Barrel Racing 101: Selecting the Proper Equipment

Credit: Thinkstock Correct body positions, consistent cues and leg aids all work together to make the horse and rider become a team.

It’s always good to learn about “other” horse disciplines. While you might not have any barrel racers in your barn, sometimes exercises and drills used in other competitions can be a good break for your horses and riders.

Barrel racing can be fun, rewarding and exciting for people and their horses! Running a perfect pattern, with a fast time, takes patience, practice, preparation and skill. An important first step in beginning the sport of barrel racing is selecting the proper equipment for you and your horse.


It is important to have a properly fitted barrel racing saddle. A barrel racing saddle will position the rider to be able to “sit deep” and “step out” through fast, tight turns with the riders legs slightly forward. A barrel racing saddle will also have a smaller saddle horn that will be used to help hold the riders body into position through the turn. There are many saddle makers that produce barrel saddles in various price points. 

Most importantly, any saddle that is used should fit properly. A barrel racing horse must be able to fully utilize their body with comfortable freedom in order to perform at their peak. To learn more about barrel saddle fitting, watch four-time World Champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi’s video explaining saddle fitting and using shims.

Equine Leg Protection

Boots can help protect your horse from injury; however you will want the perfect fit and the perfect match for your horse’s needs. There are many different kinds of boots and each type does a specific job, protecting different parts of your horse’s leg and hoof. Leg gear comes in a variety of colors and patterns, but don’t be distracted by the visual appearance; the goal is to provide the proper protection and support for your equine athlete.

Protective boots, sometimes called splint boots, protect from external impact by acting as a barrier. They prevent the leg from being impacted and damaged by the horse’s other legs and hoofs, as well as anything else the leg may encounter. These boots protect the splint bone as well as tendons, ligaments and the cannon bone. They wrap around the leg from just under the knee or hock to the top of the fetlock and fasten with straps on the outside of the leg. 

Support boots, also called sports medicine boots, are the next level in protection. In addition to providing external protection, support boots act as a support brace to the fetlock joint and its suspensory apparatus. These boots are made of high-tech, shock-absorbing materials. They cover the cannon bone from just below the knee or hock and envelope the fetlock joint. They have a sling-like strap that runs behind and under the fetlock to offer extra support and prevent hyperextension of the joint.

Bell boots are an essential! Bell boots are worn around the horse’s pasterns on the front legs. These bell-shaped coverings (hence the name) protect the pastern, the coronary band and the top of the hoof from impact or from a hind foot accidentally stepping on a front foot’s heel. 

No matter which boot type, remember that proper fit is a must! A poorly fitting boot will cause irritation, sores or even injury to your horse. Take measurements of the length and circumference of your horse’s cannon bones and the circumference of his fetlocks to determine a proper fit.

While polo wraps are often used at upper levels of competition, it is not appropriate for 4-H members to use these as leg protection. When not used correctly, polo wraps can do more damage to the horse’s legs than good. Polo wraps are also more likely to come unwrapped during competition, which can be very dangerous and cause injury to horse and rider. Selecting a quality protective or sports medicine boot with strong Velcro fasteners is the safest choice for leg protection in 4-H competition. 

Selecting a Proper Bit

There are many different kinds of bits that accomplish different things in the horses’ body. Remember that just because a bit is marked “barrel racing,” it may not be the right bit for you and your horse. Make sure any bit meets the regulations you are competing under.

Riders must respect the control they gain with the bit equipment they choose. Correct body positions, consistent cues and leg aids all work together to make the horse and rider become a team. When trying a new bit on your horse, always go back to slow work to make sure that your horse understands the new cues it gives, and to allow you time to get used to the way your horse reacts to the bit change. 

Once you have the equipment that you need, you’re ready to begin your barrel racing training! Stay tuned to the Michigan State University Extension website for more Barrel Racing 101 articles! Up next, the importance of slow work and drills that will help members and their horses learn the pattern and work as a team.

This article is courtesy of Michigan State University Extension.






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