Top 10 Barrel Racing Tips Countdown

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I’m no David Letterman, but am sharing a Top 10 list that’s even better than any Late Show countdown!

As you can imagine, as the creator of, I’m asked quite often for “barrel racing tips.” 

Although that very phrase is this web site’s namesake, I admit to being at somewhat of a loss when posed this question.  In fact, I can’t help but immediately think “Where do I start?” or be tempted to ask “How much time do you have?” 

So finally, I’ve taken some time to develop my “Top 10 Barrel Racing Tips” and have shared them below.  These tips are based on the lesser known, but critically important areas that I have found to contribute most to barrel racing success. 

If you’ve been part of the community long enough, you’d know that this web site, and my book Secrets to Barrel Racing Success are not your average barrel racing resources. 

I learned many lessons the hard way, and over time I began to notice that others were misled and mistaken, as I was.  Many barrel racers struggle to find barrel racing success because they are looking for it in the wrong places. If you are ready for real, lasting positive results, these tips will get you started…

Heather Letterman

Number 10 – Put Education before Specialization

When you put horsemanship first, you are on a path to developing ALL the tools, skills and knowledge you will ever need to accomplish anything you can dream of with horses.  There may be some people out there who have achieved some success without good horsemanship, but truly, if you are serious about achieving barrel racing success, and you put horsemanship first, this path is as close to a “sure thing” you can get!

Consider making the development of your own horsemanship and your horse’s education a priority over learning about barrel racing.  It’s OK to focus on things specific to barrel racing too, but it’s real difficult to be successful at barrel racing, without a solid educational foundation in yourself and your horse!  Seek out resources to learn more about horse psychology, training, riding, etc.  Read books, go to horsemanship clinics, watch DVD’s, seek out resources, etc.  Just because you’re technically not in school anymore (or even if you are), doesn’t mean that you stop learning outside of the school environment.  Be progressive, keep climbing the ladder, set your sights on becoming a better barrel racer, rider, and person than you were yesterday!

Check out my article with Ed Wright for more on developing you and your horse’s education!

Number 9 – Your Horses are Your Partners, Regard Them As Such

Did you have a childhood horse that you experienced a lot of enjoyment with, who would do anything for you, one that you were true partners with?  Many of us have these fond memories (actually my pony ran away with me and tried to rub me off on barbwire fences), because back then we did more relationship building with our horses.  Maybe we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing horsemanship wise, but things usually had a way of working out anyway – all because the good relationship made up for other areas that were lacking!

In those younger years, we often spend many hours of “undemanding time” just BEING together with our horses without always DOING.  THEN – we become adults, we go to college, we get jobs, we have families, and suddenly we are lucky to sneak in a 20 minute ride on one horse while we pony two others.  We now have an agenda, and only X amount of time to get things done.

The truth is, a good relationship is built with two partners who know each other inside out, who have spent a lot of quality time together.  Make it your goal to rearrange your schedule to allow for 10 minutes of “undemanding time” before/and or after you ride.  Hand graze, go for a walk, or just do nothing together.  You’ll be amazed at how much more your horse genuinely wants to be with you and how much more effort he puts forth, when he knows you’re not ALWAYS going to ask him for something.  Remember also that developing a good relationship with a horse, is not just about being friends, but knowing how to provide for one of the horse’s greatest needs – leadership.

There’s much more in the “Build a Relationship” chapter of Secrets to Barrel Racing Success!

Number 8 – When Things Go South, Take Action!

When something is not going well, whatever it is, either stop doing it, or stop allowing it.  Take preventative measures with your barrel horses.  Problems are so much easier to deal with when they haven’t been allowed to go too far.  Whether your horse has a physical issue, or you’re stumped with a training or behavioral issue, if you’re not sure what to do, just stop what you are doing and do your homework.  Don’t throw your hands up in the air or keep competing on a horse that you think “might” have “a little” physical or emotional issue.  Be willing to put your barrel racing on the back burner until the issue is resolved, to avoid making the problem even worse.  It can be really hard, if not impossible to rehabilitate horses from bad habits or physical problems once they are well established.

Once a glass is broken, you can try to glue it back together, but it will never really be the same.  Give your horse the best start possible, and deal with problems as they come up, it’s much harder to patch a horse back together after he’s fallen completely apart.  If your horse makes a mistake on the pattern, correct it.  If he gets nervous, do something to relax him.  If you allow your horse to make mistakes and be an emotional basketcase, you are just training him to do and be what you don’t want.

When you are proactive and nip issues in the bud, you also lessen the chances that you will develop bad riding habits or lose confidence yourself.  No barrel racing achievement is worth sacrificing your horse’s mental or physical well-being OR your safety or confidence.  Don’t “wait and see” – address issues while they are still managable.  We hold so much power over our horse’s future, it’s very much dependent on all the little choices we make every day.

To learn more about what to do when things “go south,” click here for our article with 10X NFR barrel racer, Molly Powell.

Number 7 – Care for Your Horse Like He is Already a Champion!

Speaking of horse health issues – in this area, the name of the game is education, education, education!  There are a lot of equine health professionals out there who mean well but are misinforming the public and in some cases even hurting horses!  Know that if your farrier says he needs to “stand your horse up” or if your chiropractor points to the middle of your horse’s neck and says that “T1 is out” – to run the other way!  Develop your own education in the area of horse health so you can choose a team of health professionals that you can be confident in.  Educate yourself, but also trust the professionals you choose to do their jobs.

Learn how to recognize when a horse is short striding, or what a sore horse typically looks when they run (choppy in the turns).  Listen to your horse if he starts to object going in the arena – it’s not always a physical issue, but there’s always a reason for it (and ALWAYS something you can DO about it)!  If your horse swishes their tail, pins their ears, bucks, tosses their head, etc. they are trying to tell you something!  Sometimes when they do this, they are screaming in pain!  A horse that runs sore is a horse that will become resentful of running barrels.  Every horse that is running regularly should have some kind of joint support, and a health program and diet that supports the kind of high level performance we expect from them.

To develop a feeding program for a champion, check out No More Barrel Horse Feeding Mystery.

Number 6 – Ride the Horse You are On Today, Not the One You Were On Yesterday (Even if it’s the Same Horse)!

Not trusting your horse, is like not trusting yourself.  Maybe you have a tendency to be a perfectionist (like me) and a wee bit of a control freak in your personal life and this parallels in your horse life.  If you don’t train your horse to be responsible for maintaining direction and gait, you end up having to constantly micromanage them.  When you do, it’s like insulting their intelligence.  This tendency works against you on the barrel pattern. You want to be there to help your horse develop confidence and learn in the early stages of their training, but if you’ve done your part, you shouldn’t have to correct their gait, direction and body posture on a consistent basis.  Horses actually feel empowered and motivated when given responsibility.  We often don’t give them nearly enough credit for what they are really capable of.  They can make our jobs as riders much easier, if we set them up to do so.

When you are confident you have prepared your horse, trust your training.  When you test yourself and your horse in competition, it may go well, it may not.  Be prepared to make a correction if necessary, but expect the best.  Fire your horse into the hole like you’re confident he’s going to turn. If you’re NOT confident he will turn, then you have more work to do at home before you’re ready to test your training in competition.  If you are worried that your horse isn’t going to work, your riding will reflect it, and therefore, so will your performance.  Make conscious choices to prepare your horse and yourself so that you’re more likely to create positive experiences that build vs. take away confidence.

Have you got your hands on the FREE Barrel Racer’s Guide to Independence on the Barrel Pattern with 12X NFR barrel racer, Kay Blandford yet?

Number 5 – Recognize and Develop Quality Movement

There is a lot to learn about quality movement and the most effective ways for obtaining it.  If your horse gets too jazzed up to do slow work on the pattern with relaxation, then it’s important that you work through those emotions.  If your horse is lazy and lethargic and leans in his circles, he needs to be better educated and held accountable for maintaining forward movement and proper position.  Ask your horse for quality, forward, collected movement – with impulsion.  This is the kind of movement that results in wickedly fast turns.

If your horse doesn’t move this way (it can be more natural to some than others) then he needs to be better educated and conditioned to do so.  As long as your horse is tense, high headed, and moves with a choppy stride, he will not have quality movement.  Relaxation is a prerequisite to collection.  If your horse dumps on his front end, is stiff, leans to the inside, or is lazy, it will be reflected on the clock in your runs.  How you require your horse to move in slow work and even away from the pattern, effects how they move on the pattern (and in a run)!  Learn what quality movement is, and how to develop it, and you will be amazed at how much more efficient and fast your horse will navigate the pattern!

You’ll love The Barrel Racers Guide to Impulsion article.

Number 4 – There is No Such Thing as a “Good Enough” Rider

There are some big misconceptions out there about riding ability.  Just because someone has been riding horses since they were knee high to a grasshopper doesn’t mean they are a good rider.  Just because someone can “sit pretty” or even lope around the arena with good form doesn’t mean they can ride a barrel horse well.

A lot of riders seem capable enough, until they blast to the first barrel and then their weaknesses show up – their movements become herky jerky, they get ahead or behind their horse, they lean one way or the other, they balance on the reins or over depend on the stirrups to brace themselves. They lack “feel” and it becomes obvious when their horse shows resistance. I keep saying “they” but I am really talking about YOU and ME, because we ALL can stand to improve our riding!

Horses often show signs of resistance or act cranky because they become annoyed and grow resentful of insensitive riders.  When we ride without balance and fluidity, with stiff bodies, we (usually unconsciously) “bump” our horses, which makes is not only uncomfortable but much more difficult for them to perform what we ask. A rider that has an “independent seat” and rides on their balance point, with timing and fluidity, can stay “with” vs. “on” their horse, even when going mach 10 through the barrel pattern.

Another misconception is that a good rider in barrel racing is aggressive.  When a horse has been well educated, lots of flailing around isn’t typically necessary.  Contrary to what some people think, airing a horse out with your rear a foot out of the saddle, isn’t really a demonstration of good riding.  Any time there is day light between us and the horse, we are no longer in unison, there is a disconnect.  A good rider on an educated horse can bring up the life in their body to an intense, aggressive level, and the horse will respond to it, while still riding quietly.

To learn more about how a fitness plan can improve your riding (20 minutes at time), click here for “Will You Be Sore Tomorrow, or Sorry?”

Number 3 – Your Horse’s Mind is Stronger than Any Rope or Bit

The barrel racing gadget industry is a big one.  The tools you need to be a great barrel racer and train an awesome barrel horse are really pretty simple.  Many tack items manufactured for barrel racers only mask deeper problems.  Resist temptation to use a bigger bit in place of educating your horse on how to properly yield from pressure.  Don’t use a tie down to trap a horse and prevent them from expressing their unbalanced emotions or lack of education.  Build their emotional and educational foundations so that high headedness or resistance isn’t an issue to begin with.

Would you rather solve a problem at it’s source or just cover up the symptoms?  A horse that is educated and balanced emotionally should work decent in just about any kind of headgear, and not have to depend on some kind of crazy mechanical contraption to perform.  Of course, certain bits, etc. can help refine our horses and put the finishing touches on them, but the reins are lines of communication, and bits are not our only method of control.  Bits should make a good thing (yielding to pressure in a halter or snaffle) better, and not be used to try to create something that wasn’t there to begin with (a proper education).

The more we learn about how we can use our hands and body language to educate a horse, the less we will feel a need to rely on mechanical means.  The more we learn about developing our horse’s mental and emotional fitness, the less we will feel the need to mask the reflection of their unbalanced emotions with drugs or mechanical devices.

Ready to learn more about how to educate your horse to respond to bit pressure?  If so, click here for our Q&A video on Selecting a Bit for the Hard to Please Barrel Horse.

Number 2 – Master the Inner Game of Barrel Racing

Many barrel racers don’t realize how much their inner game gets in the way of the outer game of barrel racing.  Some people struggle with self doubt and anxiety to a degree where they know it occurs and they realize it gets in their way.  Most often, though, these inner game issues are things we’re unconscious of. We play negative tapes in our minds, we allow the fear of what other’s think determine the little choices we make.  What we think about – is what we bring about.  If we allow our minds to spin with worry and negativity, that’s what’s most likely to occur.

Most of us spend our days spinning in a left brain, thinking, analytical state – a doing mode.  Remember that we are human “beings” not human “doings.”  The mental space you want to get into when you compete is the more creative, right brain, in the moment, “being” mode.  You want to learn to quiet your mind and develop the ability to only focus on that which pertains to your run and nothing else.

For most of us, getting into this quiet mental state is totally foreign and initially difficult to do.  We can all better develop our ability to do so through practice. Just like building muscles at the gym, we can also build our mental muscles.  Develop a daily practice of meditating or praying for at least 10 minutes each morning. We want to have the same quiet, clear mental state in competition.  Save visualizing for before the barrel race and if you feel nervous before you run, focus on your breathing. Remind yourself of how grateful you are for the opportunity to compete, and embody the feelings you will experiences after you have an amazing run.

My third #1 best-selling book “The Confident Barrel Racer” is now available in print and for Kindle. Click here to check it out!

Number 1 – Barrel Racing is Journey, Not a Destination – Enjoy it ALL!

Have you ever heard the saying that “people are more likely to find love when they aren’t looking for it?”  Well, barrel racers are more likely to achieve their wildest barrel racing desires when they aren’t chasing them so desperately.

Barrel racers are a scrappy, determined crowd, but it is possible to take the ever so common, overly masculine, “do or die” mentality too far.  Barrel racing success doesn’t have to be something you “fight” for, it’s a process to enjoy.  If you think you’ll be happy when you reach your goals, you’ll eventually find that the finish line just keeps moving.  When you think you have to win at all costs, you usually do actually end up sacrificing something… like the relationship with your horse, your horse’s health, etc.

Don’t base your worth on your accomplishments in the arena.  You are valuable just because you ARE, not because of what you DO.  Where you are at on your barrel racing journey is perfect right now.  Keep on learning, keep on putting in the work and release the results to a power greater than yourself.  When we do this, we find that we can enjoy barrel racing a lot more when we don’t feel like our worth is based on whether we win or not.  Exit the arena with pride and a smile each time regardless of what happens.

“Barrel racing is what you do, it is not who you are.”  – Jordan Briggs

Feelings of occasional disappointment may be unavoidable, but don’t let them drag you down.  There is no failure, only feedback – signs that point us in the direction we should go next.  Any mistake you make is one you don’t have to make again.  Every single adversity carries with it a lesson and a gift.  Horses are a gift.  Having the opportunity to ride them and compete with them is a gift.  Don’t take it for granted!  Use your God-given abilities to the fullest, and care for the animals that He placed in your life, as a reflection of your appreciation for those gifts.

Click here to learn about how I became much more successful, when I stopped setting goals. 

If you think the “Top 10 Barrel Racing Tips Countdown” was better than anything you’ve ever seen on late night TV, leave a comment below! I love hearing from you!

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45 replies
  1. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    So glad to come across your information on barrel racing! I was hoping that there would be someone who barrel races that trained more in the way that I train my horses! When people keep their minds open to things like this, they can go a long way!

  2. BarrelRacingTips
    BarrelRacingTips says:

    Thanks Kathy! I’ve learned that it never hurts to hear similar concepts described buy different people, in a slightly different ways. Repetitious reminders just further solidify our understanding, and confirm what is important!

  3. Emily
    Emily says:

    This is awesome! Have you ever done any natural horsemanship? You’ve got a bunch of principles from there in this article. It’s an awesome article and I am printing a copy to re-read. It’s great stuff. I needed this reminder.

  4. makayla
    makayla says:

    i am just starting out as a beginner, my mom thinks that i wont make it and i was starting to think twice because i really didnt trust my horse, then i read these tips and now i want to go all the way and enjoy tme with my horse. now i want to build a relationship with her but somtimes she is a butt, now she is feeling more comfortable. these tips changed me, and my relationship with my horse. thank you so much

  5. Chey
    Chey says:

    These tips were great!!! The only thing I would like to see more of is what I can do during the run. More details about hips, hands and pockets!!

  6. sharon
    sharon says:

    I will be just starting out doing barrel racing with my 13 year old Appaloosa mare that I am leasing to own. Should I purchase any books to read up on about the fundementals about the sport?

  7. nikki
    nikki says:

    Thank you so much for the top 10 tips. As a “new” barrel racer but experienced and titled at riding jumpers, it’s nice to know that many of the things I am carrying over from the jumper arena will help me in my barrel runs, too. It kind of makes you lose your confidence sometimes to go from the top of the game in one event to the bottom rungs of something else. But a good foundation, relationship with my horse, staying in the middle of my horse and trusting her to do her job are all interchangeable things. Thank you so much for your tips! They help out a lot! 🙂

  8. Deanna
    Deanna says:

    Thank you for these amazing tips. I’ve sent them to both of my daughters that have been barrel racing for less than a year. This article is a keeper!

  9. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    This was some great information and I think it will really help me! Thanks for putti g this out there, every barrel racer I know should read this!

  10. peggy schmit
    peggy schmit says:

    Wow, it beats anything on late night TV. I am so gratefully for your tips Heather and all your efforts. . Thank you.

  11. Kayla Livingston
    Kayla Livingston says:

    Thank you, this helped a lot, my horse, Paco, is blind in his right eye. So he has to really trust me for the first barrel…your tips helped me. And now we can barrel race.

  12. Morgan
    Morgan says:

    THIS IS AWESOME!!! I am not very experienced at barrel racing. in fact… I’ve only started horse lessons. I hope I learn a lot from you guys. 🙂

  13. peggy
    peggy says:

    Heather you are outstanding your articles are awesome I really needed to hear fire in the hole. I’ve been working on my hand placement and not running as hard as I should, a little bit of a conference issue? Your articles are always helpful.

  14. Shyanne
    Shyanne says:

    So I just started riding. My older sister use to rodeo some before she went to college, and she just gave me her old barrel horse. I really want to start her back on barrels. My mare is 17 years old and I was just wondering what supplements or grain i should be feeding her?

  15. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    I love this article! I think some of these tips are gonna be so hopefully with my new gelding and also my mare! Thank you for sharing with us!! I could want until I start riding again in the Spring

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      There are a handful of things that come to mind but it’s not necessarily a quick fix. Your mare’s mind needs to really be focused on her job, and if she hasn’t been taught to be responsible on the pattern, she won’t be “locked on.” Also, as I think you’re experiencing, if they are overly emotional it will really interfere with their ability to think and learn. A Power Hour Coaching session would be ideal to create some big breakthroughs, click here for details. I’m happy to help. 🙂

  16. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Oh, I forgot to ask in my last comment!! My mare gets hot when it comes time to running, it gets to the point when she is not focus for her first barrel. It’s just like she wants to get to the barrel to fast and turn wide and over turns it than we knock it. I have done a lot of slow work with her. I even took her off barrels for a year because she got so hot at the gate and around the first barrel. I have tried taking her on trails and changing bits! What can I do?

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      There are a handful of things that come to mind but it’s not necessarily a quick fix. Your mare’s mind needs to really be focused on her job, and if she hasn’t been taught to be responsible on the pattern, she won’t be “locked on.” Also, as I think you’re experiencing, if they are overly emotional it will really interfere with their ability to think and learn. A Power Hour Coaching session would be ideal to create some big breakthroughs, click here for details. I’m happy to help. 🙂

  17. Bonnie Rocko
    Bonnie Rocko says:

    I have a 14 year old gelding who has been running barrels for 7 or 8 years. At one point he was running times with the pro’s here in the Turquois Circuit. He got hurt, once sound he became my sons college calf horse. He is back to running barrels with me. He is sound, sound, sound. Now he is just coasting the pattern. I can’t get him to really fire like he used to. He will breeze out smokin’ fast! (not in the arena). I think the problem is me… What can I do to really fire in our pattern?

  18. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Hey. I am starting out on my horse he’s 13 geilding, he cuts the barrels really tight and almost hits them. I have no idea what to do can you help?

    • Cora Smith
      Cora Smith says:

      Hi Hannah, I know I’m not Heather lol but I have came across the same issue as you mentioned. If you don’t mind me helping out, I’d love to:)
      When your horse is slicing the barrels and gets so close to almost hitting them, or is hitting them, what worked for me was just some slow work, taking her back to basics. Just ride at a walk/trot around the barrel wider, going past the barrels and even stopping and letting your horse rest there worked for me. Hind end engagement is a good thing to have as well. I asked 2x NFR barrel racer Jackie Ganter for some adive and what she told me was to just keep riding past the barrels until your horse stopped trying to cut in.
      Hope this helped and good luck!:)

  19. Cora Smith
    Cora Smith says:

    I love, love, loved this article. I agree with everything you said. We can never be perfect riders, and we never stop learning! Need one of these every week haha. My dad, a former pro calf roper and horse trainer told me that I am a great rider, but I can always get better. I’m in grade 9 in school, I’m going to work out my legs, arms and core this winter so I’m stronger and more in shape for next rodeo season which will approve my riding more too. I need to work on my mental state of mind while rodeoing with all the runs that go south, and the great ones, just where to keep my mind and before I run to focus but reading this really helped me alot:)


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