Do Barrel Racers Cross the Line into Abuse?

Barrel racing is a high speed event, and when speed is added to any activity the difficulty level increases as do the potential errors. Let’s also add to the mix the fact that it is a competition sport and involves money, and as demonstrated in Dressage, Jumping and Reining, to name a few competitive sports; money affects motivate. So, does that mean that Barrel Racing, fueled by speed and competitive cash, is subject to horse abuse the same as other sports?



  1. To use wrongly or improperly; misuse: abuse a privelege.
  2. To hurt or injure by maltreatment; ill-use.
  3. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words; revile.


  1. Improper use or handling; misuse: abuse of authority.
  2. Physical maltreatment.
  3. An unjust or wrongful practice: a government that commits abuses against its citizens.
  4. Insulting or coarse language: verbal abuse.

I like to point out the definition of commonly used words from time to time to avoid confusion. It is easy to think that abuse involves merely the physical – as in beating a horse with the whip for example. The word abuse covers several meanings however and it seems that several of them apply in this instance.

Originally the subject of barrel racing came about from an anonymous comment to the effect of –

Barrel Racing aint abuse!!!!!!!!

My first thought was wondering if I had written off the cuff about barrel racing in the past? Nothing rang a bell though.

Look beyond the bucking, rearing, tripping and falling. I want you to watch what the RIDER is doing in each of these examples.

  • Continuing to add pressure when the horse is strongly refusing, resisting and otherwise protesting.
  • Overusing the legs which then requires them to overuse the reins which causes them to continue overusing the legs.
  • Their balance is placed in holding onto the horn of the saddle, pulling on the reins and squeezing with their legs.
  • Wearing spurs.

The first horse who makes it out of the arena, ends up backing, rearing and leaving without his rider – you can see the rider is pulling back on the reins while spurring the horse forward, a perfect recipe for rearing.

The overuse of the aids is overwhelming in the above video. On top of that none of the riders are in a balanced position so once the horse begins to protest more loudly the rider panics and uses MORE aids. In several who fall off while the horse is bucking they continue to spur the horse as they fall off because they are trying to hold themselves in the saddle with their legs, which further encourages the horse to buck more.

In contrast, the following video shows a quick and clean run with only significant leg pumps on the final sprint.

To add that finding a video where the rider was not overly exerting their power over the horse was exceedingly more difficult than finding videos of riders blatantly ignoring the needs of their horse’s well-being is not an understatement. This is not something unique to Barrel Racing though, the same occurs in the majority of competitive sports. Again the need to be better than other riders in your sport, to win the blue ribbon or the cash prize or the notoriety or to be the fastest is an effective blind-spot for riders no matter if they ride english or western.

// — The following added and updated January 16, 2011

I refer back to the third and fourth definition of Abuse above –

v. To assail with contemptuous, coarse, or insulting words; revile.


n. Insulting or coarse language: verbal abuse.

Certainly my mind begins to wonder about the amount of anger that a person must have to react in such a way about a simple opinion expressed – do they behave the same way with their horse when his opinion differs from theirs? And if they aren’t abusive in the practice of Barrel Racing they are in the least, and by the very definition of the word, abusive to other equestrians in their reactions.

Erica Franz

I've been riding since I was 9, and in love with horses from the day I was born. Living in Washington with my husband Jason, 2 horses and our 4 dogs.