Rodeo Events 101: Exploring the History and Rules of Barrel Racing

Barrel racing, a thrilling and fast-paced equestrian sport has captured the hearts of horse enthusiasts all around the world. The combination of speed, agility, and precision required in barrel racing makes it an exhilarating spectacle to witness. In this blog post, we will delve into the fascinating history of barrel racing and explore the rules that govern this exciting sport.

What is Barrel Racing

Barrel Racing is the ultimate women’s sport in the world of rodeo. In fact, in the world of Pro Rodeo, the women have their own professional association that tracks and hosts events across the country.

Barrel Racing Rules

The objective is fairly simple: riders must complete a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels placed in a triangular formation as quickly as possible. However, there are some important rules that riders must follow to ensure a fair and safe competition.


Penalties can determine victory or defeat in barrel racing. There are two penalties in this sport. The first penalty occurs when a barrel is knocked over, disrupting the pattern. This can result in an additional five seconds being added to the total racing time. However, if the rider manages to catch the falling barrel before it hits the ground, no penalty is incurred. The second penalty is given for a broken pattern, which leads to complete disqualification.

  • All three barrels must remain standing
  • If a barrel is knocked down five seconds are added to the overall time
  • The competitor must stay within the pattern, if the pattern is broken at any time for any reason, it will result in a no-time.

Cloverleaf Pattern

The barrels are set up in a triangular formation, with the first barrel usually placed on the left, the second barrel on the right, and the third barrel at the opposite end from the first. Riders must complete the pattern by making a full turn around each barrel in a specific order, without knocking any of the barrels over. The times will vary depending on the arena. For example, the NFR barrel pattern is much smaller than the barrel pattern at Pendleton Rodeo.

How to Start Barrel Racing

To become the top barrel racer in the sport, you need extensive training, discipline, and control. Speed alone is not everything, as mastering the pattern is essential. Practice will help you gain momentum. Finding a qualified trainer, whether they are an experienced barrel racer or an instructor, is crucial for building a solid foundation. In addition to the training, you will need a four-legged partner in crime that can help take you to the finish line. You are only half of the equation, so make sure to find a horse that falls within your experience level.

Barrel Racing Horses

As mentioned above, you are only half of the equation when it comes to barrel racing. Your horse is the single most important thing when it comes to being successful in this sport. While genetics most definitely play a role in the quality of a barrel horse, there are horses with no proven bloodlines that have been successful in barrel racing as well. It really depends on how they have been trained and how they partner with their rider. Here are some qualities you generally want to see in barrel racing horses

  • Endurance: It takes a lot to run in perfect form around three barrels for the fastest time. Keeping your horses legged up and endurance up, will be crucial to your success.
  • Racing Style: You will need to determine how your horse runs best, whether they are a pusher or a free runner. Essentially a push-style horse is a horse you can push around the pattern and to most riders, they are easier to control. Free runners are just like they sound, they have more raw speed but are harder to control.
  • Attitude: Just like people, some people are made for extreme sports and some are not. Some horses were made to run and some were not. It is so important to have a horse that WANTS to do this with you. If your horse balks or starts to show signs of distaste, it might be time to try something else.


Barrel racing can trace its roots back to the early 1930s when it emerged as a popular event at rodeos in the United States. It was primarily designed as a way to showcase the skills of female riders, breaking traditional gender barriers in the world of rodeo. The origins of barrel racing are not fully known, as there is no definitive story or individual that can trace its beginnings. However, there is a general understanding of how it evolved into a competitive sport. The sport began to gain popularity in Texas during the early 1900s. It wasn’t until the 1940s that barrel racing started being judged based on the shortest time rather than the appearance of the rider and horse. During this time, women were also offered prize money instead of gifts for their participation. As barrel racing continues to grow in terms of participants, it also continues to capture the hearts of rodeo fans who passionately support these cowgirls.

World Records

Most NFR Qualifications

  • Charmayne James: 19 Qualifications | (1984-2002)

Most Money Won at the NFR

  • Sherry Cervi: $146,100 | 2009

Fastest Time at the NFR in Las Vegas

  • 2009 | Shervi Cervi: 13.60

Barrel racing is an exhilarating sport that requires a deep bond between horse and rider. The speed, precision, and agility displayed by both horse and rider make it a truly awe-inspiring experience for spectators.

Whether you are a seasoned barrel racer or a curious spectator, understanding the history and rules of this thrilling sport can enhance your appreciation for the incredible skill and dedication it takes to compete in this sport. So, the next time you watch cowgirls run the pattern, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the rich history and rules that shape this dynamic equestrian discipline.