As with most rodeo events, pinpointing barrel racing’s exact origin is near impossible. “It probably started out as pretty women on fast horses, but now it’s a competitive sport for serious athletes,” says Martha Josey, a world-champion barrel racer, Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Famer, and co-owner of Josey Ranch, a barrel-racing training center in Karnack. This spectator sport, dominated by women, dates back to at least 1948, when 38 cowgirls in San Angelo formed the Girls Rodeo Association in an effort to buck the rodeo industry’s all-male tradition; in the eighties, the organization’s name changed to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. The WPRA’s most popular draw was, and continues to be, barrel racing, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event in which the fastest time wins.
Successful racing requires, above all else, a worthy steed that responds quickly to cues. Key traits include an even temperament, high levels of physical coordination, and of course, a lot of natural ability. Or, as Josey explains in terms any red-blooded Texan can understand: “A good barrel horse is like a quarterback—a strong athlete who thinks fast and knows how to lead.” Most racers choose quarter horses, though paints, Appaloosas, and Arabians aren’t strangers to the show grounds either. Josey prefers older horses (in the ten-to-twenty-year-old range) for their experience, but some competitors train with younger ones (two to three years old) for their energy. While your horse should feel the need for speed, don’t hang around the racetrack looking for winners. “All go and no whoa is no fun,” Josey says.
Three 55-gallon steel barrels are positioned in a triangle pattern. The distance between each drum varies by venue size, but the standard course, as defined by the WPRA, requires 90 feet between the first barrel and the second; 105 feet between the second and the third, as well as the third and the first; and 60 feet between the start line and both the first and second barrels. There must also be at least 18 feet between the arena fence and barrels one and two, and at least 25 feet between the fence and barrel three. The stopping distance, a small stretch in the alleyway between your takeoff point and the official starting line, should be at least 45 feet. Most important, rodeo officials must maintain a proper surface: Too soft or muddy interferes with a rider’s time; too hard and slick makes for dangerous running; loosely packed and aerated is just right.
When given the signal, a contestant gallops down the alleyway and crosses the starting line, triggering the timer. Typically the order of barrel turns is right-left-left, creating the well-known cloverleaf pattern (left-right-right is also permissible). Josey recommends approaching the first barrel’s left side with an eight-to-twelve-foot “pocket,” meaning the space between you and the drum; the exact size of the pocket will depend on the horse. Come through the turn and aim straight toward the second barrel’s right side, this time with a narrower pocket—more like six to eight feet. Take the third barrel in the same way and “head home,” as the pros say. Negotiate these turns carefully: Knock over a barrel and receive a five-second penalty; miss a turn and you get disqualified. (In some associations, you can be penalized simply for losing your hat.) The entire race takes, on average, fourteen to seventeen seconds—because if you aren’t making dust, you’re eating it.