Find your pocket for a faster barrel racing model

Building a pocket at the entrance to your barrel means you can close the turn tighter as you accelerate to the next barrel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but it’s not always the fastest, especially in barrel racing. If you want to shave seconds off your time and leave the barrels standing as you cross the timer, you’ll need to perfect your pocket as you carve your cloverleaf path around the barrels in your barrel racing pattern. Veteran barrel racer Cheyenne Wimberley explains how.

Why take the long way?

Think of it like driving a car or riding a bike, says Wimberley. When approaching a turn, you don’t want to turn too hard or you won’t make it.

“You have to keep the distance where your speed continues in a forward motion, but it’s easy for you and your horse to go around,” she says. “You need enough distance to turn while standing.”

Barrel racing patternWithout that space, your horse will have to slow down to fully turn, and you risk knocking the barrel over in the struggle, automatically adding five seconds to your time, which can be devastating to your placement.

However, you don’t leave space all around the barrel. You just need that space when entering the barrel, cutting it tight at the back of the bend when exiting.

A good rule of thumb

So how far away should you be from the barrel when entering the bend? Wimberley aims for a point about a horse’s length, 6 to 8 feet, away from – and to the side – of the first barrel. This is also the place she marks for her downshift to make the turn. For the second and third barrels, she sticks to a distance of about 4 feet at the entrance to the bend.

Boss Fastern Barrel Racing
Eventually, you can switch to a single cone at each barrel designating the pocket, where you need to slow your horse down before the turn. When you can visualize your pocket every time, you can remove the cones. Photo by Abigail Boatwright
Boss Fastern Barrel Racing
As you approach the barrel, lead your horse directly to a spot 6-8 feet from the barrel, then have your horse stop with your tails and reins when his shoulder is in line with the barrel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

“It’s like using a brake,” she says. “You learn to gauge how fast you’re going and how hard you have to brake before you turn.”

Building Your Pocket in Barrel Racing

Starting at the end of the arena through the front door, Wimberley lines up with the third barrel as she moves towards the first barrel, usually the one on the right. She says starting in the center makes it easier to approach.

She advises you to choose your pocket area before you get to the barrel. It will be the same every time, so with practice your pocket will become automatic. Wimberley says the first barrel is the hardest because you’re going up the fairway a lot and you have to get that angle to nail the first corner.

When you get to your chosen spot, a horse’s length from the barrel, ask your horse to stop. You will simply “miss” or slow down for a while while actually running the pattern, but in practice you will come to a complete stop.

Wimberley steers his horse straight to the designated spot next to the cannon, avoiding over-shaping his horse’s head and body along the way.

“I feel like a horse runs faster when it’s going in a straight line, so I’m really going there,” she explains. “I don’t want him running with his head tilted to the side. I just want to keep him in a natural, forward position.

His first cue there will be to check his speed by sitting deep in the saddle and then taking the inside rein. Once your horse has taken a moment to slow down, he’ll be ready to turn the barrel and head for the next one.

Find your pocket
Next, train your horse for the turn while keeping this “pocket” as you enter the turn. Photo by Abigail Boatwright
Find your pocket
Continue to go around the barrel leaving space as you enter the bend. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Practical advice

When you’re first mastering the pocket in barrel racing, Wimberley says it can be helpful to have several cones lined up at the barrel entrance to guide your way. Practice walking, trotting and slow gait.

Once you are familiar with the drill, you can remove all but one cone at the barrel at your cadence point. Eventually, you can remove all of your cones and focus on visualizing this spot each time you prepare to spin. Even at top speed, Wimberley says you’ll need a pocket and a slight shift to pull off the turn and speed up your barrel racing patterns.

“Even now, I’m still doing the basics,” she adds. “I try not to [barrel racing] harder than it is. Getting to the right place and setting up your turn are really just simple fundamentals that many people forget.

Find your pocket
At the back of the turn, tighten your circle to be closer to the barrel. Photo by Abigail Boatwright
Find your pocket
Close the tight turn and head for your next barrel pocket. Photo by Abigail Boatwright
Cheyenne Wimberley
Cheyenne Wimberley. Photo by Abigail Boatwright

Meet the trainer

Cheyenne Wimberley of Stephenville, Texas, was a lifelong barrel racer and roper, winning her first state championship at age 4. She began competing in professional rodeo at age 10 and was ranked 16th in the world at age 11. Cheyenne has won at the Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and made four National Rodeo Finals, most recently in 2019 and 2020.


This article about the pocket’s search for a faster barrel racing model appeared
in the January/February 2021 issue of illustrated horse magazine. Click here to subscribe !

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