Timing. It’s one of the most important things to master in order to compete at a high level in barrel racing. One thing I’ve encountered while teaching clinics is that about 80 percent of the time people don’t look where they’re going in a run and it throws off their timing from the start. In fact, good timing takes time to master—and a lot of riding too. I have some tips to offer to help you start working on your timing in order to make smoother, faster runs.

When I was younger, I’d hear people talking about a rider who had particularly good timing and I didn’t really understand what that meant until later. I think it’s something people can benefit from by learning what it means to have good timing on the barrel pattern, and explaining timing in greater detail.

Get Rhythm

First, there’s the timing of being in good rhythm with your horse during a run— stride for stride you’re right with your horse every step of the run.

The timing of when the horse’s inside hind leg needs to engage for the turn is crucial. It’s important to feel your horse’s inside hind leg landing, looking with your eyes to your track around the barrels, and adjusting your timing to where that inside hind leg is landing and traveling the correct path through the turn.

That’s one reason why learning the proper basics is so important in barrel racing. Learning leads is a great basic to start with because it teaches riders to feel their horse’s feet and be in time with their horse’s stride. Knowing when your horse is in the correct lead will help you feel the position of their hip, especially at faster speeds. The hip needs to be tracking in line with the horse’s front end and not swinging out. I explain it sort of like a fire engine where the back end can swing out and operate independently of the front end—that’s what a horse’s body will often do when it’s not asked for collection. Keeping your horse collected takes just the right degree of timing and good feel—it all goes together.

Ultimately, with every horse there is a sweet spot, or a point where they can rate and turn the barrel best. So, you have to use your brain to learn that perfect position then time your riding accordingly to repeat that pattern each time. For some horses, they need a little more room around a barrel; some not as much if they naturally rate harder, so it’s up to you as the rider to review your better runs and see what it was that made one run better than the other, then learn to repeat the good timing on a consistent basis. Be aware and shoot for that same position each time.

Get a Good Start

The most critical part of getting your timing on the barrel pattern tapped off right in a run starts when you leave the alley. When you take off from the alley, you need to time your speed from that first stride, looking at your point just past the barrel of where you need to ride the horse’s hind end in order to make that good, smooth first turn around the barrel.

The thing about horses is they are long-bodied so you have to learn to time when you sit for the turn correctly. You can’t just sit when the nose is at the
barrel or the front feet are at the barrel. It’s important to time when you sit for the turn in order to allow enough room for the horse’s hindquarters—their motor—to get to your points around the barrel, allowing just the right amount of room for the horse to get his body through the turn without losing momentum. You have to be looking at the path the horse needs to take up and around the barrel from the instant you leave the alley.

When you’re at the in gate, feel your horse’s inside hind leg and recognize if it’s up underneath the horse’s body. Focus your eyes to the first barrel and the road you’ll need to take around it. Remember that a rider’s eyes will dictate a great deal of their timing. Timing dictates when you sit down for the turn. It comes back to knowing your horse and learning to sit in the right places during the run because it’s all got to have a flow and a rhythm to it in order to be fast.


I’ve noticed that sometimes people go too slow to the first barrel and a horse will sort of lolley-gag into the turn. You have to time your speed in order to get the right degree of momentum for a smooth, snappy turn.

Another problem I see is that a lot of people think you get to the barrel and pitch the reins forward, turning the horse loose in the turn. My advice is to learn to time the release of pressure so it’s not all at once; instead it’s ever so slight because you don’t want the horse learning to dive into the turn on his front end.

If you have really good timing going around a turn it’s almost like being a
good driver. Getting out of time is sort of like a driver who takes a turn too fast and all their weight shifts to the outside. Horses are like that—if they’re going too fast and try to turn all at once, it’s going to throw your weight too much to the outside of the turn and get the horse off balance. To be smooth—which helps you be fast—you have to ride centered and your horse has to be balanced on all four legs.

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BHN.


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