Barrel racing is a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time. Though both boys and girls compete at the youth level and men compete in some amateur venues and jackpots, in collegiate and professional ranks, it is primarily a rodeo event for women. It combines the horse's athletic ability and the horsemanship skills of a rider in order to safely and successfully maneuver a horse in a pattern around three barrels (typically three fifty-five gallon metal or plastic drums) placed in a triangle in the center of an arena.
Barrel racing originally developed as an event for women, while the men roped or rode bulls and broncs. In early barrel racing, the pattern alternated between a figure-eight and a cloverleaf pattern. The figure-eight was eventually dropped in favor of the more difficult cloverleaf.
It is believed that competitive barrel racing was first held in Texas. The WPRA was developed in 1948 by a group of women from Texas who were looking to make a home for themselves and women in general in the sport of rodeo. When it initially began, the WPRA was called the Girls Rodeo Association, with the acronym GRA. It consisted of only 74 members, with as few as 60 approved tour events. The Girls Rodeo Association was the first body of rodeo developed specifically for women. The GRA eventually changed its name and officially became the WPRA in 1981, and the WPRA still allows women to compete in the various rodeo events as they like, but barrel racing remains the most popular event competition.
Today barrel racing is a part of most rodeos and is also included in gymkhana or O-Mok-See events, which are a mostly amateur competition open to riders of all ages and abilities. There are also open barrel racing jackpots (open to all contestants no matter their age or gender). Barrel racing is usually one of the main three challenges in which age group riders compete against each other, the other two being keyhole and pole-bending.
In barrel racing the purpose is to make a run as fast as possible. The times are measured either by an electric eye, a device using a laser system to record times, or by a judge who drops a flag to let the timer know when to hit the timer stop. Judges and timers are more commonly seen in local and non-professional events. The timer begins when horse and rider cross the start line, and ends when the barrel pattern has been successfully executed and horse and rider cross the finish line. The rider's time depends on several factors, most commonly the horse's physical and mental condition, the rider's horsemanship abilities, and the type of ground or footing (the quality, depth, content, etc. of the sand or dirt in the arena).
Diagram of a Barrel Racing Course. Riders enter at the red line, circle around the 1st barrel, proceed to the 2nd barrel, and then continue on to the 3rd where they will complete the pattern and finally exit the course crossing the red line a second time. This pattern is often referred to as a "Cloverleaf" The pattern may also begin with the left barrel first.
Beginning a barrel race, the horse and rider will enter the arena at top speed, through the center entrance (or alley if in a rodeo arena). Once in the arena, the electronic timer beam is crossed by the horse and rider. The timer keeps running until the beam is crossed again at the end of the run.
Modern barrel racing horses not only need to be fast, but also strong, agile, and intelligent. Strength and agility are needed to maneuver the course in as little distance as possible. A horse that is able to "hug the barrels" as well as maneuver the course quickly and accurately follow commands, will be a horse with consistently low times.