To compete in any event and win, you need to have the right equipment. Barrel racing is no different, but something you don’t need to do it to run out and buy everything at the tack shop that says “Barrel Racing” on it, and you don’t need to go buy the most expensive saddles or other equipment. I will break down the specific things you need to barrel race, and to win.
There are several bit selections available on the market today. But, not every barrel horse needs a “barrel racing” bit. You should always start as low as you can, because you can always go up a notch, but you usually can not come down once you have gone so harsh. Most properly trained and conditioned barrel horses do not need a combo or gag bit. When you start your horse, try a regular snaffle bit or a hackamore. If you have an “older” horse, you can usually use the bit you have always used on them. By older I mean a horse that is already had his basic training. Different bits have different outcomes. There are bits that lift, bits that flex, that Whoa, that make your horse flip over backwards. If you have a problem, it is not always your bit, and you don’t need to go out to find your wonder bit that will make everything go away. Re-evaluate your problem, and go from there. Seek professional help from a trainer, vet or other horse specialist if you can not figure it out.
A rider must also respect the control she is gaining over the horse with the equipment. Through patience and correct selection of headgear, a horse will learn he can't beat the bit, and he will respond. Control does not come just from the head and head gear. Correct body positions, consistent cues and leg aids all work together to make the horse and rider become a team.
Common Barrel Racing Bits and their purposes
Draw/Gag bits: add pressure to the poll adding flex and collection Combination bits: for training and competition. The broken mouthpiece adds bend, the nose band distributes the bit pressure, and the chain adds rate. These are good for heavy handed riders as they spread out the pressure. These bits come in short and long shanks for the amount of whoa needed. Hackamores: great for horses already seasoned. They can take the bend out of a horse that flexes too much.
Snaffles: for direct/lateral control. Most barrel horses do well in a regular snaffle bit, but they can lack rate.
Polo/Roper Bits: for rate/collection.
The options for bits and what they do:
Twisted wire mouthpiece: good for horses that are heavy in the bridle. Remember, the thinner the diameter of the mouthpiece, the more severe.
Longer Shanks: for more whoa
Short Shanks: for more lateral work
Chain mouthpiece: shoulder control, rating, and help in the turn
Noseband: comes in rope, wire or chain.
Curb Chain: for rate:
Solid mouthpiece: for horses with too much bend.
You usually want to have a one-piece rein for barrel racing so you don’t loose it when you are running. There are different styles and types out there for you.
The Martha Josey Knot Reins are a good choice, they can be adjusted in length and the knots are always right where you want them. Plus, they come in all different colors. They give you grip, but not too much that you can’t let the reins slide when you want them too.
Leather reins can be stiff when they get wet, and they can be slippery sometimes too. Along with flat leather reins, they have braided leather. Rope reins with knots work well too, or without knots if your prefer. There are also wax reins, but they can be sticky. You have to really watch your hands with those types of reins, otherwise you will be pulling your horse around the barrel when you should be guiding him. It is mostly up to rider preference in rein selection.
To adjust your reins to the proper length, sit on your horse and hold the middle of the reins at the loop in front of your horn. You should have a few inches between the horn and your hand with your horses head being relaxed and little tension in the reins.
A tie-down should complement the bit. It provides security and support for the horse in his turns and stops. A tie-down is something that contributes to your run, it helps your horse balance. You can ride a horse in the open or on a trail ride with out a tie-down.
When you adjust your tie-down strap, in the middle between the horses head and chest, take the strap and press it to your horse’s neck, it should easily reach. If it doesn't you need to loosen it, but if it has loops on either side, tighten it up a bit. You want your horse to be able to stretch his nose out when he is running, that is how they keep their balance.
If you have a tie down on your horse, make sure you have a breast collar on him, because you need to keep the tie down strap from getting tangled in his legs. You do not always need a tie-down. If your horse is properly balanced then it would be better to not have one on him. If you have been running without one, and think your horse may need one but you may be uncertain, ask a professional for their opinion.
There are three common types of tie-downs; soft leather, rope (uncovered or covered), and chain.
Leather tie-down is the most common. It is wide so the horse can support against it without it digging in to his nose. It is a leather noseband with a strap going over the poll and a ring under the chin for the tie-down strap to attach through the breast collar to the cinch.
Rope tie-down can be harsher because it is usually made of lariat rope. It can be covered though, either with leather, plastic or vet wrap works just as well. It has the same design as the leather tie-down.
Chain or wire are the harshest tie downs. There are two different styles of chain or wire. There is the typical halter type that puts pressure on the poll and the nose. That comes in chain or wire. Then there is the bonnet type that just goes over the ears to put pressure on the poll. Most well trained barrel horses do not need this type of restraint. Before you move your horse over to a harsher tie down, make sure he is not having pain anywhere making him throw his head up. He could have teeth issue and is trying to get away from the bit pressure.
Saddle pads are something that is up to the riders choice and the horses needs. There are so many different types out there for you to pick and choose from. You want something that will not slip, but fits comfortably on your horse. You do not want too much bulky as it can make your saddle slip. You don’t want it too thick so it causes your horses back to be sore. Make sure it compliments your horses back and saddle.
There are many brands and types of saddles to choose from. You do not have to have a barrel saddle to compete, but it sure can help. A good saddle choice is one that is light weight, has a high horn and a high cantle, forward hung stirrups are a great option as they help keep your feet under you while competing. You probably want it at least ˝ to a full size smaller than you usually ride in, you want to be able to stay in the saddle, but be comfortable. Mainly it is up to the rider, and make sure it fits your horse properly.
Cinches, Breast collars and Back cinches
There are many type of cinches out there to work with. When you have a cinch, make sure it is the correct size for your horse so it prevents rubbing your horse. You want it comfortable for your horse and kept clean.
A Breast collar is something good to have. They have breast collars specially designed for barrel racing that have a loop in the middle to run your tie-down strap through so it doesn't get caught up in your horses legs. You want your breast collar to ride in the right place and not be too tight that your horse can not breathe properly when they are running. You want a breast collar that isn’t too thin because this could create pressure points, and cost seconds off your run. Again, make sure you keep your breast collar clean.
If you can, have a back cinch on your saddle. It keeps your saddle down, which in turn keeps your butt in the saddle. When you adjusting your back cinch, you want it so it is tight enough to keep your saddle down, but not too tight that it makes your horse show you his best bronco routine. Take time for your horse to adjust to this. It is also a good idea to have a strap that runs from the back cinch to the front cinch to keep if from sliding back and irritating your horse.
Barrel racing is a tough, rough, and agonizing sport that is hard on both horse and rider. Horses have to be real athletes to barrel race, so they need to protect the areas they are hardest on
You don’t always need protection on your horses legs. If you are just going out for a trail ride, you can leave them at home. They should be used for ring work and competition to protect horses of all ages.
Overreach boots or bell boots are used on the front legs of the horse. They help protect when a horse overreaches, which can happen during a run, and protects the coronet band and the bulbs of the horses heels.
There are many options for leg boots. Professionals Choice Sports Medicine Boots are a good choice. They provide protection from being hit from the outside by hooves, legs or other debris, as well as act as an Energy Absorber. With these boots, make sure you remove them between runs so your horses legs can breathe and to make sure there is no dirt inside them. You can get these boots for both the front and back legs. There are several types of medicine boots, you don't have to use just Professionals Choice. You can also use splint boots or polo wraps. If you decide to use polo wraps, make sure you wrap them properly so you don’t cause more harm than good.
For the front legs, you can also get a Combination boot, that has the SMB and the Bell boot/Overreach boot all in one.
The back legs have options too. Most times you don’t need anything on the hind legs, but if you notice your horse putting a lot of wear on them, you may need to consider it. You can use skid boots, that protect the hind fetlocks from rough stops and slides. SMB’s are also available for the hind legs, or polo wraps.
Whenever riding, you should always wear heeled boots for your safety sake. Always wear jeans when riding to save my legs from bumps and bruises.
Most barrel racers don't wear a helmet when riding, and it will be the never ending debate. But at the 2004 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Delores Toole wore a helmet instead of the traditional cowboy hat. She wanted barrel racers to know it is OK to wear a helmet when you race. If you choose to or not, it is only up to you. At some shows the require you wear a helmet, so it is good to have one just in case.
If you have any questions about selecting or fitting tack properly, contact a professional for help. After you have everything selected and fitted on your horse, enjoy the ride, you look sharp!
Billie McNamara has been barrel racing for 14 years, competing and winning in several events. She offers coaching and training in barrel racing and information can be obtained from her at firstname.lastname@example.org or her website, www.barrelraceinmaine.com