Follow the Barrel Racing Pattern of Least Resistance

Follow the Barrel Racing Pattern of Least Resistance

What does a bag of flour, soccer field markers and a tape measure have in common?

Well, they are yet another Secret to Barrel Racing Success, of course!

When it comes to navigating the cloverleaf, some top barrel racers keep an even distance around the barrels. Although it’s not as common as it once was, some still make a swooping pocket coming into the turns. Many barrel racers come into the barrel a little wider than they leave it. Some trainers ask their horses to follow a slightly different pattern in slow work as they ask for in a run. Many of us designate a “point” a certain number of feet in front of a barrel as the location to rate and/or shape for the turn.

Flour, soccer field markers, and a tape measure
Flour, soccer field markers, and a tape measure.

My preferred method is somewhat of a combination of these concepts, and I then customize that pattern slightly based on the horse I’m riding. Additional slight adjustments may be necessary in an actual run depending on the conditions.

These are circumstances when it becomes especially important for our horse to be truly connected and willing to follow our guidance. If you missed my last article on that very subject, to make sure you and your horse are on the same page (even when going mach 10), click here to Get Connected to Shave Time Off the Clock.

The truth is, the path we train our horse’s feet to follow (and how) on the barrels can make it physically easier OR harder to navigate the pattern quickly and efficiently. In fact, if we’re approaching the barrel at a tricky angle for our horse, it can contribute to problems like going by barrels and dropping in, which is sure to translate into slower times.

Let’s face it, barrel races are won and lost by fractions of a second. What if your horse could turn the first barrel better if you changed the path of the approach by one foot? When it comes to distance from the barrel in a turn, you’re probably familiar with how many feet some barrel racing clinicians and professionals recommend.

But we can’t improve what we don’t measure! So when was the last time YOU measured YOUR path?

Even if you’re a seasoned pro, it’s possible that you’ve never actually marked it out. But “To get something you never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” So there’s no time like the present to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table (or in the entry office)!

When you decide on the path for you, then measure it out to make sure it’s correct, and then commit that exact pattern to your mental/physical memory, it’s just one more thing you can do to build your horse’s confidence, develop positive patterns for both of you, and get around the barrels with as little resistance and as much speed as possible.

In the video below, I share SIX SPECIFIC TIPS to keep in mind when it comes to our horse’s footfall on the pattern, as well as the eye-opening lessons I learned, and the adjustments I made, when I marked my path around the barrels.

Which of the three approaches to the first barrel pictured here would YOU choose?

First Barrel Approach - Which do you Choose?First Barrel Approach – Which do you Choose?

Click here to download a one page PDF featuring my First Barrel Food for Thought.

For second barrel measurements, check out:
Study, Compare and Refine Second Barrel Footfall to Get on the Fast Track

For measurements of the entire pattern, see ‘Exercise 12 – Measured Improvement’ in
The Next 50 Barrel Racing Exercises for Precision on the Pattern

Let me know what you think of this post in the comments below, and whether you plan on marking your pattern.

As always, thanks for reading, watching and contributing!

P.S. click here to get a set of 20 soccer field markers on

54 replies
  1. crystal moore
    crystal moore says:

    Just what I needed this week to help my granddaughters understand where their horses ft. should be going a round a barrel. Thank you!

  2. Randi
    Randi says:

    Would this work the same way if you arena at home is closer to where you have marked for the timer in your diagram? I mean would you just adjust so there is an arc when you’re in a bigger pen, but work from the timer line you have marked on your diagram & still line up in the same place (to right of 3rd)? Or would you try to work in a shorter arc? I hope that makes sense… I have an alleyway, but my arena isn’t really big enough to have that gradual arc & still meet the points. I’ve been working pretty much this diagram, but more from what you have marked as the timer line. thanks 🙂

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Randi,
      I think I understand what you mean. When it comes to this subject, it’s easy to get confused by how people describe different things. For example, when people talk about taking a “straighter” path to the first barrel, I always wondered, do they mean straight, as in straight toward the 3rd barrel, OR diagonally straight TO the 1st barrel!? Anyway, in your case, you’ll want to drastically shorten the distance that you run straight, and you’ll end up making a making a similar arc to how you would in a big pen. The difference is that you’ll want to start your run aligned on the opposite side of the third barrel as the first barrel you’re going to. Basically, if you have to make adjustments due to the set up, make them at the start and try to keep the angle and point approaching the first barrel the same. Hope that helps!

  3. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    If you are in a smaller arena the 12 foot pocket is smaller. Right? Do the measerments around the barrel stay the same?

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      Hi Bailey,
      I don’t actually refer to the area between the barrel and the 12 ft. point as a pocket. Back in the “old days” most barrel racers actually swooped out in the approach to the barrel, which is what I think of as a pocket, but everyone uses different words to describe things. For me, the arc coming into the first barrel doesn’t change much, that “point” that I cross 12 ft. out to the side of it might be moved slightly up further or back (still on the arc) based on whether I’m running outdoors vs. indoors, hard ground vs. deep, etc. For me, those measurements around the barrels do stay the same. Hope that helps!

  4. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    I appreciate you taking the time to help all of us out here in the barrel racing world. What a great web-site. Thank you!

  5. Lyndsey Pearson
    Lyndsey Pearson says:

    This video helped me SO much thank you. You just showed me how to fix my biggest problem!:D This will change everything, I can’t wait to do this tomorrow! This is an awesome site and it’s helping me a ton because I’m just beginning my barrel racing career. Can’t thank you enough!

  6. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    Can you show a diagram or explain the measurements for the second and third barrels like how you did for the first barrel? (the 12ft, 4ft, 6ft, 3ft diagram) It was very helpful! I made some adjustments to my pattern and now im confident in my first barrel but I would like to know if im on the right track for the second and third! Thank you so much for your help! I love your website!

  7. donna
    donna says:

    what a terrific website with a wealth of information for all barrel racers– you have great info and links and have put a lot of work into this–just for the benefit of those who wish to improve themselves and their horses–keep up the good work–thanks so much!

  8. heather
    heather says:

    So watched your video. Now I have a horse that I have to run past the barrels because he sits and spins more. Very powerful, quick and fast. Now should I cut him closer or should I still work more on the pockets and practice square work? Thank you

  9. heather
    heather says:

    Sorry forgot to mention he was pretrainned so I’m still trying to figure him out with all this. He is 8 smart and willing so should I try to change his ways or just keep him doing what he is use to. Ran him 4 times only so far and placed in high 2d with shaving a second off our 1st to our last.

    • BarrelRacingTips
      BarrelRacingTips says:

      I would not do anything too extreme with his footfall placement, but make sure you’re keeping him very free so that he doesn’t get too “burried up,” with that inside hind leg. (This is a good problem to have, by the way!) 😉

      Also, check out the recent counter arc article for some tips.

      Mostly, if it’s not broke, don’t get in too big of a hurry to fix it. Allow yourself enough time to analyze what the problem really is, and then make a troubleshooting game plan you’re confident in.

  10. Rhiannon
    Rhiannon says:

    First of all I love your tips! Have helped me greatly with training both my horses to run barrels. I have a gelding that no matter how I approach the first barrel , he can’t turn it tight. At a walk and trot he does just fine, but as soon as i lope him, he just throws all his weight on his front end and doesn’t turn. His second and third are just fine. I have done roll backs on the fence. I have done a corners exercise where I pick him up and move him around like a barrel and he can do it there, just not around a barrel. Any ideas?

  11. Emmie
    Emmie says:

    Loved the article and video. I’m ordering soccer markers tonight (I’m in Australia) and putting it to practice. I’m starting out so I feel this is going to really help our performance. I’ve been to one race and it was shocking lol so I’m determined to beat my times and feel confident in our pattern not price it half together on the day like I found we did last weekend. Xo

  12. Tiffany Graves
    Tiffany Graves says:

    Hi Heather,

    I went to a Lynn McKenzie clinic a couple years ago and I have to say I’ve been screwed up ever since. They focus on straight lines, which makes since because it is the fastest distance from one point to another. However it is taught as a straight diagonal four feet from the barrel instead of an arc 12ft off. I have a very ratey and turney mare who shoulders the barrel like crazy when I approach it this way. I have been back and forth trying different things so I’m hoping this will work. I’m vet fortunate I found this post. I’m going to measure everything out the way you showed in your video tomorrow.

      • Tiffany
        Tiffany says:

        Hi Kendra,

        I think there is a lot to be learned at any clinic besides running the pattern. Knowledge is power! The LM clinic was my first (and only) clinic. I learned a lot at that clinic. I changed my feeding program, bought better equipment, and became an all around better horseman. My horses flourished and were much more comfortable as a result. The LM pattern is ran similar to picture 2 above. The mare I ran at the clinic is different from the mare I posted about. While the LM pattern worked for my mare at the clinic, it doesn’t work AT ALL for my new mare…this, as you can understand, has completely altered my progress on my new mare. The mare I ran at the clinic was a little blown up from previous owners, but she is EXTREMELY fast, athletic, and very sensitive. Matter of fact, I was told at the clinic to take off my spurs and not to do anything but sit in the saddle, hold on, and pray, lol. So while I learned the pattern, I didn’t use any of their other techniques except, of course, looking up at my next barrel. My mare was going to turn the barrel regardless of any angle. My new mare, however, isn’t digging the LM method. She doesn’t seem balanced going into it so straight and tight. She sticks her nose to the outside to try to balance (I’m assuming this is what she’s trying to do). She also can’t run as far behind the barrels as they teach. She is a very turney mare, and we sometimes end up coming out on the same side we go in on. I had that problem with my mare at their clinic. So I was instructed to turn her around them tighter to prevent her from rolling back and coming out on the same side. The pattern is very very different, and you probably won’t see anyone else running the pattern this way (unless they attended a LM clinic). This is a stinker because there isn’t anyone to help you with problem shooting once the clinic is over except for Murray and Lynn. You have to send a video and wait for a response. Lynn and Murray both are very good at responding to questions quickly though. I found it difficult to troubleshoot via written instructions, however. I am more of a see one, do one, teach one, kind of gal. It’s hard to run a pattern like pattern 3 (the one my current mare likes) when you’re used to running pattern 2. So, it’s up to you whether to withdraw your daughter from the clinic. I love Lynn and Murray. They are very stand up people, and their pattern makes perect sense in theory and drawn on paper, but it was very difficult for me to implement it without the use of cones and tires guiding my horse and I throught he pattern. While I will probably never participate in another LM clinic with my current mare, I would definately go to another one just to listen to Lynn and Murray teach about horsemaship. Matter of fact they will be in my area next weekend.

        Here is a link to an explanation of the LM pattern and a picture of how you’ll be running the pattern at the clinic.

        Murray and Lynn are very knowledgable folks, and I think you and your daughter will learn a lot of useful information even if the pattern doesn’t suit you. Sorry I couldn’t give you a cut and dry answer. Good luck barrel racing!

      • Tiffany Graves
        Tiffany Graves says:

        I replied to this post last night, but for some reason it’s not there today. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but to make a long story short…you can learn a lot from the LM clinic whether their pattern works for you or not. I changed my feeding program, bought better equipment, and became an all around better horseman after participating in the clinic. The pattern used at the LM clinic is similar to pattern #2 above (the one in the middle). The horse I rode at the clinic could do the pattern, but she was going to turn the barrels regardless. You kind of have to pick a style and stick to it. In my case, the pattern worked on the one mare, but hasn’t been effective on any other horses I’ve ridden, especially my current mare…unless of course I set up the cones and tires to guide them through it. Now I’m trying to run pattern # 3 above and it’s hard to wrap my brain around. Running straight at a barrel is a lot different than running at an arc. But pattern 3 is def “the path of least resistance” for my current mare. Wish you luck in whatever you decide!

  13. sue
    sue says:

    Yes I do mark my pattern when starting the young colts or if I am having any kind of issues as they progress. It gives horse and rider an extra visual. My favorite approach to the 1st barrel is the 3rd choice!!!! Hands down

  14. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    We use cones to show the horse and rider where to go. This is a really good training video. Thanks for sharing. My choice on the approach is #3. When they have that room around the barrel they can go in what we call 4 wheel drive, never slow down and keep forward momentum. The clock never stops ticking but we can cut it off quicker with the right approach to each barrel and moving quickly in and out of them.

  15. Heather Smith
    Heather Smith says:

    I just wanted to add that I AM a fan of Lynn McKenzie’s “straight/longer” concept and although what I’ve shared in this post may not coincide exactly, I don’t think it’s entirely contradictory either… you’ll notice that I do like leave a little more room on the backside of the turns, and I believe that straight is fastest – not only the fastest path between two points, but straightness & balance gives our horses power. So with that said, I fully support attending her clinics, and as with any learning opportunity – remember to have an open mind and take what resonates with you and leave the rest. We are each responsible for our journey with our horses and if we apply something that doesn’t seem to work (it’s totally OK to experiment!), then either we may need to go about things a little differently or switch gears all together – either way, the power to make changes or adjustments along the way is in “OUR hands!” 😉

    • Tiffany
      Tiffany says:

      Well said Heater! You should come to Fl and give a clinic. Have a nice, covered arena right down the road from me 🙂 Once I get your approach down, my mare and I will be rocking it. She is already doing much better on the first barrel…no turning her nose to the outside, trying to shoulder in, etc etc. She just runs in and turns it beautifully. Although a straight line might be the fastest approach in theory, if your horse can’t turn effectively that way, you’re not running any faster. Very glad I found your video.

  16. Kailee Lenz
    Kailee Lenz says:

    Hello Heather,

    Thanks so much for the video and tip im hoping this helps my horse and I! 🙂 How exactly would you recommend approaching the 2nd and 3rd barrel?


  17. christina swanson
    christina swanson says:

    I’m still on the fence on this one, I’ve tried all three and I would have to say with her the first one works best for mine. I’m having more problems with her getting ahead of herself turning around the barrels.

  18. Renee
    Renee says:

    Definitely #3 pattern. My biggest issue is coming out of the turns. He comes in nice, and a good shape but then he wont get his hind underneath him. Any recommendations??

  19. Chelsea
    Chelsea says:

    Thank you! Great article! I’m looking forward to getting a stronger turn on an old mare of mine & I’m defiantly saving this for when I can start my younger mare on the pattern!
    I’ve found that #3 is definitely the turn on most of the horses I ride – I don’t know why I’ve never thought about using flour to mark my path!! 🙂

  20. Kendra Jenema
    Kendra Jenema says:

    I am starting a new horse, so I am stuck between 2 and 3 (trying to figure out her “style”) I LOVED this exercise, the flour visual helped me so much. However, I did the same flour placement on the second and third barrel and had a hard time placing her feet accordingly on the second barrel. Coming out of the second she would cross way before the 12 foot mark, which I figured was OK, since shes Turning it so nice. What do you recommend for best foot placement and body position for the second? Thanks so much! Love all your advice! (and books!)

  21. Lindsey
    Lindsey says:

    Thank you so much for this video – most clear and concise description I’ve had yet. Ready to start working with my mare!


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