Barrel Racing vs Dressage - Soundness

I ride both dressage and I run barrels and do a little gymkhana. Over the years, I have had horses go lame in both sports. Retirement lame. I’m wondering if there’s ever been studies done on which sport is harder on the horse. For dressage I ride at about third or fourth level at home - lead changes, collection and lots of circles etc. I show a little bit (a few shows a year) when I’m pursuing that direction. For barrel racing, my practice looks like second level dressage works with some sprints thrown in and a bit of collected canter voltes around the barrels. I race her twice a month. Either discipline, I ride in the arena twice a week, I do a “fitness” trail ride (wtc) for about an hour once a week and a longer walk ride once a week down trail. My horses get out into the pasture every day for at least 1/2 hour.

Right now, I’m kind of wavering on which direction I want to go. I’d like to keep my mare sound as long as possible. I have had a vet look at my mare and he thinks she has no issues that would predispose her to lameness.

Anyway - just wondering if anyone had ever seen any articles, etc comparing the two sports.

I doubt it as most barrel racing horses are not ridden by dressage minded riders and honestly if you go down the route of watching barrel racing videos on utube you will see the most painful riding ever.

Dressage if ridden correctly will prolong a horses life. That is what dressage’s primary goal is.

That said each horse has to have dressage modified to their conformation. After all we are asking for ballet and not all people are ballerinas.

So horses are limited by their conformation ultimately with how high up the levels they can go. If they are lame it is either from injury or conformation with the level of work being asked or incorrect riding which doesn’t help any horse.

With dressage you always want a happy horse who finds the work easy. You are in charge of making it easy by keeping them fit enough and only adding increments of learning which are easy for them to understand. That prolongs a sound horse… you hope.

Either horse can get injured in the paddock which has nothing to do with their discipline.


It sounds like the way you are doing the barrels is much different than your standard barrel racer. I know horses are patterned to go a specific direction, and it seems like that would make them very one-sided, but running the pattern in both directions, and bending around the barrels rather than leaning in to make the turns would make a big difference.

I use two equine bodyworkers and they have both commented that they love working on my dressage horse’s properly developed muscles, and that they are often trying to duct tape together people’s barrel horses that are a hot mess physically.

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I think it just depends on the individual horse in question. Some horses are ridden hard starting at 2 and every day beyond and never have an off day for 20 plus years.

Others go lame while being started and have issues from then on.

Are they primarily stalled? You say 1/2 hour of turnout daily? While it never made a difference in my horses soundness that were kept at an urban boarding barn and had no turnout in the past, that might be a factor for some.


@SuzieQNutter and @outerbanks77 - good points. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that most of the work I do with her is dressage. The chiropractor did tell me she was very even. I also always make sure to do a long walk warmup and a long walk cooldown. Most of my schooling is dressage - I lope the pattern once per arena ride (twice a week) just to make sure that my circles are smooth and even strided as opposed to bunny hopped and that my bend is correct.

@candyappy - I didn’t think to mention that my horses live outside in 24 x 48 pens with three sided shelters so they are walking around all day. They get out in the pasture mostly to socialize.

Thank you guys for your insight.

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From Jeff Ashton Moore co-author USDF Judges handbook & biomechanics guru:
“You don’t see ballet or ballroom dancers (he did the latter) warm up by walking around”
His point was warmup at trot is better.
Stretches muscles, gets circulation going.

I walk maybe 10min to warm me up.

ETA: your barrel work sounds like the smarter way to get your horse fit than most of the barrel riders I have had the misfortune to watch.
Granted: I’m talking County Fair level :smirk:


As said above trot is the training gait.

I do start and finish in walk to warm up and cool the skin.

My two cents!

It sounds like you are doing your barrel rides conservatively. Good for you! We have some barrel riders occasionally come to the barn to school and they do not ride voltes.

I think it depends on how you ride to increase the longevity of your horse - independent from discipline. A problem in barrel racing can be the super tight corners, a dead gallop to a super-tight turn and back to dead gallop, and dead gallop to stop. Many QHs are sort of built for this but the wear and tear on leg tendons and ligaments can be great.

A problem in dressage is repeating collected movements over and over, incorrectly riding and training movements such as pirouettes or riding them over and over so the rider can practice, harping on collected movements… The wear and tear on leg tendons and ligaments can be great.

In either sport, you can see many lame horses by 12. I think you see more in QHs because they are started earlier than WBs, but “heavy lifting” in any sport can cause or predispose a horse to lameness.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a long walk in the warmup. My horse is also turned out 24/7 on his own acre with neighbors on both sides and there is no way he grazes at the rate I have him walk to warm up. Even if he canters in turnout or gallops (or walks), he’s not using his topline the way he would in the arena. Walking out most certainly warms up muscles and gets their head in the game for work before a higher gait such as a trot. We do some laps at the walk (because he is afraid at the gate of death - he’s been going in this arena for about 7 years - but he has to use his topline) but then he starts to go to work in the walk using his topline more and more.

It sounds like you’re really aware of working your horse correctly. I don’t know much about training barrel horses but the whole turn out of the gallop thing seems like it can be hard on the legs. I don’t know 21 year old barrel horses still schooling barrels at 21 but I do know some 21+ FEI horses schooling FEI at 21+ because the owners managed them well over the years.


There are so many factors and reasons why horses go lame that it can be hard to pinpoint. Are your horses built for the discipline you are pursuing? Are you using the same farrier? How is the footing y ou train in? Do/did they have any conformation defects. I have basically found there is not one discipline that is better for soundness. I have know dressage horses lame at 7 and barrel horses that are still going strong at 20 and vice versa. I would like at your horses and management practices and then decide which way to go.

LOL Clear bias in this. Having ridden in many disciplines, I can attest that there are poor examples in all of them. However, I can assure you that the upper level riders in barrel racing, like other disciplines, treat their horses like gold. Our goal is ALL to prolong our horses lives and longevity.

–a barrel racer who does not engage in “the most painful riding ever.” LOL


So my warmup goes like this: Walk on a loose rein 5 min changing direction within. Walk with contact, shoulder in, haunches in, and leg yield another five minutes. Pick up trot and a couple minutes with very little contact - long and low. Pick up contact and serpentines, change speed within gait, shoulder in, haunches in - about 5 - 10 minutes. Then start actual work. I will say that I am more the exception than the rule. I have had people ask me what I’m doing when warming up for races.

Those good riders did not have their videos on utubecm when I was looking. I made a DVD with videos from Utube and it started off with the Budweiser clydesdale adverts and I had every bit of riding I could find. The only ones I did not put on the DVD in the end was barrel racing. I could not find one video that did not make me cringe and believe me I looked for hours.

It is too late now the DVD was a decade or so ago.

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The bottom line when it comes to assessing how riding of any kind affects the horse’s long term soundness can be broken down like this:

  • The correctness of the horse’s conformation, meaning specifically the ability of the horse’s joints to absorb and carry forces upon them. Conformational faults that affect joint function, mess with angles or otherwise change the distribution of the force on a joint increase likelihood of improper wear or injury.
  • The ability of the rider to identify and correct lateral imbalances in the horse while being ridden. I.e., how much attention you pay to making sure you are always working to ride the horse straight at all times - whether on a line or a bend - so that the horse is not allowed to develop asymmetries that cause excessive loading of the joints and tissues on one side of the body.

There are obviously other factors involved to a lesser degree, but IME acute injuries are rarely truly “acute” in the sense that they just “happen”. There is almost always some other factor - and this is often the fact that the horse has been allowed to develop asymmetrically and consistently is ridden crooked - for the majority of their life. Same thing with horses who retire unsound due to arthritis, etc. Arthritis is a natural part of aging but it will be significantly worse in joints that have taken excessive wear and tear due to conformational issues, poor trimming or inattention to making sure the horse is moving straight and correct.

Neither dressage nor barrel racing as practices in and of themselves can be said to have one be worse than the other in terms of the effects on long term soundness. Both will be problematic if the horse is not properly fit. Both will be problematic if the riding being done does not pay close attention to developing the two sides of the horse’s body equally.

I don’t know of any formal studies done on the subject. It’d probably be hard to study with any certainty in the conclusions reached. Either way, I’ve seen some horrific dressage riding - horse’s broken back at C3, tight reins, being shoved into the contact and on the forehand, stiff through the back but hey, their poll is the highest point! - and some equally horrific barrel racers - flying half cocked around barrels, back dropped, head to the sky and straining against their tie-down strap, jacked and anxious and white-eyed. You can do both well with attention to management and conditioning.


There aren’t a lot of good ones. I see so many riders that make me cringe. This weekend, I overheard a mom talking about what a “brat” her kid’s horse was because when he got to the first barrel and the kid yanked on his face, he blew away from the barrel and tried to get out of the arena. I was glad to hear her trainer at least say that the kid and horse were not suited to each other, but good grief! People used to make fun of me for riding dressage, but when I started beating them, they wanted to know where they could get dressage lessons. So so many of them just want to jump on the horse and send him around the barrels spurring and yanking and think they will have a good run. They can’t sit still on the horse and their hands! Yikes. There are a few good riders out there and those are the ones that are winning usually.

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Something I am not seeing in this discussion, is a plan for steady building of the strength of bone and soft tissues. Bones get stronger much faster than muscle and soft tissue in legs.
Soft tissues take the longest time to strengthen, so a 90 day plan is what we use in preparing our horses for competitions. This requires a weekly plan of various kinds of works, to prepare the entire body, and 3 to 5 works a week, or they won’t be fit enough to work hard and recover quickly.

Ours do a warmup and cool down with each outing. Warm up is timed for 20 minutes or a specified distance (a mile on the road) BEFORE we ask them to do anything except walk forward. No collection, no sidepassing, no bending, BECAUSE they are not warmed up yet! Same time or distance for the cool down.

They do increasing distances in their roadwork as time goes by, WTC, hand gallop, with times increasing over the distances to improve their wind and recovery rates. They usually practice Dressage twice a week, but that can change if they are very fresh or dull in the arena.

Just that reading OP 's posts, it is a lot of work, ALL done collected, controlled, even the trail ride. This is NOT going to get the body, legs, prepared for the hard work of barrel racing, dressage competition. Taking a tough stand here, but horses are NOT MADE to do dressage, be collected, all the time! It is an enormous stress on their body, should only be done for short times, because their dressage body posture is not a normal body carriage for the equine. Totally a human picture of “perfection”. While Dressage movements are “natural movements” done by exuberant horses when free, they seldom perform the movements very long on their own. So having legs and all their parts truly fit, is a good way to prevent injury, horse being NQR after work.

Getting a horse really fit, legs fit, is work! This means increasing his work in varied ways. An hour ride in the ring a couple times a week, is not going too make him more fit, even if you do ride hIm collected, balanced at all times. His body may be evenly developed, admired by massage people, yet he is not deeply fit to take the torque his legs get barrel racing or in dressage tests.


I think you misunderstood. I definitely do not ride collected all the time. My arena work includes walking on a loose rein, long and low trotting and sprints down the long side at a gallop. My fitness trail ride is not collected. Walk, trot, canter and gallop on a loose rein in a straight line. For what it’s worth, my mare is barely breathing hard after a race. When I am practicing collected movement, it is always interspersed with walk breaks on a loose rein.

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Guess you are not truly understanding what I am saying about getting horse very fit. Breathing is only one part. Those legs have to work to improve. Doing a long side gallop on soft ground, is not much help. Better than nothing though! And straight line work is great on the trail. The thing is, that you need slightly increasing distances on firm ground (dirt roads?) to build your horse fitness. She should be ASKING to stop galloping at the end of a work. She SHOULD be breathing hard when you stop galloping, then time how fast she gets back to normal breathing, to measure her building improvements. If she is not stressed, she is not building her body. You can go on a maintenance fitness program once fit. But if you quit maintaining, she loses fitness.

Soft tissue injury happens easily on unfit horses. Much more likely than bone issues in deep going of the barrel racing arena. They LOVE deep ground. Same with the Dressage folks, deep ground in arenas is desired.

On the barrel practicing, decide which way she turns best and stay with it. If she is right-handed, start with the left barrel, use her best side on the two barrel turns in the same direction. Much of this training is repetition, you get her mind set on an exact pattern, then you keep doing EXACTLY the same way every ride. Horses love routine, they WILL help you if allowed, so being consistant in your pattern work really counts. There really is no need for speed in practices, but allowing an occasional canter home from 3rd barrel is fine. Same thing for any other gýmkhana games you wish to compete in. Trainer used to say “Perfect practice make perfect patterns”. And they were right! Save the speedy runs for when it really counts, at the show. That is how the pros do it. Do a planned warmup, timed to be ready for your run/s. Do NOT just sit on horse waiting for your run, then visiting after the run, to let her get stiff, sore backed.

Daughter competed one of our big (16.2H) geldings in games. She practiced him in consistant patterns, always doing things the same. I had her make some small pattern changes from what other kids with smaller horses did, to better accommodate his size and stride length. She did extremely well with him in competition, against smaller and faster horses. They ran inconsistantly, had little control of the horse body, just all over the arena at speed. She almost always placed, earned money back, because she did not deviate from “The Practice Plan”. He helped because he knew just what to do, ran like a train on rails. His various games runs were VERY consistant looking at the ring dirt. Never any wild swing out while turning on any barrels, poles, flag races. Never took a barrel down and very few poles despite his size weaving thru. She got plenty of compliments on him and how well they ran, in spite of his size. He was kept pretty fit, never worried about his legs. He worked much harder for us parents, than he needed to with her!

I think you should ask me more questions before making assumptions. Per my vet’s instruction, I ride over a variety of terrain. Deep ground, shallow ground, hard ground and soft ground. When I commented that my mare was not breathing hard, it was in regards to a 17 second run. At home, she is breathing hard and sweating. I spend a long time cooling her out. I NEVER allow her to stand after work.

Also, almost no one I know who barrel races runs hard at home. You end up with a psychotic animal. Home is for slow work around the barrels. Endurance and wind is built through sprints and gallops on the trail.

I have a good program for conditioning at home. When I’m talking soundness, I’m talking things that are degenerative over time such as hocks. My horses are very fit, but even fit horses can get injured. My question was more towards whether one discipline or the other would make a horse more susceptible to lameness over time.


This probably isn’t the best audience for barrel racing related advice. LOL Are you on Barrel Horse World forums, or Next Level Barrel Racing on Facebook? Those are audiences more familiar with our discipline that can offer a less biased perspective. Nothing against other disciplines at all, but each discipline is unique, and this forum is heavily English based, which I am generally perfectly fine with because my main concentration usually relies on care, health, etc practices of horse management. Not so sure I’d come here to discuss barrel racing in most any capacity.

I do also think your question sort of begged for a conflict between the disciplines because most people do not have extensive experience in dressage AND barrels, though I understand what your intention was. To answer- there will be soundness issues in all disciplines. It is our job as owners and riders to treat our horses like the athletes they are and provide them with the care they require to prevent and maintain their integrity, ie body workers, chiropractic work, equine dental maintenance and adjustments, various therapies such as PEMF, aquatred, IA injections, etc.

Yeah - I was just really wondering if anyone had read anything that compared the two disciplines - maybe from a veterinary standpoint. I’ve never seen anything, but I wondered if maybe someone else had.