The Five Barrel Pattern
by Parelli Natural Horsemanship on Oct 26, 2022
By: Pat Parelli
When I was 12 years old, we had a 4-H gymkhana fundraiser. I was in charge of going to the tack store and asking the owner, Mr. Silva, to donate some halters for the gymkhana for first place prizes.
I went down to Mr. Silva's feed store, and he gave us five nylon halters for the event. The royal blue one caught my eye, and I thought, "I'll put that up for the barrel race, the red one can be for pole bending, and the green one can be for keyhole." I didn't care about any other colors, but I thought I might have a chance to win the barrel race.
My horse, Jesse, and I did win the barrel race and the blue halter. I practiced to win, and sure enough, I won it. Looking back, I was the best of the worst that day. As time went on, many gymkhanas and speed events later, and after trying to help barrel racers and gymkhana enthusiasts, I realized these events often attract a similar type of person—one who's very confident and likes to go fast.
But what I have found to be true over the years is that slow and right beats fast and wrong.
I've also found that relaxation and energy create power, but most speed events cause horses to use tension and energy. This seems to be the prevailing problem, whether on the racetrack or in the arena.
I'm a simplifier, and I'm a system person. I started noticing that most people are easily addicted to linear thinking. In other words, they want the process to look like their product. They put three barrels out, and they practice the three barrels. They run back, and the horse gets comfort, back where he started. So, the horse puts a lot of effort into getting back there and not wanting to go into the arena.
We've all seen this—the horses look like jackrabbits on speed before they come into the arena. Then it takes them 30 minutes to settle down because their adrenaline and cortisol levels get so high.
While living in California, I was helping some ladies in an organization called COBRA, which stands for California Open Barrel Race Association. I did all kinds of clever things like putting them on a little Honda 50 motorcycle and running the pattern so they could discover and appreciate the value of deceleration coming into the barrel and acceleration going out of it. I tried to share how the fastest horse doesn't always win. It's usually the one with the shortest pattern and stays closest to the barrels, not fast, and runs wide around a barrel.
Tension and energy are not the secret.
Many years later, I came up with a straightforward solution. It's called The Five Barrel Pattern. The Five Barrel Pattern is simple—you set your three barrels up just like everybody else and put two barrels where you start.
Remember, in a barrel pattern, it goes right, left, left, or left, right, right. That sounds uneven to me, but The Five Barrel Pattern is different.
Most barrel racers go right, left, left, and run home. Imagine you've got two barrels set up at the start, and you're going to start by trotting and relaxing. You're going to trot to barrel number one, and just before you get there, you're going to do a downward transition to the walk. Rub your horse, walk around the barrel with your inside leg, and trot to barrel number two and go to the left, do the same thing, and come down, do a walk, rub on your horse, and use your inside leg to get around the left barrel. Then, you're going to trot down to barrel number three.
As you walk around barrel three, you're going to trot or canter down to barrel number four on this five-barrel pattern and go around it in a big 20-meter circle to the left. You're now all set up to go to the left.
Canter around the next barrel until your horse relaxes. Then, head back out to the pattern, and since you're going to the left around barrel number four, you're going to go to a new barrel number one. Before you get there, transition to a walk and go around barrel number one to the left; next, we will do two rights.
Continue this pattern until the horse gets the idea that he's going to do a downward transition when he gets to the barrel, hurry up and relax, and then when he comes home on the home stretch, he's not coming home to stop. He's coming back down this way to canter around this barrel until he relaxes.
This is a really good way to get your horse where he's mentally, emotionally, and physically collected. We can even put his spirit in a harness. Once he understands the pattern, he will understand how to use relaxation and energy to create power. He will know not to rush home to get relief. He is also now evened out because you are going in both directions.
Now, I know most people who are attracted to speed events will think this is crazy, because this does not sound like barrel racing; this sounds like barrel relaxation. That is exactly what it is.
Two years ago, I had a barrel racing enthusiast come to me with her little Appaloosa horse. She was hitting the road in October to go to the futurities. She did my pattern for two weeks, and all the tension left. She won two small futurities, went to Oklahoma, had the best time, and posted the best time she'd ever had on her horse.
Hopefully, this will help you. Whether or not you like speed events, this pattern is good for any horse. I do it with all of mine for consistency and variety, regardless of what I want their future to be. It also helps create a calm, smart, brave, and athletic horse.
Keep it natural, and may the horse be with you.