Best Horse Breeds For Barrel Racing

If you ask most people what the best breed for barrel racing is chances are they’d say the Quarter Horse without too much hesitation and in terms of popularity that certainly is the case but that doesn’t mean its always the best. Of course, if you’re competing as a professional then yes the horses are almost exclusively Quarter Horses but what about if you just want to try it out or only want to compete at local shows or rodeos? In these circumstances, the Quarter Horse is still the preferred choice but it’s by no means the only choice which is why I thought it would be fun to look at some of the best breeds for barrel racing. 

I’ve included the favorites such as the Quarter Horse and Appaloosa as well as some breeds that you might be surprised to see but that can still be, with the right training, good barrel racing horses. Breeds such as the Arabian and the Thoroughbred and even the Clydesdale!

Quarter Horse

Height: Most horses stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) but they can be anything up to 17hh (68 inches)
Color: Any color is allowed but sorrel is more common than any others
Character: The Quarter Horse is an extremely friendly horse that has a calm nature, they have a lot of energy and are easy to train
Country of Origin: USA

There’s a reason why the Quarter Horse is the most popular breed, and its ability to turn on a sixpence gives an indication as to why this is the case. Originally bred by the English pioneers that began settling in New England during the seventeenth century, it wasn’t long before the English, bringing their love of racing with them, began to race their horses through the village streets. At this time the roads, which were nothing more than wooden tracks, tended to be a quarter of a mile in distance, this gave rise to the name Quarter Pathers which later changed to the Quarter Horse name we use today.

While the Thoroughbred has overtaken the Quarter Horse in terms of its popularity on the racetrack, Quarter Horses still can’t be beaten over a short distance, which is yet another reason why they’re the ideal horse for barrel racing.

Quarter Horse facts
  • The Quarter Horse is described as a ‘sleepy little critter that can unwind like lightning’ and this ability to spring into action certainly helps make it a firm favorite.
  • One of the most famous barrel racers was a horse called Scamper, foaled in 1977 he won ten world championships in his ten year career and earned over a $1 million in prize money.
  • Horses that are the result of breeding a Quarter Horse with a Thoroughbred are registered as Appendix Quarter Horses, these horses also make excellent barrel racers because they combine the best of both breeds.
  • The Quarter Horse is phenomenally fast and can reach speeds of up to 55 mph (88 kph) over a short distance.

Want to know more? Contact the American Quarter Horse Association.

Appaloosa

Height: While some Appaloosas have been known to reach 17hh (68 inches) they generally stand between 14.2hh (57 inches) and 16hh (64 inches)
Color: Known for their spotted coat pattern they also have striped hooves and mottled skin around their eyes and muzzle. In addition to this have a white sclera around their eyes which is often referred to as a human eye
Character: Famous for their endurance and versatility, the Appaloosa has a friendly and kind nature. They make great family horses because they can be handled by both adults and children
Country of Origin: USA

While the Appaloosa originally descended from Russian Don horses as well as Spanish Conquistadors their numbers had been so drastically reduced by the end of the nineteenth century that, in an effort to save the breed from extinction, a lot of Quarter Horse blood was introduced. And it’s this blood that, combined with the fast, versatile horse that the Appaloosa was already, helped to make them a great choice for barrel racing. On top of that, their striking coat pattern is sure to make them stand out from the crowd!

A lot of people say that the Appaloosa is just a color breed but, while it’s certainly well known for it’s color, it’s far more than just that. Being an extremely versatile horse, it’s not only found competing in all disciplines but excels at everything it does.

Appaloosa facts
  • The Appaloosa’s coat pattern, just like a human fingerprint, is unique to the horse and no two horses will have the exact same pattern.
  • Originally bred by the Nez Percé Indians who were famous for the horse breeding skills, the Appaloosa still has many of the same prized characteristics that the Nez Percé loved.
  • Known as ‘a Palousey’ horse due to their native homeland in the Palouse region of Idaho and Washington. It wasn’t until the registry was established in 1938 that they became known as Appaloosa horses.
  • While their coat pattern is arguably their most famous characteristic, not all Appaloosas have spots and can even be a solid color. That said though they do all display mottled skin around their eyes and muzzle as well as striped hooves and a ‘human eye’.

Want to know more? Contact the Appaloosa Horse Club.

Paint Horse

Height: Most Paint Horses stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16hh (64 inches) although they can, on occasions be taller
Color: White with any other color, typically with one of three coat patters – tobiano, overo or tovero
Character: Paint Horses have kind natures and are known for their intelligence, they’re extremely powerful and athletic horses that are also very elegant
Country of Origin: USA

Like so many horses in America, the Paint Horse can trace its origins back to the horses that the Spanish Conquistadors brought with them. Over time some of these horses escaped and ended up roaming free as part of the wild herds that once covered the plains of the ‘Wild West’. Over time some of these horses were domesticated and bred with Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds to create an agile cattle horse that is great around children. A lot of Paint Horses are dual registered with the American Quarter Horse Association which is one of the reasons they’re a great choice for barrel racing. They have the speed and agility of the Quarter Horse with the added bonus of a distinctive coat.

Due to their stock-type build, Paint Horses are incredibly popular for pleasure riding but also for ranch work. They’re also highly intelligent and easy to train so they can turn their ‘hoof’ to anything and as such have done tremendously well in most disciplines.

Paint Horse facts
  • You might think that the Paint Horse is a relatively new breed and in terms of its registry it certainly is but horses with the same coat patterns have been discovered in cave paintings that date from around 4500BC.
  • To be registered as a Paint Horse every horse’s sire and dam must be registered with either the American Paint Horse Association, the American Quarter Horse Association or be a Thoroughbred that’s registered with the Jockey Club.
  • The Native American Indians who first bred these horses believed that they had magical powers and the more striking their coat markings the stronger their powers.
  • You might be surprised to know that pintos and Paint Horses aren’t actually the same thing. Pinto is, in fact, a color rather than a breed, as such a horse that is pinto in color can only be registered as a Paint Horse if it meets the bloodline requirements mentioned before.

Want to know more? Contact the American Paint Horse Association.

Australian Stock Horse

Height: Typically they’ll stand between 14hh (56 inches) and 16.2hh (66 inches)
Color: Any color is allowed
Character: The Australian Stock Horse has a lot of stamina and is loved for its calm temperament as well as for its courage
Country of Origin: Australia

The Australia Stock Horse is sometimes referred to as an Australian Quarter Horse and when you consider the breeds temperament, endurance, agility and speed it’s not difficult to understand why. The Australian Stock Horse is descended for the horses that arrived in Australia in 1788 onboard the First Fleet. These horses, like the Quarter Horse’s ancestors, were mainly of European stock.

Since it’s early days the Australian Stock Horse has had to adapt to its environment and climate which has made it a very tough and hardy breed. It’s also evolved into an extremely sensible horse that won’t just run at the first sight of danger, instead, they’ll assess the situation.

Australian Stock Horse facts
  • Some people refer to the Australian Stock Horse as a Waler but, although they do have a similar ancestry they are actually two different breeds.
  • The opening ceremony to the 2000 Olympics, which were hosted in Sydney, held a tribute to the Australian Stock Horse. They had over 120 horses carrying out complex routines in time to music, all at the same time.
  • In Australia, they are still used to help roundup (or muster as it’s known in Australia) cattle in some remote locations where vehicles can’t get in and helicopters can cause the cattle to panic.
  • During the 1900s, Quarter Horse blood was introduced which only helped to improve their speed and stamina.

Pony Of The Americas

Height: Most ponies will stand between 11.2hh (46 inches) and 14hh (56 inches)
Color: Spotted, although it’s sometimes referred to as Appaloosa coloring because they have the same mottled skin characteristics as their bigger cousins
Character: The Pony of the Americas is a gentle breed that is also very fast. They have a lot of stamina and are extremely willing ponies
Country of Origin: USA

The Pony of the Americas was created purely by chance after an Appaloosa mare that had been accidentally bred with a Shetland Pony stallion was offered to lawyer and horse breeder Les Boomhower. When the resulting foal was born with a black ‘smudge’ on an otherwise pure white coat Boomhower was inspired to create a breed. He then set about establishing the new breed with the aim of producing a Western utility pony that also had a colorful coat. 

In the early days’ Appaloosa and Arabian horses were used, along with the Shetland Pony but after a few years the Shetland Pony was dropped from the breeding program in order to increase the height. This increased the original maximum height of 13hh (52 inches) to the 14hh (56 inches) it is today.

Pony Of The Americas facts
  • Boomhower wanted the breed to be an ‘in-between’ breed that could be ridden by children who were too big for ponies but too small for horses. He certainly did that and the breed is perfectly capable of carrying both children and adults.
  • The founding stallion was called Black Hand because Boomhower thought that the black smudge on his back looked like a handprint.
  • The Pony of the Americas has a great deal of stamina which was put to the test in the mid-twentieth century when a pony called Apache Wampum completed a six hundred mile ride from Columbus Junction in Iowa to Cheyenne in Wyoming.
  • The registry was set up in 1955 with only 12 ponies being registered but within just fifteen years that number had grown to over 12,000, today there are around 50,000 registered ponies.

Want to know more? Contact the Pony of the Americas Club.

Thoroughbred

Height: Usually between 15.2hh (61 inches) and 17hh (68 inches)
Color: Bay, brown and chestnut are the most common colors but any solid color is permitted
Character: Being a hot-blood the Thoroughbred has a tendency to be a little spirited, while not every horse is like this it does mean they can be difficult for inexperienced riders to handle. They’re hard-working horses and are highly intelligent
Country of Origin: United Kingdom

The Thoroughbred was originally developed during the eighteenth century as the ‘ultimate racing machine’ and is now capable of covering a mile at speeds of around 40mph (64kph) which is one of the reasons they make good barrel racers. As well as their speed they can easily and quickly change direction. The only drawback to the Thoroughbred though, in terms of the barrels, is that they tend to be a little hot-headed and it can take a lot of time and effort to train them.

As well as racing Thoroughbreds are used in a wide range of disciplines in both the Western and English arenas, although a large number of them will have come from the racing world and are sold as OTTB. This means ‘Off The Track Thoroughbred’ and is a term used to describe a horse that is registered with the Jockey Club. OTTB horses have either been raced or were in training to race.

Thoroughbred facts
  • The name Thoroughbred is derived from the word ‘thro-bred’ that was first used to describe their breeding back in 1713. As such, there is still a debate about whether their name should be capitalized or not.
  • The most successful racehorse ever was a stallion called Eclipse that was foaled in 1764. Named after the solar eclipse of that year he ran 18 races in his career and one every single one of them.
  • While the founding stallions are all said to be Arabians, the foundation mares, on the other hand, were a mixture of oriental horses and other European breeds such as the now-extinct Irish Hobby.
  • The Thoroughbred breed is unique in the horse world because its the only breed that doesn’t allow horses bred through artificial insemination or embryo transfer to be registered. While the main reason for this is to maintain the high price of the horses, another reason is to reduce the risk of assigning the wrong parentage to a horse.

Want to know more? Contact the Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Arabian

Height: Arabians can reach up to 16hh (64 inches) but the average height is 14.3hh (57 inches)
Color: Black, brown, bay, chestnut and grey are the most common but any solid color is allowed
Character: Arabians have a reputation for being a bit hot-headed but this isn’t always the case, they’re generally kind horse and love being around people
Country of Origin: Arabian peninsula

The Arabian is probably one of the most famous breeds in the world yet nobody knows for sure where it actually originated from. There are a number of myths surrounding the breed’s origin but the most famous has to be the one that suggests it was the prophet Mohammad that created the breed. It’s said that he kept a herd of horses enclosed without water for a week, after which time one of the sides on the enclosure was removed and the horses charged to the water. He then called them back and all but five of them ignored his call, but it’s said that the five that returned formed the foundation of the breed.

Arabian facts
  • The Arabian might seem like a strange choice for barrel racing but they’ve been a common sight in recent years, they have immense speed and their light frame enables them to turn tightly.
  • While the breed’s origins aren’t known they have been depicted in ancient cave paintings that are over 3500 years old.
  • You might know that the Arabian has one less rib than other breeds but you may not realize that they also have one less lumbar vertebrae as well as one less tail bone.
  • Three stallions, Darley Arabian, Godolphin Arabian and Byerley Turk, are said to have been the founding stallions in the creation in the Thoroughbred.

Want to know more? Contact the Arabian Horse Association.

Clydesdale

Height: Most horses stand between 16.2hh (65 inches) and 18hh (72 inches) although some can be taller
Color: Bay is the most common color but any solid color is allowed, usually with white markings around the face and legs and sometimes on their underside
Character: The Clydesdale is an intelligent horse that is very willing to learn, they have a kind and gentle nature and can be easily handled by children
Country of Origin: United Kingdom

In recent years heavy draft horses have become extremely popular as riding horses and the Clydesdale is no exception. Despite their size, they’re much faster than you might think which is one of the reasons why they make good, if somewhat unusual, barrel racers.

Taking its name from the area of Scotland where it was first bred (although the area is now known as Lanarkshire rather than Clydesdale), these heavy horses descend from the European heavy breeds that were imported into Scotland. These horses, along with Shire horses, were crossed with local horses to produce a strong workhorse that was more than capable of pulling heavy loads over Glasgow’s cobbled streets while also being able to work on the remote farms.

Clydesdale facts
  • The famous Budweiser horses are all Clydesdales and the British Army’s Household Cavalry also use them as drum horses.
  • Like so many workhorses the Clydesdale’s numbers dropped with the introduction of mechanization but this versatile breed once again evolved and is now more likely to be seen under saddle.
  • Clydesdales have a much higher leg action than other heavy horses which means they don’t drag their feet at all as they move.
  • The Clydesdale is one of the biggest breeds in the world with horses often being taller than 18hh (72 inches) and more than 6 feet from head to tail. When it comes to their weight they can regularly weigh in at over 2000lbs (907Kg) which is almost a ton!!

Want to know more? Contact the Clydesdale Horse Society.

Further reading

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