Barrel races would appear to have been first held sometime in the 1930s. The event then consisted of women racing their horses in a course shaped like the figure eight around a couple of barrels. According to popular legend, Texas was the birthplace of barrel racing. Barrel racing came about because of women’s desire to compete in rodeos. In truth, though, women had already established their presence in rodeos to some extent, going back to the 1880s when the Wild West Shows organized by Buffalo Bill Cody and some others started featuring women bronc riders, trick riders, trick ropers and gun handlers.
All through the Second World War, all-women rodeos were common occurrences, but their popularity waned after the war when men returned from the war front back to rodeos. It appears barrel racing courses were changed to a clover leaf design in 1935, but only in 1949 did speed and timing become the primary criteria for choosing winners. This continues to be the case till now. Also in that year, a bunch of courageous ladies got together to establish the Girl’s Rodeo Association, renamed the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association later in 1981. Barrel racing has since evolved under the aegis of the GRA to a ladies’ event that now boasts of purses that are equal to their male counterparts’.
Barrel races can be standalone events or part of a horse show or a rodeo. This event is now contested fiercely, with horses conditioned into supreme athleticism and riders who are gifted horsemen. Horse – rider teams vie to establish the fastest timing on a clover leaf shaped course set around three closed end 55 gallon metal barrels placed in a triangle. Timed rodeo events require contestants to complete the course as fast as they can while being timed by an electronic eye, (a device that records times using laser); this also backed up by an arena official who manually times competitors. The clock begins ticking when contestants go over the starting line and comes to an end when they cross the finishing line after completing the pattern.
Apart from the obvious need for extremely fit horses and superbly capable riders, the horse’s ability to take sharp turns without losing momentum plays a large role in success. Factors like ground conditions (quality and depth of sand or dirt packed on to the course) are common for all contestants.
On standard present day professional clover leaf courses, a run normally takes about 15 seconds on an average. A time of 13.52 seconds set in 2006 by Brandie Halls at the National Finals event is one of the fastest ever recorded. Like competitors in any other event, barrel racers are governed by rules of participation. They cannot break the pattern; doing so invites disqualification. If they tip over a barrel, they can get penalized 5 seconds; in some events the penalty is “no time.” A lot of rodeo organizers stipulate that barrel racers should be attired in long sleeved shirts, hats and boots. At some events, racers may be fined if they lose their hats while running.
Barrel racing is a tough and highly competitive sport, with very high standards for horses and riders. It is rare that a rider makes a living out of professional barrel racing. Once, barrel horses were animals that had been found unsuitable for other events, like cutting, reining or straight racing. Now, there are a lot of professional trainers who specialize in training horses for barrel races, and there are a lot of horses that are raised just for this particular sport. A lot of breeding programs of undeniable quality are engaged with developing elite breeds of horses just for barrel racing. Mare owners hopeful of raising a champion have lots of options in terms of suitable barrel horse studs. It is said that the ideal barrel horse must be lightning fast and able to keep its volatility under control; it needs to stay composed in order to be able to take the precise turns of a barrel race course at high speed. When looking for the ideal barrel horse, horse owners look for strong minds, big hearts, proper conformations and a yearning to run barrels. They also look for endurance, as horses may have to travel long distances to get to various competitive events. Some travel schedules can be gruelling, and not all horses are capable of handling that stress and still stay eager and capable of competition.
For years, barrel racing was mostly confined to women. There has been a recent spurt, though, in associations that focus on male barrel racers. Several local and regional riding institutions and barrel racing associations offer special training for youth. All said and done, barrel racing is a sport that is fun for the whole family. Men commonly compete in futurities for barrel horses of four or five years of age that have yet to see racing action.
Barrel racing as a sport has evolved considerably over the years. As training methods improve and breeding programs continue to bring out improved strains, it is almost certain that barrel racing will become fiercer in competitive spirit, horse quality and performances. Barrel racers are usually absolutely dedicated; they are always focused and are ever ready to make any sacrifices necessary. The determination of those past cowgirls has now brought about a sport that has its own special niche. It is here to stay.