Barrel Horse Style

Barrel Horse Style

What makes a good barrel horse? Any barrel racing style goes. Top barrel racers describe their unique horses and how to capitalize on individual strengths.

barrel racer Sherry Cervi prepares to turn a barrel on Dash Ta Diamonds (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Stephenie Tanguay 

A horse that can get around three barrels and leave them standing in the fastest time gets riders to the buckle ceremony and a paycheck. In barrel racing, plain and simple – you cannot pigeonhole barrel horses, even the top horses, into single category types. There is no specific manner of going that wins barrel races.  

So many components go into the ability to compete at the top levels. Riders are one-half of a team, their horses are the other. Riders run barrels for fun, for money and for fame. Anyone who desires to be at the top of the list is likely addicted to the adrenaline rush of making the best run and then pushing just a little bit harder.  

When looking for a partner in the climb to the top of the leaderboard, how does a rider choose the style of barrel horse best suited to her – or him? Are we even able to label and contextualize the differences? These are topics I was interested in discussing with three top riders: Jane Melby, Tammy Fischer and Sherry Cervi. 

Training Barrel Horses to Reach Their Full Style Potential  

Each of these ladies has more than a decade of success in the rodeo arena. Besides barrel racing professionally, Jane, Tammy and Sherry also train barrel horses, so they have the knowledge and experience of developing horses to their full potential.  

“When I was young, I only rode one horse for a long time,” recalls Tammy. “You know everything the horse is going to do just from the moves he makes because you have ridden him for so long. But now that I am older, I see it as a little bit of a downfall. You get so adapted to one horse, and you know him like the back of your hand. That’s good when you are competing, but when something happens to that one horse and you have to get on another horse, you are so lost. You don’t know how to adapt your style to a different horse.  

“Now, I ride a lot of horses, and it really expands my horizons,” Tammy adds.  

Sherry says there is a lot of room in the sport for individual barrel racing styles.  

“There are styles of horses and styles of riders,” she maintains. “I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way for either. Whatever is the fastest and shuts the clock off, that is the end result and the main goal.” 

Jane observes that many talented horses travel through the pattern with styles all their own, but she’s curious whether some novice horse-rider duos could do better with assistance from more experienced trainers, especially early in their careers together.  

“This (professional barrel racing) is survival of the fittest,” says Jane, a two-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier. “Being a ‘hand’ gives you longevity in the business. You have to learn how to feel the differences between the horses and read them accordingly.”  

Tammy emphasizes the need to identify a horse’s style and then for a rider to be able to feel how a horse moves.  

“With a horse, it is a partnership,” she says. “You have to be able to put up with all the little idiosyncrasies that make them great. For example, just because ‘Bozo’ (French Flash Hawk) was great with Kristie Peterson, had I owned him, he may not have been great – maybe nobody would have known his name.  

“People sit on the fence and say, ‘If that girl would lift her hand at this spot, that horse would be so awesome.’  

“It is real easy to critique from the fence,” Tammy admits. “But when you actually get on and ride, you might lift your hand and find that the horse doesn’t respond. It’s not how it looks ... to just take that one more step, or do this or do that. It happens that fast,” she says, snapping her fingers. “You can’t adjust that fast. 

“We know our horses. We know their personalities. We haul them. We live with them 24-7,” Tammy adds. “We made them what they are. They made us who we are. So, what we are doing, it’s for a reason. We didn’t just pull it up today and see if it would work.”  

Tammy Fischer turns a barrel on MP Quick Money

Appreciating a horse’s strengths and accepting its idiosyncrasies is what makes a partnership. Tammy Fischer, riding MP Quick Money, takes her cues from the way her horse responds.

Barrel Horse Conformation and Pedigrees: All Shapes and Sizes  

Physical characteristics are often the most obvious differences between horses. While a horse’s conformation can definitely affect its running style, the only measurement that truly counts is how quick an individual can complete the pattern, based on his own particular strengths.  

“A winning barrel horse can be anywhere from less than 14 hands to more than 16 hands,” Jane observes. “They can have long backs, short backs, be high-headed or low-headed.  

“The conformation of a horse has to do with how you look at training and riding, and whether that horse fits you as a rider,” she continues. “Some horses dig around a barrel. Some are high-headed and low-hocked and come out of a barrel high.”  

“A horse can pull with their front end, push with their back end, or be similar to a four-wheel-drive vehicle and do both,” Jane adds. “I like a four-wheel-drive horse. When training, I focus on where my horses naturally place their feet and go from there.”  

Jane Melby turns a barrel on First Down Perk at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

A horse with a ground-swallowing stride like First Down Perk may intimidate some riders, but for pilot Jane Melby, it’s a short flight home.

Conformation can also influence how horses handle different arenas. A tall, lanky, long-strided horse may excel in large patterns with long alleys that let them unfold their legs and get up to speed. A more compact, bulldog-type sprinter might be the ideal horse in tight quarters. But you can’t just assume this is true. Experience will reveal what suits a particular horse.  

In barrel racing, as in other sports, certain bloodlines do seem to win more, but is it simply because there are more of them? Bloodlines are one predictor that a horse may have a winning style, but top riders agree that it’s important to evaluate each horse and to build on natural gifts. 

Four-Wheeling Barrel Horses 

Sherry also appreciates a horse equipped with four-wheel-drive, such as her mare, MP Meter My Hay.  

“ ‘Stingray’ is always in four-wheel-drive,” she says. “All four feet are moving and she never stops the fluid motion. It doesn’t matter if it is hard ground or deep ground, she can stay on top. She may not be the fastest horse in the straight-away, but she is fast because she never stops moving.”  

Sherry explains that it’s Stingray’s style difference that makes her able to handle all types of footing – meaning that she “stands up” in the pattern.  

“When you have a horse that stands up there and moves all four feet, not dragging her butt or getting on the front end too much, then she can handle the different types of ground, which is really important in the rodeo world because you have so many types of ground,” Sherry says.  

Not all horses can adapt to different conditions, and taking this into account is important, Jane advises.  

“Know your horse and the best ground for it,” she reiterates. “Older horses, like Lisa Lockhart’s ‘Louie,’ can read hardpacked arenas. They know how to handle it and will win in it.” 

barrel racer Lisa Lockhart turns a barrel on An Oakie With Cash, aka "Louie" (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

An Oakie With Cash and Lisa Lockhart make it look effortless. Lisa sits right in the middle and looks where she wants “Louie” to go. This horse wins on all types of footing.

Matching Riders With Their Barrel Horses 

There are various things, small and large, that play to a horse’s style strengths, and it’s important to identify them.  

“It can be the style of horse that walks, trots or lopes down the alleyway before taking off, or a horse that just blasts off from a standstill,” Jane says, by way of example.  

Her daughter, Cayla Melby Small, was the 2016 Women's Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year, and she developed a running style that worked well for her in most arenas, but not all, says her mother. That year, Cayla won the majority of her barrel earnings on three horses, Brookstone Jo, Docs Frosty Blue Bar (aka “Mighty Whitey”) and Shameon U (aka “Gator”). 

“Cayla likes to run three-quarter speed to the first barrel and then she hits the gas. In Utah, I told her, ‘This is a kick-butt arena. In order to win, you are going to have to run full-out to the first barrel and never check-up.’  

“It goes back to learning to ride the horse you are on,” Jane insists. “Match a rider to the horse. Learn how to go fast. Don’t just buy a fast horse – you have to know how to ride it. Get a horse you can learn on and another one that goes fast. You need a horse that will carry you around and get the job done, but also one that you have to help so you can learn how to help.”  

Cayla Melby Small turns a barrel on "Gator"

Women's Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year Cayla Melby Small learned how to drive her “Gator.” Occasionally, she had to ask Shameon U to adjust his running style to fit certain arenas.

Riders who have good horsemanship make their horses look fast and easy, Jane points out.  

Sherry supports this theory. Demonstrating good horsemanship is a goal, no matter what she’s riding.  

“I try to be real quiet and sit right in the middle,” Sherry explains. “I start all my colts the same way, but I also let them develop their own style. I try to adjust to them and meet in the middle.”  

Her goal is to do each horse justice, but admits certain individuals do not fit her style, such as horses that are more comfortable working on their forehand rather than driving from behind.  

“If I have a horse that is really ‘front-endy’ and will never not be ‘front-endy,’ I would rather let him go and see somebody else, who it doesn’t bother, prove him and show his true potential. I prefer not to ride a horse like that,” she says. 

Tips for Test Riding Barrel Horses  

Operating styles go both ways. Just as riders adapt their body positions and habits to suit special horses, their equine partners are continuously adjusting to them, as well. This is why some of the best horses have successfully carried different pilots to major wins. But style changes can occur on a small scale, too. 

“The inside back pivot foot and where the horse plants it is important and tells you how to adjust your style of riding to allow the horse to go faster and win,” says Jane, again emphasizing the need to be able to feel your horse and adjust accordingly.  

“At each point in the run, a horse may have a different style,” she explains, “and while you can encourage one or another, each horse will tell you what they are comfortable with – but you have to know how to listen.  

“I give a lot of lessons,” Tammy adds. “A lot of riders come and want to ‘fix’ this horse right now. I watch them go through the barrels and then I say, ‘Get off and let me ride,’ because I think I know what I see, but then I need to feel it.  

“A lot of times, I will put them on one of my horses and let them feel the difference so they can understand. Then, when they get back on their own horses, they will know how it is supposed to feel.”  

Mental Style Needed for Barrel Racing 

A horse’s mental style is another factor. To say the conditions at venues for top rodeos like the NFR, The American and the Elite Rodeo finals are stressful would be an understatement. But the barrel horses that have “been to town” before, aren’t bothered by the environment. 

For the ERA championships, horses are trailered to the venue and off-loaded in a parking lot next to the light-rail station, which is next to Interstate 35 in what is called the Mixmaster district in downtown Dallas. The riders saddle up and walk or ride their mounts down the sidewalk, into a parking garage, and down into the dark underbelly of the American Airlines Center. Surrounded by concrete and the echoes held within, the contestants make their way to a small warm-up pen in which they can lope small circles. The American rodeo, held in nearby Arlington, Texas, has a similar setup.  

Fallon Taylor walks "Babyflo"

Running in the big leagues of professional rodeo exposes horses to big-city environments. Experience, like that of Fallon Taylor's "Babyflo" (registered as Flos Heiress) affects a horse’s emotional style.

Mentally, top rodeo horses must work at a high level. While age and experience have a significant impact on their minds, young horses, too, have demonstrated their ability to not only handle, but excel, under challenging circumstances.  

The age of a horse may or may not affect its emotional style, but experience can play an important role. 

“Some horses may have a certain style when they are younger, and get more solid with age. When they are sold to a different rider, they adjust,” says Sherry. She uses Callie duPerier’s Dash Ta Diamonds, aka  “Arson,” as a prime example. “Arson has won with Carlee Pierce, Jane Melby, Kelly Bowser who trained him, Aimee Kay, and me – five different styles of rider, but he wins,” Sherry points out. “He can adapt.”  

“I think the older they get, they may change their style a little bit to work with the rider,” she adds, but agrees that not all horses are that flexible.  

“There are some great jackpot horses, and when they get put in the rodeo atmosphere, they can’t handle it,” she says, noting that it might be a simple lack of experience. They haven’t been exposed to the same situations that a barrel horse being hauled on the professional circuit sees.  

“I haul horses with no intention of competing on them,” Sherry says. “I let them stand in the trailer next to the Kamikaze ride (on the midway) with the flashing lights and sirens. That is just one step closer to getting them seasoned so nothing bothers them.  

“That’s the one great thing about Stingray,” Sherry continues. “When we show up in Puyallup, Washington, we have to walk down the midway of the fair. There are people, kids trying to touch her, it’s crazy! It doesn’t bother her.  

“When I show up to a jackpot and people are complaining that there is not a center gate or some other little thing … I want it, because you have to be able to adjust.  

“Don’t get mentally distracted,” she advises. “The pattern is still the same – there are three barrels – and you cross the eye the same. There are circumstances you can’t control, and everyone at that barrel race runs with the same circumstances. Go with it.”  

Sherry Cervi describes “Stingray” (registered as MP Meter My Hay) as a four-wheel-drive horse. The mare’s legs are always in motion, so she stays on the surface and is quick around the barrels.

Jane agrees, and says it’s essential if you want to win to expose barrel horses to unfamiliar environments.  

“Age doesn’t equal experience in people or horses,” she notes. “There are horses and people who are like kids who didn’t go to daycare. They are going to have a harder time going into the cities and big arenas and maintaining their focus, if they have never been there before.”  

Ready-Made Barrel Horses  

What about buying a “ready-made” or fully trained horse? Is it more difficult to select an appropriate style of barrel horse and create a winning partnership that way?  

“There is nothing wrong with that,” says Sherry. That’s what she did with Jet Royal Speed (“Hawk”) and Sir Double Delight (“Troubles”). She points out that some riders like to stay home and train horses, while others like to go on the road and compete with them.  

“That’s why the barrel racing industry is so crazy right now,” says Sherry, “because people can go buy that trained horse and immediately hit the road – and that’s awesome.”  

Barrel Racers Seeking Knowledge: Clinics and Mentors 

Tammy encourages newcomers to interact more with riders who have experience. She urges riders to talk to professionals and ask them their opinions when looking to create a better partnership with a horse, regardless of individual style.  

“If there is a person standing beside you, talk to that person instead of texting someone who isn’t there or looking at that person’s picture on Facebook. She may be able to tell you something that you didn’t know,” says Tammy.  

“Don’t focus on getting a faster horse,” Jane advises. “Seek knowledge! Go to a clinic versus sending your horse off to a trainer for 30 days. Learn how to ride. Don’t get caught up in the horse. You have to be able to ride.”  

Studying barrel horse style is always “a great subject for a conversation – as long as it is a positive conversation,” Sherry suggests.  

The Bottom Line: Embracing Barrel Horse Style 

After discussing both the movement and mental styles of barrel horses, it’s difficult to put horses into categories. From ground manners, to take-offs in the alleyway, to how horses motor around the barrels, there are endless combinations of equine behaviors. A talented horse, combined with a complementary rider, creates a great partnership. But it might not happen overnight. 

Communication within the partnership is important. In the arena, riders must learn to feel the differences in movement styles and select the style best suited to them, while also being willing to adjust to individual idiosyncrasies. Finally, both the horse and rider must gain experience in the hectic environments presented at the top competitions.  

Like Sherry so succinctly asserts, there is no right or wrong style of running barrels. A positive conversation may be had comparing and contrasting the aspects of each team and exploring the reasons they win, but bottom line, if you and your horse get around three barrels and cross the finish line first, then you are doing it right.