Barrel Racing Rule and Regulations

Are you interested in barrel racing or currently competing in this awesome event? Do you know all of the rules, regulations, and associations involved? Competing in barrels is rewarding, fun, and challenging. In this article, we are going to cover all about barrel racing, how to get started, and the rules you should know, and basically walk you through getting prepared and ready for your first event along with what you can expect. 


Barrel racing basics

I’m sure that everyone here is familiar with barrel racing to some degree or another, or has at least seen it done before. It is an extreme sport. When you are barrel racing, winners are determined by just THOUSANDTHS of a second. 

It is a sport that is controlled by speed and unbelievably accurate attention to detail and precision. You can be the best rider paired with the best barrel racing horse in the world and you still are not guaranteed a win or money in that run. The littlest thing can happen that may throw you off and cause you to come in far above your desired time. Not only is competing in barrel racing a thrilling sport, but it is also highly competitive and therefore expensive to compete in. Many times, it is imperative that people competing at high levels be earning a decent amount of money in winnings in order to sustain their passion. Even more, in order to be competitive, the rider must know the rules and regulations and how the sport operates. When it comes to training a barrel horse, you will need to be able to break apart and diagnose each part of your pattern and strategically lay out a plan to fix certain things or accomplish certain goals. 

The race itself is intense, but barrel racing in general is such an expensive sport that to make a living at it or cover your basic costs, the rider must be able to win back some money. To be successful at running barrels, a rider must understand the event and its rules, have a solid training program, and know how each program and movement affects the horse and its body.

While running barrels, to the outsider, may not look like it requires a lot of technical skill and horsemanship, but in fact, it does. The rider’s horsemanship skills, the horse’s training, conditioning, and athleticism all play a key role in obtaining a good time for your runs. 

The pattern and penalties:

In our modern-day barrel racing patterns, the barrels are set up in a triangular-shaped pattern. The horse and rider team must ride around each of the barrels and the team with the lowest time is the winner. If you or your horse knock down a barrel, there is ‌a five-second time penalty added to your overall time. Thankfully, if you just barely touch a barrel but you don’t actually knock it all the way over, you won’t receive a penalty. 

Things that will disqualify you or get you a “no score:”

  • Any form of deviation or change from the cloverleaf style pattern will usually cause you to get disqualified. 
  • If your time to complete the pattern is greater than one minute.

The arena and average speeds:

Each arena you run in will be different, so there is no set “average time” but it will vary by the size of the arena, footing, and many other factors. Generally speaking, runs are somewhere from 15 to 30 seconds.

“The main goal of barrel racing today is still to run the cloverleaf pattern at the fastest time possible. Instead of stopwatches and timers, the modern barrel racing event is recorded and measured by a device called the electric eye. This device uses a laser to record the times along with a judge who may drop a flag to dictate when to stop and start recording.

Recording begins when the horse and rider team cross over the starting line, and the timer stops when the team crosses back over the finish line. How well you will run a pattern depends on many factors. Your horsemanship skills, your horse’s athletic ability, your ability to operate as a team, the mental and physical condition of both horse and rider, and even the footing in the arena can affect your “go,” or pattern. Before competing, you will want to consider all of these factors to ensure success.”- Barrel Racing 101 By Augustus M Walton 

Length of the event and formatting style:

The length of each event that you attend will be based on how many people are running barrels. Some events won’t take too long and others will take much longer to compete in, and some events are multiple-day shows. Barrel racing is a great sport that anyone can compete in, no matter how old you are or how much experience you have. 

There are multiple options for formatting styles for barrel races, but 4D formatting is the most common. This system is composed of the first division being the fastest time, followed by the second division which is the fastest time plus half of a second, then the third division is the fastest time plus one whole second, and the final and fourth division is the fastest time plus two seconds. 

Entering your first competition

Entering your first barrel race as a beginner can be intimidating at first, but you will quickly realize it’s more fun than it is something to be nervous about. It is appropriate to want to feel prepared and here are a few ways you can be prepared for an event, barrel race, or rodeo!

Here is an insert from one of our barrel racing books about what you can expect when entering the arena: 

“When performing a barrel pattern the rider will enter at the red start line, circle around the first and then secondary barrel, then continue to the finish line. The modern-day pattern used in barrel racing is the standard “cloverleaf,” pattern. Usually, you will begin with the right barrel first, but some racers may choose to start with the left barrel.

Upon crossing the initial starting red line as fast as the horse and rider can go, the timer will automatically start recording (usually using a laser system for accuracy.) Rider and horse teams will generally enter through the alley if using a rodeo arena, or through the center entrance if using a performance horse arena. The timer automatically shuts off as soon as the horse and rider cross the finish red line.”- Barrel Racing 101 By Augustus M. Walton

There will always be a learning curve on anything you do or start. After the first event or so, you will begin to fall into a pattern or routine of how you prepare, what you bring and what you realize you don’t necessarily need, and all of the other “fine-tuned” things you worry about when you are just getting going. 

What is one of the most important things is to simply get there, get started, and perform a little trial and error of what will and will not work for you and your specific habits tastes, and preferences. Much of any horse competition or event is trial and error and there is really no way to get around it. Keeping organized amid these moments can give you a place to draw from and refocus. 


I interviewed our very own Rafter 3 Horse Development’s Makala Nerio and asked her what her greatest advice to beginning barrel racers would be:

Jamie: “ Makala what would be your very best advice to someone who is just starting out and getting to the Rodeo?” 

Makala: “I think that people need to keep it simple. Make sure you drown out the noise and all of the stuff that is happening around you. Make your run, analyze it, and then make your adjustments accordingly.” 


In addition, having the right mindset is important. We all want to have fun, but we need to be able to have fun while simultaneously having a professional and working mindset while we are at events. This will help propel us to improve each and every time we step foot in the arena. 


Barrel racing resources and associations/ sanctioning bodies:

Women’s Professional Rodeo Association

International Professional Rodeo Association

National Barrel Horse Association

Better Barrel Races

National Little Britches Rodeo Association

National High School Rodeo Association

National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association

ABRA- American West 4D

American West

Barrel Futurities Of America-BFA

Run For The Bonus

Barrel Racers National 4D-BRN4D

International Barrel Racing Association-IBRA

Paint Barrel Racing Incentive Program-PBRIP


Barrel racing is a great sport that many people love to watch or compete in. It isn’t always easy to get started in something new or to continue growing without the right support. Rafter 3 Horse Development is a family of people who love horses, love riding, training, showing, or just being around them whenever they can be. 



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