Barrel Racing

Barrel Racing Is A Lot Like Dressage

“That’s all barrel racing is: a dressage test around some cans.”


I got the text message last week.

“Do you want to run barrels after you’re done judging the hunter show?” My friend Amy wrote.

I was traveling back to my old stomping grounds at the Crawford County fairgrounds to judge her “Denim and Dust” Hunter Schooling Show, part of the Weekend Extravaganza—hunters on Saturday, poles, barrels and keyhole Saturday night, and all of the normal 4-H classes Sunday.

Amy knew me well, having watched me grow up under the tutelage of her mother Rose from the age of 4 on. She knew that although I had been strictly eventing for almost a decade, I had the eye to score the hunter rounds. Even if my background screamed jumping tables and dropping down banks, I would be fair, but tough. Although my largest claim to fame is winning a dressage competition, there’s nothing more I love than swinging onto my Billy Cook at the end of a long day.

So I immediately responded with a “YES”, and didn’t ask any other questions.

I arrived at the judge’s booth of the Fairgrounds bright and early Saturday morning, took my seat and surveyed the arena. The jumps were set beautifully with a rated show feel. For the next 8 hours I scored everything from crossrails to a Derby. It was such a fun experience, watching the next generation of Amy’s and Carleigh’s while sitting next to my own Amy. She announced, I judged, and we heckled each other back and forward, all while giggling over the realization of how old we have become.
Then I changed gears. I took off my khakis and donned some jeans; unlaced my Merril’s and found my Rod Patrick’s; replaced my sun hat with a Stetson.

It was barrel time.

Feeling western.
Feeling western.

I met my mount and immediately giggled. Beemer was only about 15hh and looked miniature compared to my thoroughbreds. She had a look on her face that said “Don’t even try to snuggle, woman”, and an ass like a V8. Her glossy bay coat rippled over striated muscles, demonstrating hours of time logged in the gym. She was fit, and she was ready.
I swung her rope halter on and led her to the trailer to be tacked. The infinitesimal differences in routine immediately gave me flashbacks to Wyoming.

A rope halter instead of glistening leather and brass straps adorned her face. A 30 lb. saddle was swung on her back, along with a large leverage bit connecting a severe twisted wire. No mounting block was offered, and for the first time in years I was forced to reach for a horn, possibly popping a hamstring (and the seam of my jeans) in the process.

And then, I was on.

Trying to find my cowgirl mojo.
Trying to find my cowgirl mojo.

I meandered around the tiny warm-up area trying to remember how to neck rein left and right and glancing around to see if Beemer’s owners were watching. Petrified of messing her up, I slowly urged her into a posting jog and then softly sat before asking her to lope. I expected a willing and eager horse, albeit with some possibly high octane energy, but instead felt a sluggish and somewhat bitter mount beneath me.

Her back rounded underneath my seat and I felt the inner workings of an impending buck. I immediately pulled back on the reins and begged her to halt, not wanting to risk coming off. I stared over at her owners, trying to use ESP for some assistance without causing a scene.

Her “mom” waved me over and asked if I wanted to take her into a nearby field where I’d have the option of kicking her forward. I breathed out a “yes”, and we regrouped.

She told me that Beemer was a really good mare, but offered some advice. I was approaching the barrel, she explained, I needed to bend Beemer’s head towards the inside while using my inside leg to maneuver her shoulder around the obstacle. But I needed to keep my eyes up and fixate on the next barrel, and as I “candy-caned” around the first, to switch to my outside aids to straighten her through the turn and gallop off.

I was told that before I approached the second barrel I’d need to sit up and “check her”, and repeat the process to the other direction. She asked me to go out into a large circle and practice the bending and lateral work I would use in the arena.
That’s when I realized something: barrel racing is a lot like dressage.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out…

They might have different terminology, different tack and scoring system. One might have more screaming and less golf clapping, and one might have a much shorter test with a better chance of winning some money. But they are so similar.

I had comprehension of what she was asking me to do because I do something so similar in asking Nixon for a trot or canter lengthening. Shoulder in through the corner, and then a few strides of haunches in before asking him to straighten and lengthen across the diagonal.

Just like in barrel racing, you ask for every ounce of contained forward motion that you are willing to risk across that straight line. Then it’s another shifting of the rib cage, increments of shoulder fore and the maneuvering of the haunches. A half-halt is just a different term to describe the “check” that we hear screaming from the rails of a barrel pattern.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

that’s all barrel racing is: a dressage test around some cans.

I still went into the arena slightly petrified. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself and let the kids see their “judge” fall off during a barrel pattern. I wanted to prove to the owners of Beemer that they weren’t crazy for letting me ride their horse. Most importantly, I wanted to give Beemer the ride she deserved.

Turn and burn…or shoulder fore followed by haunches in?
Turn and burn…or shoulder fore followed by haunches in?

As I circled to the right, I realized I was prepared. I had been cross training for years. My dressage lessons would come out, I was sure of it.

And off we went. Straight. Shoulder fore right. Haunches in left. And straighten. Forward. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. Half halt. HALF HALT. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. And with that straightness ask for the run – go for the 9, not the 6!

We got home clean and with a time of 19.2, putting us firmly in the middle of the 2D group, which left me with a huge smile. I didn’t win, but I also didn’t suck.

Going for the 9!
Going for the 9!

I heard my friends and Beemer’s owners hooting and hollering as I patted Beemer on the neck and swung off to give her a hug.

Such a good horse. A great barrel mare, and maybe even a good dressage mare, because that’s all barrel racing is: a dressage test around some cans. Something that maybe all of us “English” riders need to experience—to cross train; to recalibrate; to experience something new; to keep your brain and your body fresh and excited for the next ride.

And me, well, it’s something I would love to do again.