The A.R.T of Barrel Racing, Part 2

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily

Last month, we set the stage for a good foundation and learned how to correctly approach each barrel. Now that the basics are under our belts, let’s pick up the pace and figure out how to rate your horse’s speed as you move into the turn. The rate is your horse’s ability to shorten his stride and prepare for the turn.

The rate is your horse’s ability to shorten his stride and prepare for the turn. It is also the most misunderstood part of barrel racing. You are basically asking your horse to lengthen, then shorten a stride while maintaining collection to create an efficient powerful turn, all within a second or two. To put things in perspective, the type of collection it takes to get this accomplished is comparative to the athleticism required of upper-level dressage horses. That’s why it is important to master the basics of the training pyramid from last month’s story.

Determining a Rate Point

Selecting the right point and obtaining an effective rate are key to an efficient turn. Running by and shouldering into barrels are byproducts of a rider’s inability to identify where to rate her horse. Keep in mind your horse’s ability, the arena size and ground condition when identifying a rate point for the first barrel. Remember to always be consistent. Practice cueing your horse to rate with consistent cues and work on them at different speeds.

Cone System

The cone system is an easy way to help you visualize the pattern and pinpoint each element of the approach, rate and turn. Each cone serves as a marker to remind you where you need to cue your horse for a specific response. Set up the cones around all three barrels to help visualize cue points and adjust your rate points to fit your horse.

Cone No.1 is the first point where you can ask your horse to rate. Depending on your horse’s ability and the arena condition, your rate point can be anywhere between the first and second cone.

Cone No. 3 is where you begin your turn. Pick up the inside rein and shift your weight to your outside stirrup. Then look and drive your horse to the last cone

Trouble Picking Your Point? 

Choosing your rate point can be tricky and is usually a matter of trial and error. Sometimes even the most experienced rider lets the horse drift in at the rate point, and it leads the horse to slice, or drop his shoulder into the barrel.

To avoid this problem, pick your point before you begin your run and look straight beyond that point to the fence or some other visible aid. The barrel doesn’t move, so you can keep it in your peripheral vision and look directly at the pocket point. This will help you maintain an upright, balanced body position and will help keep your horse honest. Always be aware of your rein and leg position. The same technique can also be applied to the second and third barrel.

Using a marker on the fence is an easy way to find a steady point to focus on.


Use these exercises to help your horse learn how to lengthen/shorten his stride and improve his ability to rate:

Lengthen your horse’s stride on the long ends of the arena and shorten his stride on the ends. Circle your horse in each corner in the direction you’re moving around the arena.

Use your cones to practice lengthening and shortening your horse’s stride in a circle. Vary your speed and direction around the circle.

The rollback exercise can be used to develop a consistent response to your request for stop/rate and collection.

  • Approach the first barrel. Once you reach the proper rate point, cue your horse using the correct sequence and body position.
  • Maintain solid rein contact until your horse stops.
  • Back your horse a few steps to take his weight off the forehand. (Make sure to position him on his outside turning hock before requesting the rollback.)
  • Roll back away from the barrel using direct rein to start the turn and reinforcement from the outside rein and leg to send your horse in the reverse direction.
  • Depending on the level of training, trot or lope your horse back to the arena fence. Use the fence as an aid to help shift the horse’s weight off his forehand, before asking for another stop.
  • If you are loping, make sure to ask for the correct lead. Repeat each exercise at each barrel, and until your horse gives a satisfactory response.

In the Driver’s Seat

Rate is reinforced in two ways: by your seat and by the reins. To make sure you and your horse are in the correct position, introduce the rate at a jog with your horse’s shoulder, rib cage and hips framed and balanced between your reins. Use the first cone as a visual cue to position and ask for the rate.

Pay attention to your body position when you begin to rate. The angle of your hips changes from being upright in the saddle to shifting your pelvis and somewhat sitting on your back pockets. When you shift your weight, gently increase your rein pressure back toward your pocket. You should feel your horse respond by shifting his weight to his hindquarters and shortening his stride.

As he shortens his stride, you may need to apply leg pressure to drive the hindquarters up under him, to help shorten his stride and to drive him forward through the turn. Continue to reinforce the mechanics or rating by varying your speeds until you and your horse become comfortable.

The momentum of the approach will carry your horse through a turn. Eventually, the momentum impulsion and proper positioning will slingshot your horse around each barrel and provide a well-timed and efficient turn.