The A.R.T of Barrel Racing, Part 1

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily
AQHA Professional Horsewoman and National Cowgirl Hall of Famer Sharon Camarillo explains a good foundation in the first of a three-part series on creating a balanced barrel run.

Three quick turns and a race home seems simple enough, right? Take a closer look at barrel racing, and you’ll begin to see there’s a lot more going on than what initially meets the eye. The athleticism of balanced horses and riders who have the ability to move around a barrel in unison is fairly amazing.

Beyond basic foundation work, we’ll divide barrel racing into three elements: the approach, rate and turn. In the first of this three-part series, we’ll get started by developing a solid foundation and learn how to set up for a correct approach, then move to the rate and turn in parts 2 and 3.

Foundation Work

Just like any equine sport, it takes a good foundation to start your barrel-racing performance.

Impulsion, rhythm and suppleness are key in creating a stable foundation. An easy way to break down the elements of a solid foundation is implementing the classical training pyramid. The training pyramid identifies progressive levels of training. The elements of each level of the pyramid are such that for the horse to advance to the next level, he must have a certain proficiency at that level.

Rhythm – Regular, steady paces.

Suppleness – Ability to bend the body laterally and longitudinally in a fluid manner.

Contact – Acceptance of the bit and the rider’s hands. The willingness to go forward into the bit and connect the haunches to the forehand. 

Impulsion – Propulsive or pushing energy from the hindquarters.

Straightness –Sophisticated and correctly trained alignment of the body on straight and curved lines. Straightness requires attention by the rider and the skills provided by the prior levels of the classical training pyramid.

Collection – Balanced self carriage in harmony with the rider. The basis of the training pyramid is that training is never complete. The process provides a base of training and gives a common point of reference. It makes it easier to understand why a barrel horse often has a great deal of resistance in his performance and why he can become anxious and sometimes volatile. If he does not have the skills required for the sport, that produces anxiety. He is frustrated and frightened by the speed and inconsistent reaction of the rider.


A good evaluation is a great place to start in any training program. You must be able to understand where you’re at before you can determine where you need to go. Help identify problem areas by asking yourself these questions: What is the symptom? (Example: My horse over ran the first turn.) What caused the symptom? (Example: The rider pulled on the reins before sitting and cueing for rate) What is the solution? (Example: Determine which exercises work on your problem area.)

Develop an Athletic Seat

One important area to consider is developing an athletic seat. You want to avoid using your reins for balance. Developing an athletic seat enhances your ability to remain balanced, not only in drills but also in competitive runs. Riders also need to be responsible for maintaining clear communication skills. Failure to provide consistent, responsible communication leads to confusion and anxiety. Consistent commands from your leg, hands and seat are important communication between you and your horse.

There are many exercises that you can incorporate into your training and conditioning program. The most important thing to remember is to build on what you have already learned.

The Approach

The approach consists of your start point, the angle at which you consistently take your horse to the pocket around a barrel and the method of steering you employ to keep your horse balanced and directed to that point. Determine the best approach to the first barrel and identify what needs to happen to obtain that approach. Use physical landmarks in or around the arena that can be seen and focused on to assist you in creating the correct approach and the correct pocket for the first barrel.

Identify whether the horse should be positioned on the left, right or center of the alley to create the approach to first barrel. If the entrance is a side gate, locate a point on the arena fence that the horse will be ridden to before allowing him to turn and begin his approach to the first barrel. A line between the start point and the landmark of the pocket point determines your approach. 

What Happens in the Alley

Before you enter the arena, be sure you are riding on both sides to balance your horse’s shoulder, rib and hip. Make sure you aren’t leaning to one side or the other. If you start unbalanced, it will throw off your whole run. 

Common Errors in the Approach

  • Poor selection of a start point
  • Failure to keep the horse straight
  • Dropping shoulders
  • Dropping rib cage
  • Approaching the barrel in the wrong lead
  • Hands too high or low
  • Balance issues with horse or rider
  • Legs too far forward or back
  • Inappropriate equipment


Corkscrew Exercise:It is difficult for a horse and rider to perform in a precise circle. The corkscrew exercise helps horses with their leads, reinforces their body suppleness and encourages them to work off their hocks. It’s a great warm-up and can be used to help condition a horse as well. Working the exercise at a variety of speeds introduces the horse to speed without getting him excited or intimidated.

Goal: Get your horse to complete a corkscrew circle at a variety of speeds, in perfect, precise circles. The horse should remain relaxed, maintain flexibility in his neck and spine, and be able to execute a quick change of direction.


  • Ask your horse to lope on the correct lead in a large circle, at least 50 feet in diameter.
  • Visualize the corkscrew pattern with the center of the circle as the eye of the corkscrew.
  • Look ahead, and once the horse begins to relax, gradually make smaller circles by about 5- or 10-foot increments, until you reach the eye.
  • Apply even rein pressure back toward your pockets and ask your horse to drop down to a trot.
  • At the trot, maintain the forward motion of the front and rear end. This establishes the arc in the horse’s spine and creates a similar maneuver as turning a barrel.
  • When the horse relaxes and responds with a flexible spine and forward motion, release the rein pressure. Cue him to lope out of the circle in the opposite lead, directly into a large circle in the opposite direction.
  • Repeat the exercise in the opposite direction. Two to three direction changes are usually sufficient.

Leg Yield

The basic forward movement developed in this exercise is used in approaching a barrel and maintaining a pocket. It encourages the horse to engage his hindquarters for impulsion and to lift his inside shoulder. The leg yield helps support a horse that wants to drop his shoulder or fade into a turn.

It’s also a great exercise to teach a rider to use her legs as driving aids to encourage a horse to step up with the inside hind leg. Rider position in this exercise is important. Make sure you don’t lean to one side or the other. Your shoulders should be parallel with the horse’s shoulders.

Goal: Create a supple response in the horse’s body and increase the use of his inside hock.


  • Walk with the fence to your side, for example to the left.
  • Take your horse’s nose away from the fence with a direct rein, and move the horse’s front end slight away from the fence. Keep his hindquarters parallel to the fence with your right leg. The front and hind feet should cross over each other as he moves down the fence.
  • Once you can maintain the arc in a straight line on the fence, try the two-track. Begin by moving forward in a straight line in an open area.
  • Ask your horse to arc his body and direct him to travel to the left, away from the direction in which his nose is pointed, with your left rein and right foot. Maintain the arc with your right rein.
  • Practice the leg yield arc for short distances, and then gradually increase them