is a unique sporting event full of excitement and thrill. Unlike pole bending or steer wrestling which are also timed events, this has evolved into a professional rodeo competition. It is believed that it first saw competitive light in the state of Texas. Barrel racing has often been seen as meant only for, or dominated by, women riders for several decades. But the fact is that not only does this type of racing not have an age limit, it is open to both sexes. Competitive rivalry in this rodeo has frequently drawn battle lines along gender boundaries.
The initial all-girl-rodeos produced in early forties were more for exhibition than competition. Young ladies merely rode around on horseback, looking pretty, without competing. However, the trend changed in the coming years - the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) came into being in 1948 and standardized timed racing for sponsored competitions, getting rid of the cosmetic contest.
The earliest barrel races were organized along shape of the digit "eight" and also in the cloverleaf pattern. Eventually, the former was dropped and the more difficult cloverleaf pattern survived. The three barrels form an isosceles triangle, where two sides of the triangle are equal. While there is no universal standard for inter barrel distances, the Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) specifies a distance of 90 feet between barrel 1 and 2; and 105 feet from barrel 3 to other two barrels. The score line should be 60 feet from barrels 1 and 2 and not less than 45 feet. These are now widely accepted.
A racer's time depends on several factors, the condition of the arena being one of them. The type, nature, and depth of the sand or soil, and the evenness of the ground, all affect speed of the horse. Riding on grass is difficult for horses because of slippage. A horse running in sand or mud is likely to be slower than a horse running on a harder surface. A good time ranges from around 12 to 20 seconds, depending on the size of the pattern and condition of the arena.
The event not only requires the optimal physical fitness of the rider but also the perfect fitness of the horse too. This is very important, considering the dangerous rules of the event. In case the horse gets excited, it may result in grave injuries to the rider. There have been many such instances in the past. Hence, special care should be taken to make precautionary arrangements for the horse and the rider.
The only brutal rule of the game is: beat the clock as quickly as you can! And do it, of course, without knocking over the barrels. After entering the arena, the rider has the freedom to start either around the left or the right barrel.
The racer enters the arena at top speed. Time begins when the horse and the rider cross the start line, and ends when the barrel pattern has been successfully executed, and the horse and rider cross the finish line. Getting past the first barrel is most crucial because the horse is approaching it at full speed. Hence, it is usually termed as the "money barrel" - if it is knocked off the rider is also knocked off from the event! The rider must control the horse's speed at the right moment to enter the "pocket" - a term describing the area around the barrel in which the horse is maneuvered to circle it. To meet this challenge, a horse must be fairly aggressive, but should not be over-aggressive to make the rider a mere passenger - the rider should be in command throughout.
It is all about coordination between the horse and the rider. Because of the competition and money involved, finding a good horse becomes very important. A top quality barrel horse can cost well over $60,000 depending on the ability and individuality of the horse. While breeding plays a dominant role in the sale price, athletic ability, intelligence, drive, etc., also add to the value of the horse.
Barrel racing has come a long way from the beginning, as a way of exhibiting young ladies for their beauty, attire, and horsemanship, and culminating into an exciting sporting event in which participants race against the clock.
It can be debated whether the prestigious barrel racing events have acquired a status similar to NBA or NFL, but the sport has produced some remarkable achievements in the recent past. For instance, Charmayne James has become the most consistent performer of the World Champion Barrel Racer, with eleven titles between 1984 and 2002. Her horse, Scamper, was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame. Cloned twins of Scamper were born recently. Time will tell rest of the genetic story of a time-beater!