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When did barrel racing start?

Updated: Jun 16

Today's Daily Doodle is honoring a woman who helped me see the excitement of barrel racing. I was able to create a video of her and her horse during the NBHA California State Finals. Filming an event brings new appreciation for me, capturing little details and telling a story through people, places, and things I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.


Women had been competing in rodeos in various ways since the 1880s when Buffalo Bill Cody hired Annie Oakley, the best known woman gun handler of the day. Buffalo Bill discovered that fans would flock to his wild west shows to see her perform. But the decision to include women bronc riders, relay race riders, and so on, was always at the discretion of the men producing the event.


The 1931 Stamford, Texas, Cowboy Reunion, a weekend rodeo, decided to add girls, sixteen years and older, who were sponsored by their area businesses and represented the community they came from. The girls would lead the parade, participate in various minor rodeo activities and be available to visit and dance with the cowboys at the social events held each evening. The following year the young ladies were given prizes for 1. the best mount, 2. the most attractive riding outfit, and 3. the best horsemanship. The horsemanship pieces was demonstrated by riding in a figure eight around two barrels. In 1935 the Stamford event changed the barrels to include third barrel and created a cloverleaf pattern. In 1948, a group of 38 women in San Angelo, Texas formed the GRA (Girl's Rodeo Association). Historians believe that the Girls Rodeo Association was the first to hold competitive barrel racing. The GRA eventually became the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA), (which still holds many rodeo events for women to compete in, the most popular of which is barrel racing). It is suspected barrel racing was not judged strictly by the shortest time until 1949, a year after the start of the GRA.


There are no ‘official measurements’ for barrel racing. The Standard of the barrel racing pattern, according to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rule Book, is, “ninety feet between barrel one and two, one hundred five feet between barrel one and three, and between barrel two and three. Sixty feet from barrels one and two to the score line. The score line should be at least sixty feet from the end of the arena, if allowed, and not less than forty five feet.’


Pendleton Round-Up has the most non-conforming and the largest barrel racing pattern in the country, by far. It covers more than double the Standard. The Pendleton RoundUp has a grass infield and is difficult for horses, both roping horses and broncs, because of the slippage. However, the grass is a tradition and Pendleton has no intention of changing it. Professional barrel racers wanted to participate in this prestigious rodeo, but did not want to jeopardize the safety of their horses because of the grass. It was decided to place the barrels on the race track, which surrounds the grass infield in 1999. Since the pattern is more than twice the size of the Standard pattern, 288 feet between barrel one and two, and 288 feet between the second and third barrel, and sixty feet from the score line. Times are in the twenty-eight second range to win.


Mildred Farris, barrel racing pioneer, whose competitive years spanned the 1950s until 1971, and was a Girl’s Rodeo Association director, vice-president and president from 1965 to 1971, remembers the days when she and others in her era were trying to get barrel racing included at rodeos across the country. She mentioned in those days the prizes for barrel racing were not comparable to the men’s events. If the men’s bronc riding or roping paid $400 to win, the barrel racing paid around $100 to the winner. She is quite proud to say that in today’s rodeo the WPRA-sanctioned barrel racing events pay comparable monies to the PRCA-sanctioned events, such as bronc riding, roping competitions, etc.


Charmayne James has been the most consistent winner of the World Champion Barrel Racer, with eleven titles between 1984 and 2002. She has also won the average at the National Finals Rodeo seven times. Her horse, Scamper, was inducted in to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame, and has been chosen as The Horse With the Most Heart by WPRA six years. Her accomplishments in barrel racing have surpassed any other competitor to date. She also leads the list of Career Earnings in WPRA, with almost two million dollars.


Barrel racing has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In seventy years the sport boasts prizes equal to all other rodeo events. Springing from a beginning as a way of judging young ladies in a contest emphasizing their beauty, attire and horsemanship, to a sport that can require the rider and their special mount, to race against the clock with speed and agility around the barrels and across the final barrier. This didn’t happen without the hard work, tenacity and ‘never say die’ will of many who were convinced the sport of barrel racing had a place along side bronc riding, steer wrestling and the roping events.




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