Why are WPRA rodeos and barrel races timed differently? The difference exists in the challenges of the venue.

As long as a timer is functioning properly, few barrel racers give the timing of a barrel race a second thought. Surprisingly, there are a lot of variables to be taken into consideration when it comes to timing. While the accuracy of the equipment used is rarely questionable, how it is used plays a bigger role in a race’s outcome.

While nearly all jackpot barrel races across the country are timed to thousandths of a second (.000), rodeo barrel racing, most noticeably in Women’s Professional Rodeo Association sanctioned rodeos, is often timed to the hundredths (.00). Barrel racing at college rodeos are also timed in hundredths, as well as countless smaller rodeos across the country.

Titles are won and lost in barrel racing by mere fractions of seconds as determined by the electronic timer. Photo by Kenneth Springer

Some rodeos, however, are timed in thousandths. RFD-TV’s The American, which has the Better Barrel Races association managing the qualifications and rules of the barrel race, is timed in thousandths, as are Canadian professional rodeos, International Pro Rodeo Association events and many open-amateur associations across the country.

During this past summer of 2015, WPRA Gold Card members Martha Wright and Margo Ransom put forth a rule proposal that stated, “when electric timers are used, time the barrel race to 1,000s instead of 100s.” Wright’s reasoning as printed with the rule proposal in the Women’s Pro Rodeo News said, “Professional means we strive to give our contestants the most correct and accurate state to compete on and that also means using the technology available to make it correct and accurate.”

While that ideology seemed straightforward enough, given that nearly every other barrel race in the country used 1,000ths, the proposal faced strong opposition and ultimately failed to pass.

Surprisingly, there was a lot of evidence provided that contradicted the accuracy of timing to a thousandth of a second, especially in the presence of a multitude of variables that are magnified in the rodeo versus jackpot setting.

As one WPRA board member stated, “It sounded like a great idea to begin with, and we had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we falling behind because so many jackpots do it,’ but when we really started looking into it, there’s way too much room for error.”

With the exception of a handful of top divisional finals—namely the National Barrel Horse Association Open and Youth World Finals, Better Barrel Races Finals and the Elite Extravaganza, most jackpots are run over the course of single day in a climate-controlled facility. Weather isn’t a factor, the ground crew and barrel setters are carefully selected and monitored throughout the event, and the timer never moves until the race is over.

The control and dedication to conditions at barrel races are far more accurate than a rodeo could ever hope to be, especially when it comes to the venue, ground, water and number of performances, and the many people handling the placement of the barrels and timer.

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Timing to the thousandth is common practice at many large jackpot races such as the Josey Junior World. Photo by Stephani Yoder

“Rodeo is tough compared to a barrel race,” said Shane Pritchard, the mechanical engineer behind Tanner Time. “You have a compressed time frame with the crowd sitting there watching. I feel for rodeo judges who are trying to set it all up in 30 seconds and you’re going to pay out thousands of dollars based on what they do. They don’t have much time to get it done.”

Using Tanner Time data, Pritchard was able to provide evidence, some of which was used by the WPRA Board of Directors in their decision-making process, on the dangers of timing in thousandths at a rodeo.

“When a horse is running at speed, they’re running on average a half-inch per thousandth of a second, so if the barrel is off two inches that is four-thousandths of a second,” Pritchard explained. “A horse moves four feet in a tenth of a second, which breaks down to a half inch per thousandth. Right now they’re timing in hundredths, so that’s ten-thousandths, so that would mean the cumulative of all three barrels would have to be within five inches of each pattern set to be within ten-thousandths of another. At a rodeo that’s nearly impossible to set from one performance to the next.”

The biggest problems outside of changing ground conditions and weather are the placement of the barrels and timer.

Barrel Placement

While judges take the responsibility for their initial placement of the barrels on the stakes and timer, committee members and contractor hands often set up fallen barrels, and if they’re not careful, the whole playing field changes.

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Oftentimes committee volunteers at rodeos are charged with helping set the barrels on the stakes. Photo by Tyler Stockton

Per WPRA rules, barrels are to be set centered over the stake or marker, unlike the majority of jackpots, which place the barrel to the inside of stakes. In other words, whoever is placing the barrel at a rodeo is “eye-balling” its placement underneath the can.

Southeastern Circuit Director Doreen Wintermute and Martha Wright both put forth rule proposals to change the marking of the pattern. Their proposal, like the timing measure, was voted down with the consensus being, “setting markers under the center of the barrels is an important element that set the WPRA apart and differentiates the WPRA from all other barrel racing organizations. It is an important part of the WPRA identity.”

As far as setting the barrel on the outside of the stake, mistakes can be made there too, said Ransom, whose husband Bill is a longtime PRCA judge.

“Back in the early ‘70s, I was going to Dale Youree clinics and he actually showed us how you could move that barrel to the right or the left and still have the marker on the outside. You can change it like six inches either way, which would be like a foot going from one to two—you change the angle.

“We’ve gone out and messed around in our arena and played with that and unless you’ve got a laser, it really was easier to keep it in the middle. The judges set it the very first time. I know they stress this at the judges’ clinics. They put the stake in the middle and when they raise the barrel up and look at it, you’ve got a good ring in the dirt so the guys that go back and reset the barrel can put it back on the ring.”
Wintermute conceded that nothing is set in stone when it comes to the accuracy of setting barrels with the stake on the outside or setting barrels with the stake centered underneath.

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