Best Horse Breeds for Barrel Racing

Katie Navarra

Rider and horse pushing through the final stretch of a barrel racing competition.

Barrel racing is a thrilling competition that gives competitors a chance to dash for cash. It is arguably one of the richest payouts in horse competitions, with local, regional, and national events paying out hundreds to thousands of dollars. Consider this—the RFD-TV American Finals rodeo paid $100,000 to the 2020 barrel racing winner Taci Bettis for running the cloverleaf pattern in 14.848.

Riders race against the clock and must complete a “cloverleaf” pattern that includes three barrels set in a triangle. Riders have two options for running the pattern. If starting at the right-hand barrel, riders make two right-hand turns—at the first and second—with a left at the third to turn and sprint back to the alleyway. “Lefties” start at the left barrel, then make two left-hand turns, and finish with a right turn.

The barrel pattern

The size of the arena and the host organization determines how far apart the barrels are set. The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) sets the standard pattern with 90 feet between the first and second barrels. Both are set 60 feet from the timer and there are 105 feet between barrel one and three. 

A Brazilian horse and rider hold the world record for running the fastest standard pattern--a 16.339. In 2017, Evelino Rocha on Rollin In The Fame clocked the record-breaking pace. No American has yet to match the time—the current record in the U.S. is 16.479. 

Smaller arenas bring the barrels closer together and times can be as fast as the mid-13 seconds for top horse and rider teams. Knocking over a barrel adds five seconds to a rider’s time. One of the biggest benefits is the sheer volume of events available. In breed associations, only registered horses can enter. At open, regional, and professional rodeo events the only thing that matters is the horse’s heart and agility. 

Best horse breeds for barrel racing

Speed is the name of the game for riders who want to be competitive in timed events like barrel racing and the Quarter Horse is hands down the most popular choice. The stock breed earned recognition in colonial times for lightning-fast speed at a quarter-mile race. The fastest quarter horse bounded down the track at an impressive 55 mph.

Some of the top runners start their career on a flat track. It’s also not uncommon for these horses to have Thoroughbred sprinting blood. Appendix Quarter Horses are those that are crossed with Thoroughbreds to bring the speed of both together.

The quarter horse is considered a stock horse, falling into the same categorization for Paint horses and Appaloosas. All three of these breeds are closely related and share similar speediness and handiness. Paints and Appaloosas add the eye appeal; a splash of color adds a level of excitement as riders dash through the course.

3 Other breeds for barrel racing 

Genetics and conformation can make a difference in competitive barrel racing but unlike other disciplines, there is a greater chance for success with determination, grit, and individual talent. Each horse is an individual and a wide range of competitive levels offers many opportunities for success.

Here’s an example of other breeds that can barrel race.

1. Thoroughbred

When people think of Thoroughbreds, they’re probably thinking of the racetrack. For retired racehorses or those that just don’t take to the flat track, barrel racing can be a place for them to excel. Their inborn drive to run is the perfect match for barrel racing.

There are two body types for these horses, and it influences their compatibility with the event. The top performers at races like the Kentucky Derby are long and lean. This lankiness is not well suited to sprints and quick turns, but thoroughbreds that are closer coupled like stock horses. If you think of picking up a thoroughbred as a barrel partner look for these conformation traits:

  • Balanced neck
  • Sloping shoulder
  • Powerful hindquarters
  • Compact athletic frame

2. Arabian

Arabians have an advantage over bigger-boned stock horses. The light breed is known for its speed, strength, and agility, which makes them a good partner for running barrels.

Barrel racer Jennifer Cockrell qualified her Arabian horse for the National Barrel Horse Association World Championship Show and competed in 4-H and National High School Rodeo Association events. The gelding was her first barrel horse and was what fit the family budget at the time.

“I didn't have a quarter horse which is what most girls ran at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, but I wished I could do what they did,” she said. “I started training my Arabian and he did well for me. Arabians are good for barrel racing because of their determination and endurance. They can be pretty competitive as far as running really close to the quarter horse times, but it always depends on the horse.”

3. National Show Horse

Sometimes a breed not usually associated with barrel racing surprises riders. Blair Cecil planned to breed her National Show Horse “Sadie” after retiring her from the show ring. The mare competed in a range of English and Western events. The breeding didn't catch the first year and Cecil knew her horse needed a job. She always wanted to run barrels so it was a new adventure.

“I jokingly tell people that the Arabian half of Sadie has the speed and endurance, and the Saddlebred and the Arabian half is what whoas when I tell it to,” she said. “Both breeds are ridiculously intelligent, they crave having a purpose, and learning new things.”

Be open minded

The Quarter Horse is the preferred breed among many of the top barrel racing riders but it’s always good to be open to options. An individual horse’s talent and desire to run could create an unexpected surprise from a breed not typically associated with the sport. The only judge is the clock and it can’t differentiate between breeds making it possible to partner up with less common breeds.

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