As a child heavily involved in pony club life, I gained riding confidence, competitiveness and team-spirit in playing polo for Rutland, show jumping for Lincolnshire and participating in The Prince Phillip Cup Mounted Games Team. My dedication to my horses went with me to Germany and the USA, where I participated in equestrian pursuits in adulthood.
In 2007, I switched to western style riding and still train regularly with an International Reining Champion. Having travelled abroad and witnessed ‘the rodeo’, barrel racing gave me new aspirations. In 2016, I became a regional organiser for the UKBHA. In 2017, I competed at the NBHA Open World Show in Atlanta, Georgia.
As a UKCC level 3 Coach, I now dedicate many hours to providing training clinics and competitions to further the interests of the barrel racing community and sport in the East Midlands and N.E. Anglia.
We asked Sally about the UK Barrel Racing Scene
Do you need a particular type of horse?
In short, the answer is no, because any horse can learn to turn a barrel. However, some horses will find it easier than others, and therefore, it largely depends on how competitive and ambitious you are going to be.
Barrel racing is physically and mentally demanding, so there are lots of factors that go into the perfect barrel horse cocktail.
Agility and speed are vital, and confirmation is essential; things like straight legs, short cannon bones, short top line, and low hocks can be useful indicators of athleticism.
The horse also needs to be well balanced (although training can facilitate this) and equally the horse should have a willing mind-set and the ability to focus.
Regardless of the type of horse, it is essential that the horse is fit and healthy and free of any underlying problems.
Do you need western tack?
Technically, if you are a good rider with balance and core stability you could run barrels bareback, and initially an English saddle will suffice at lower speeds, but if you want to take this sport seriously, then a deep-seated barrel saddle (not just any western saddle) is a good investment.
The barrel saddle is an essential piece of equipment if you want to compete at speed and outside of the UK.
A barrel saddle is specifically designed for the sport to hold you steady, give you grip and support and stop you sliding at faster speeds. The seat has a higher cantle to ‘hold you in’. The horn is small and tall so that you can grab onto it during a turn. The stirrups are positioned slightly forward to assist you in maintaining a good posture during a turn. Also, typically there is less leather on the skirts, thus reducing the weight.
When is someone ready to compete?
You never stop learning. Even the best in the world train regularly with trainers. It takes years to perfect a pattern and to get consistent in doing so. Therefore, I would advise anybody not to let inexperience or lack of courage stop them from giving a competitive run a go.
Fundamentally, as long as a rider has control of the horse, i.e. the ability to turn and stop, then I would really encourage people to launch themselves into the competitive side of this sport.
At 4 Strides Equestrian UK shows we purposefully put on ‘beginner’, ‘walk/jog only’ and ‘newcomer’ classes to support the transition process from training clinic into racing, and to build confidence.
Why do you do it?
I love training people to turn barrels; I enjoy seeing the transformation in people. Hearing people develop aspirations, and watch people's confidence grow relatively quickly in comparison to other disciplines.
What would be your top tip?
My top tip would be that you should 'train to race’. Practice how you plan to perform, and do this until it comes automatically, without needing to think about it.
I see it very frequently...people attend clinics/training and acquire good focus, concentration and coordination. Then when they enter a competition, all the technique and composure go!
Routine and consistency are essential. For example, if when you are training your horse, you should prepare for your run by doing two circles before you set out on the pattern, and then keep that same routine when faced with the start gate. Similarly, if you take your horse out of the holding area and line up with the third barrel and go, don't change that in competition phase.
A good competition rider needs to be able to stay calm, ride with concentration, focus, and patience against the clock, and remember a horse will only be as courageous, confident and patient as you are.
What would you say to someone who wanted to give Barrel Racing a go but didn't know where to start?
I suggest initially attending a training clinic; it always shocks people that it's not as easy as it looks, and the purpose of a clinic is to break down the pattern into sections and coach you through the coordination required at each stage of the pattern.
Most regional organisers encourage spectators at their shows too, so you can usually go and watch before committing with your horse.
If you would like to give this sport a go, please get in touch, and I will signpost you to the nearest UK barrel horse association representative in your area.