Barrel Horses Are Faster Today…Or Are They?

With another phenomenal NFR in the books the question of whether barrel horses are faster than they have been in the past comes up. If you ask most people, they would agree that barrel horses are faster now than even ten years ago. But are they, really?

Let’s Look at the Times

The easiest way to see whether or not barrel horses are faster these days is to look at the times they are running. Nothing is more objective than the eye at a barrel race.


The National Finals Rodeo has been held at the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus since 1985. Prior to that it had been held in Oklahoma. Since 1985, the times posted by the ladies running in the barrel racing have gotten faster and faster. The fastest times each year since 1985 are as follows:

Faster Barrel Horses

  • 1985 – 14.26
  • 1986 – 13.58 *different pattern
  • 1987 – 14.11
  • 1988 – 14.05
  • 1989 – 14.25
  • 1990 – 14.27
  • 1991 – 13.94
  • 1992 – 14.02
  • 1993 – 14.02
  • 1994 – 13.80
  • 1995 – 19.91
  • 1996 – 13.97
  • 1997 – 14.10
  • 1998 – 13.75 *different pattern
  • 1999 – 13.93 *different pattern
  • 2000 – 13.74 *different pattern
  • 2001 – 13.76 *different pattern
  • 2002 – 13.63
  • 2003 – 13.67
  • 2004 – 13.67
  • 2005 – 13.77
  • 2006 – 13.52
  • 2007 – unable to find
  • 2008 – 13.53
  • 2009 – 13.60
  • 2010 – 13.49
  • 2011 – 13.46
  • 2012 – 13.51
  • 2013 – 13.37
  • 2014 – 13.66
  • 2015 – 13.55
  • 2016 – 13.37
  • 2017 – 13.11
  • 2018 – 13.37


As you can see, from 1985 to 2017, the times got faster by 1.15 seconds. In the professional barrel racing world, that is hugely significant. A 14.26 second run at the 2018 NFR would not have pulled a cheque during any of the rounds. Not even close.


So, if you are looking solely at the times posted to answer the question as to whether or not barrel horses are faster today, then, yes, they are.


However, this is not a fair assessment if you only look at the times posted at the NFR. In fact, comparing these times is almost like comparing apples to oranges. In order to more accurately determine whether barrel horses are faster today, we need to dig a bit deeper.


Years ago there was no such thing as a barrel horse bloodline, a barrel horse breeder, or anything like that. The sport wasn’t what it is today. Horses used for the sport were often reject track horses or a ranch horse that the owner’s daughter or wife got a hold of.


In contrast, today there are several barrel horse bloodlines. From Slick by Design and Dash Ta Fame to Frenchman’s Guy and Corona Cartel, the sport has created the perfect horses for the job. Not only can they move fast but they can also turn a barrel like nobody’s business.

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Breeders carefully choose their mare and stud pairings, hoping to create an even better animal for barrel racing. With all of them doing this, isn’t it inevitable that we will end up with barrel horses that are faster and more better suited for barrel racing today?


I like to think so.

Ground Conditions

Back in the day, the ground that barrel racers were asked to run on was not always good. In fact, sometimes it was outright garbage. And is that any surprise? In years passed, ground was often worked up with bed springs that had rocks in them – if they were worked up at all!


Today, most arenas use sophisticated arena groomers that ensure a perfect surface that is optimal for barrel racing. Additionally, many rodeos and barrel races rake in between every so many runs to ensure that it is as level a playing field as possible.


In addition, what kind of dirt that is used has now been almost turned into a science. Arenas are very particular on the dirt that is hauled into their facilities. Plain old topsoil will not do. It has to be the perfect mix of sand, clay, and fairy dust. As such, grounds coordinators know exactly what needs to be laid down for barrel racers to make the fastest runs possible.


The result? Faster runs.


And this would have been the result even if the horses of today were not faster. If the horses of the past were asked to run on perfectly manicured ground, they likely would have been much faster.


Check out my post on barrel racing arena footing, if you’re interested in learning more about this.

Timers Used

On your mark. Get set. Go!


A flag would be lowered. The stopwatch would start. Off the horse and rider pair would go to make a run.


It all sounds terribly slow, even just reading this. There is no way such a system could have be anywhere nearly as accurate as what we are able to measure today. When you are measuring by thousandths of seconds, every moment counts. Human reactions will only throw off the accuracy of a time.


Thankfully, with the introduction of the electronic eye and lasers, we can be much more accurate in our times. Does increased accuracy mean faster times? Possibly. If an electronic eye can detect a horse crossing the finish line faster than someone with a stopwatch, then, yes, this does mean faster times today.


And, just like ground conditions, this has nothing to do with whether or not the barrel horses are faster than they were in the past.

More Top Caliber Horses

As noted above, barrel horse breeding is now an industry. Additionally, reproductive technologies are being used more and more everyday. Because of this, more top caliber barrel horses are being churned out every single year.


This means that, compared to years gone by, there are more top caliber barrel horses on the market. More top horses means that fast times will be posted more often. This, in turn, gives the illusion that horses are faster because there are so many more faster horses around.


This would lead me to conclude that, on AVERAGE, barrel horses are faster than they used used to be.

Physical Care

Another thing that may give barrel horses a leg up these day when compared to, say, horses of the ’80’s is the fact that our knowledge and practices in regards to horse care in general has come a long, long way. Everything, including shoeing, feed, veterinary care, conditioning protocols, and pre-/post-run practices, have gotten significantly more dialed in.


Vibration plates, flair strips, Lasix, nebulizers, and equine chiropractors, among many, many other things, were not in existence, in some cases, even ten years ago. Do these give horses an edge? You bet. It may be minimal but it is an edge nonetheless. And that edge can be the difference between a gold belt buckle and empty pockets.


I always wonder how much faster horses like Scamper could have been had they had access to some of these technologies. Yes, those horses were given top quality care back then. However, top quality care then and top quality care now are two very, very different things.

My Verdict

In my personal opinion, barrel horses are faster today because of the breeding programs in place now. If the horses of today were transported back in time and subjected to the conditions then, they would likely win.


That being said, if we were able to bring certain barrel horses from the past into today’s world and give them the care that today’s horses receive, they would likely win, too.


The biggest difference in today’s barrel racing world as opposed to the past is the fact that there are so many fast barrel horses out there. There are way more today than there ever was even ten years ago. That just shows how far our sport has come in a relatively short period of time. My hope is that the continued pursuit of excellence in the barrel racing industry continues, with the well-being of the horses always at the heart of every decision made.

Finish Line Thoughts

The fast barrel horses of days gone by were incredible. There is no arguing that. They were fast and they were good. The same can be said of the fast horses today. Whether one group is faster than another is really not a fair comparison and, at the end of the day, irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that you outrun who is competing against you today. If you can do that, you are in good shape.


And, remember, it’s always a #gooddaytoride.


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