At first glance, it may seem like barrel racing is pretty straight forward. Horse and rider fly around the ring while skirting barrels at breakneck speed. So that’s the only drill you need to practice, right? Not at all. Truth is, the sport of barrel racing takes sweat, dedication, and lots of practice. There’s a whole lot that goes on behind the scenes. And that’s why many barrel racers religiously perform a wide variety of barrel racing drills with their horses. 

After all, horse and rider must full-out gallop at breakneck speed to the first barrel. The horse twists its massive body as tight as possible without knocking over a barrel. Then they repeat this until they’ve wound around all three barrels. It’s challenging, that’s for sure. 

Woman wearing barrel racing attire riding a horse, with text highlighting text from the post, and the X Factor logo.

Barrel racing horses love performing this challenge though. Some even have to be held back in the alley way  when they see the barrels in the arena! Barrel racing is the kind of sport that brings horse and rider very closely together. The two bond over countless hours of training and practicing drills. The result is two beings operating as one. Below are 5 barrel racing drills to give you a strong footing in this exciting and rewarding sport.

Circle Drills

The circle drill is a simple drill that you can do pretty much anywhere. You’ll need about 6 items you can arrange in the shape of a circle. You can use barrels, tires, or poles. You want to guide your horse around the circle pattern, working in one direction only. Walk, or trot your horse all to the right, for instance, until your horse is comfortable. If you’re an advanced team, you can even incorporate loping. Once you get the right turn consistent, make an intentional stop. Then begin the same pattern in the left direction.

The goal of circle barrel racing drills is to focus on the shape of the circle. Keep away from the barrels by about two or three feet and go slow. You’re setting a foundation, so you don’t need to rush anything.

Tip: You want your horse’s shoulders lifted and keep her hindquarters engaged.


Woman wearing barrel racing attire riding a horse, with text highlighting the 5 barrel racing drills from the post.

Triangle Drills

You’ll need to set up 3 barrels in a triangle pattern for this 3-barrel racing drill. You want them arranged just how they would be in the arena. Begin at the arena’s end and proceed to the first barrel and make your turn. You’re practicing approach and turns in this drill, not speed. This barrel racing drill starts by walking. This gets the horse comfortable and able to process your request. When you’ve turned around the first barrel, continue to the next closest barrel. Then make that turn in the same direction.

The barrel order doesn’t matter at this point. Repeat barrel turns in the same direction until confident your horse understands. Then you can add in a trot or lope. You want to advance a drill only when the horse is consistently successful. Once you have one direction down pat, repeat the process in the opposite direction.

Tip: If you don’t like how a turn was performed, go back and repeat that barrel. Remember, when you leave an exercise you communicate success to the horse. Your horse learns through repetition. Make sure you’re showing him what you want him to absorb and end on a positive note.

Arcing The Body

Your horse needs to be able to arc her body to twist around a pole or barrel to avoid hitting it. This barrel racing drill develops the muscle memory needed for her to do that. First, ask for her head and neck. Begin walking in a circle while her body arcs to the inside. It should only be a faint arc and you’ll be able to feel it in her rib area.

If you start in a left circle, you’ll pull the left rein soft until her head leans slightly inside. Your left foot needs to push into her ribs so she keeps that arc. You don’t need to apply a lot of pressure with the reins or your foot. This is a soft, subtle touch. 

Tip: When your horse leans inside, keep your hold, but release the pressure. This is her cue that she’s done what you’re asking.


This drill teaches them how to get their hindquarters under themselves. This is necessary to maintain balance and speed while digging in around the barrels. You want your horse to “give” to the bit lightly and then take as many backward steps as you request. You don’t want head tossing or a set jaw. This motion should be smooth and silky.

Tip: When conditioning your horse remember to take breaks. Horses, like people, need time to process what they’re learning. Give a break for the same amount of time as each training period. If you’ve worked for 15 minutes and you’ve had success, let him rest for 15 minutes before moving on.

Straight Ahead Drills

This barrel racing drill practices the simple execution of straight lines. Practice is needed since most pens, corrals, and paddocks are mostly circle shapes. You don’t need any equipment for this one. Eye a spot on the horizon or across a field and go straight for it. No curving, weaving, or wobbling.

Tip: This drill is a fun, team-building exercise, too.

Barrel Racing Drills Should Be Fun & Positive

These 5 drills are certainly not all you need to practice to be a successful team. Remember to start slow and keep initial sessions short and positive. Build up time and difficulty as your horse increases confidence. If you meet resistance, find another way to build the pattern. You may even need to move to another drill and then return at a later time. As your horse’s teacher, it’s your job to present new skills in a way he can understand and be successful with. For more barrel racing tips visit X Factor Barrel Racing.

Before you know it, your barrel racing drills will turn into barrel racing skills!

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