The story of barrel racing and how it became part of other rodeo events can be traced back to as early as 1948, when a group of women from Texas formed the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), which was originally called the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA). They wanted to create a sport for women in the rodeo scene. Albeit women can compete in a variety of rodeo events today, barrel racing remains the most prevalent competition. While women are the main demographic, some men compete in barrel racing as well. Even though the American Quarter Horse is the most popular breed utilized for barrel racing, other breeds, such as thoroughbreds and Arabians, also compete.
The Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont, Colo., recently held a barrel racing event for individuals of all ages. Some groups that participated in the event included novices, youth riders, senior riders, and expert riders. Donna Burdzinski, one of the seniors who participated, explained how she first got involved in barrel racing and what advice she had for people who wanted to get started.
“I started barrel racing when I was twelve,” Burdzinski, a barrel racing expert at 61 years old, said. “So, I’ve always had a wonderful need for speed.”
Burdzinski competed on two horses – Chica, a rescued Bay Tobiano, and Red Hills Royalty, a Breeding Stock Paint. She began horseback riding at five years old, when she would go to the track across the street to ride Quarter Horse racehorses. Although she took a hiatus from age 20 to 40 to dedicate time to raising kids, she has returned to the sport with a fiery passion and commitment that shows when she talks about barrel racing.
When it comes to the sport, however, Burdzinski warns that while it is fulfilling and fun, those who are new to barrel racing, or who are serious about competing, should ensure they have the necessary equipment and that they can afford it.
“It’s not a cheap hobby,” Burdzinski said. “It’s very fulfilling, but it isn’t a cheap hobby.”
Anyone who owns a horse understands simply raising a horse is expensive. Feed, stabling, health care, and equipment costs far exceed those of a horse’s initial purchase price. However, for those truly devoted to and enamored with the sport, it is worth the price.
As for novices, or people who want to start barrel racing, Burdzinski believes that like any other sport, equipment is not what matters. Skill is not what matters. What matters most are the passion for competing and the persistent drive to improve.
“Start slow. Build your way up,” Burdzinski said. “Start with what you can do, and then progress from there.”
Mackenzie Scott, a professional barrel racer, concurred that barrel racing should always be about growth and development. In a sport as quick and precise as barrel racing, perfectionism tends to take the reins for many competitors. However, Scott says it does not matter how often people train their horses or repeat the pattern; barrel racing can be a very inconsistent sport.
“You can be on top of the world one day winning everything and then absolutely no luck for the next two months,” Scott said.She competed on Queeda, a cow-bred mare who is atypical for a barrel horse.
“She’s a total misfit in this industry,” Scott said with a laugh. “But she likes it, so that’s what we do.”
What is special about this barrel racing event is the ability for people of all ages and skill levels to travel from around the country to compete. Barrel racing uses 1D, 2D, 3D, 4D, and 5D to indicate the divisions in the sport, with 1D containing the fastest runs overall, 2D being the second fastest, and so on. Only recently was 5D implemented into barrel racing. This division allows various levels of riders to compete.
“We have little pee-wees that are two to three years old on ponies being lead-lined around to seniors that are in their 70’s racing at these,” Chris Gibson, a professional barrel racer, said.
According to the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA), a 4D system is utilized with first through fifth place. Regardless of ability, this division allows riders of all skill levels to compete and divides the riders into the four divisions depending on which riders have the fastest times.
Gibson competed on Magic and Fury, both rescues from the racetrack. She uses the same training tactics starting with younger horses and reinforcing them in older ones. Although not an easy feat for most, it is something she is skilled at and finds rewarding.
Abby Carrington, who has been barrel racing for 27 years, understands how difficult implementing training tactics in horses can be.
“Each horse is a little different, so you have to adjust for that,” Carrington said.
Carrington competed on Camel and Xena, two mares. With most of her riding experience being English style, she compares training barrel racing horses to training dressage horses, saying both types need to know the same tricks and moves to be skilled in their sport. Unlike barrel racing, dressage, a French word closely translated to “training,” tends to be more of an art, but both require memorizing predetermined patterns and moves to be the most efficient during the competition.
“You spend a lot of time doing counter arcs, you spend a lot of time doing side passes, collection…it’s a lot of slow groundwork,” Carrington said.
Scott agreed it takes a lot to be a barrel racer, and there are many ways riders can improve, whether it is learning from others or practicing on their own.
“I would say never quit learning,” Scott said.
One thing all these riders had in common was something critical for succeeding in the barrel racing world – passion and perseverance. No matter one’s age, level of experience, or equipment, each rider has the potential to become a great barrel racer so long as he or she works hard and cares about the sport. Barrel racers know what it means to fall out of the saddle and get up again.
And that is a lesson many of us need to learn. With passion and perseverance, anything is possible.
For more on barrel racing, check out this video.