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In Defense of the Thoroughbred as a Barrel Horse

Thoroughbred horses have been instrumental in barrel racing since the invention of the sport. However, full-blooded Thoroughbreds that have won large barrel races remain relatively unknown. Their achievements have been overlooked and underplayed. And while barrel racers may be familiar with some bygone Thoroughbred stallions and mares, their influence in industry is often glossed over as well.

Lindsay Jensen Nordick and her Thoroughbred mare Arghazi

Thoroughbreds have won professional rodeos, topped super shows and appeared on the cover of Barrel Horse News. Despite their accomplishments, many misconceptions about the breed persist. We challenge you to throw away any preconceived notions that you may have about Thoroughbreds. The breed is not fragile and crazy as it is often depicted. Truthfully, the right kind of Thoroughbred can achieve great things in the right hands.

The Right Kind of Thoroughbred

Thoroughbred horses are descended from hundreds of strong English mares and a handful of refined Middle Eastern stallions. For centuries, they have been used not only for racing, but for carrying soldiers into battle, delivering the mail and working on farms and ranches. Since there are many Thoroughbreds with diverse bloodlines, it stands to reason that there are different types of within the breed. One of those types happens to be the right kind for barrel racing.

Triple Crown winner Justify

Now, the kind of Thoroughbreds that run in the Kentucky Derby tend to be long and lean. Horses such as Triple Crown winner Justify are built to run long distances. While Justify is beautiful, his physique would likely limit his ability in the barrel pen. Few barrel racers would willingly choose a horse with his conformation as a prospect. It is the familiarity with this kind of Thoroughbred that deters most barrel racers from even considering the breed. They assume that all Thoroughbreds are built this way. However, for every Thoroughbred that looks like Justify, there is one that looks like Jill Lane’s incredible sire Red, Ryann Pedone’s producing mare Star Zone, or the 6666 Ranch’s handsome stallion Ketchum Cowboy.

Ketchum Cowboy, Thoroughbred sire of Abby Pursifull’s great mare Pearl Snappin
Photo via 6666 Ranch

The ideal conformation for barrel racing tends to be found not in distance runners, but in sprinting Thoroughbreds. The speed sprinters possess cannot manifest without a balanced neck, sloping shoulder and powerful hindquarters. The right kind of Thoroughbred will incorporate those characteristics into a compact, athletic frame. Although they are bred primarily for speed, sprinting Thoroughbreds are usually capable of rating, turning and accelerating with ease.

Of course, the right kind of Thoroughbred will also have intangible qualities. They will be intelligent and eager to learn. They will be tenacious and attentive. While this breed may not have a reputation for being level-headed, many individuals have workable minds. The right kind of Thoroughbred will have an incomparable willingness to please.

Thoroughbreds and Speed

Thoroughbreds were extremely influential in the development of the modern Quarter Horse. In fact, the term ‘Quarter Horse’ is a shortening of the phrase ‘Celebrated American Quarter Running Horse,’ which was used to denote top sprinters in early Thoroughbred stud books. The original ‘Quarter Horses’ were Thoroughbreds that excelled at racing short distances. Over time this type was selectively bred, outcrossed and designated as its own breed. However, even after the formation of the American Quarter Horse Association in 1940, Thoroughbreds continued to dominate sprint races.

Rachel Holthaus and her Thoroughbred gelding My Hidden Legacy

Thoroughbreds such as Piggin String, Woven Web, and Brigand set track records and earned Champion Quarter Running Horse titles year after year. Then in the 1960s, a Thoroughbred mare named Little Lena Bars equaled the world record at 220 yards and set new world records at 250, 300 and 330 yards. She also equaled and set new track records at 400 and 440 yards. Her dominance prompted retaliation from the young AQHA. When the organization realized that nearly all the records in Quarter Horse racing belonged to a Thoroughbred, they deleted all mention of times and records set by Thoroughbreds and banned the breed from major Quarter Horse races.

This was also about the time Quarter Horse owners and breeders began to belittle the Thoroughbred with unfair generalizations. Despite this pushback, Thoroughbreds remained vital to the Quarter Horse racing and barrel racing industries. Some of the most prolific barrel horse stallions – Beduino, Coup De Kas, Hempen, Mito Paint, Pass Em Up, Raise Your Glass, and Zevi – were Thoroughbreds. Although the stereotypes still persist, so do their names in pedigrees and, not surprisingly, results.

Thoroughbred Prospects

Currently, numerous full-blooded Thoroughbreds are competing in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association and other large barrel racing associations. Even though they are drastically outnumbered, they have proven themselves at all levels. So why are Thoroughbreds still overlooked in barrel racing? Maybe it is the assumption that all Thoroughbreds look like Justify. Or maybe it is the persistent stereotypes that started decades ago. Nevertheless, there are Thoroughbreds out there that meet the criteria for making good barrel horses.

Kaytie Henricks and her Thoroughbred mare Tychonic Choice

While Thoroughbreds seem like unorthodox barrel horse prospects, they may be perfect for buyers searching for high-quality horses without the high-quality price tag. And when the right kind of Thoroughbreds are paired with capable trainers and riders, they can accomplish amazing things. The only limitations that truly exist for these horses are the stigmas that we place upon them.

If you are interested in purchasing or adopting and off-track Thoroughbred, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance’s directory of accredited organizations is a great place to start.

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