Rethinking the Barrel Racing Pocket

Rethinking the Barrel Racing ‘Pocket’

Sit in on a clinic with barrel racing legend Jane Melby as she uses a three-step maneuver to reinvent the pocket.

Jane Melby turns a barrel on First Down Perk at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (Credit: Lone Wolf Photography)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Stephenie Tanguay

Barrel racer Jane Melby is challenging the pocket – the larger space between the horse and the barrel, which is created when the horse moves away as it tracks into the turn around the can. 

“That’s the old style,” Jane tells her students during a recent clinic. “Now we stay 3 feet away from the barrel.”

Sporting three Wrangler National Finals Rodeo gold buckles from Las Vegas and more than 30 years of experience, Jane also raised a daughter, Cayla Melby Small, who was crowned the 2016 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie Barrel Racer of the Year. It was Cayla who inspired Jane to challenge the conventional track around a barrel.

Cayla started hauling fulltime with her mom and brother when she was 3. 

“When Cayla was little, she used to run the barrel pattern on foot,” Jane remembers. “It got me thinking, and as I watched, I finally caught on: Cayla didn’t know about pockets; she was just running as fast as she could around the barrels.” 

Watching her daughter play, Jane realized precious time could be shaved off the clock by eliminating the pocket. According to Jane, the fastest route around a barrel is one that requires three steps that are each 3 feet away from the barrel.

Now, much like young Cayla did, Jane walks a small barrel pattern on foot, demonstrating the difference between the old path versus the new path into the barrel. With the “old” way around the barrel, riders make a larger pocket as they enter the turn, then move close to the barrel as they go around it.   

Jane continues, “When you cut it off, you lose the momentum to get out of the turn. Whereas, when you tighten it up and you give the horse 3 feet on this backside, you have the power to get out of here.”

Barrel Racing Turn Approaches: ‘3 Feet Here … Not Here’

Jane then demonstrates the second barrel racing path.

“What I do not want you to think is that when you run in here,” Jane says while walking toward the first barrel, “you are 3 feet away at this point. You won’t make the turn.” (Diagram 1)

Jane emphasizes, “It is not 3 feet as you approach (Diagram 1). It is 3 feet here and here. Then you finish it up tight.”

“You’ve got to get to your cross – the point at which the path we want to take leaving the barrel crosses with the path we take as we approach the first barrel,” Jane says as she stops along the track toward the barrel (see diagram).

Jane Melby's barrel racing pocket diagram for The American Quarter Horse Journal shows the correct approaches, turn points and exits around a barrel


“When your leg gets to the barrel, that is when you need to be 3 feet away from it,” she states. The barrel racer’s line of travel prior to the cross is considered the approach. “It used to be we were 5 or 6 feet away at that point.” 

Leaving the first barrel, Jane again points to the place where the paths cross. “When leaving the first barrel to come across, you move over at the cross so it is a straight line.”

A student asks, “So is it 3 feet here, on the back side of the barrel, also?”

“No, you close it up,” Jane answers. “It is tight when you leave the turn, but you have to have this 3 feet,” Jane repeats, pointing to the path she walked around the barrel.

Asking students to get off of their horses and run the pattern on foot, Jane urges riders to use their imagination and feel what their horse would be doing underneath them at any given point. 

Walking through the pattern does not always get Jane’s point across. 

“Sometimes, I really have to speed them up for them to feel it for themselves, rather than just going through the motions,” she says.

When a rider runs the pattern on foot, she can use her imagination and feel what her horse would be doing underneath her at any given point.

Where Is Your Barrel Racing Turn?

The turn is the spot where the barrel horse really has to think, Jane says. While in the practice pen, “whatever speed you go to the barrel, then always go slower around the barrel,” Jane advises.

“Everybody thinks their turn is here (Diagram 2). No, there you are preparing for your turn. Your turn is over here – it is when you leave to go to the next barrel. That is where you turn,” Jane teaches.

“You have to get all of the way around the barrel to get to the turn,” says Jane as she plants her pivot foot in the dirt. 

Jane shows the group where a horse should place its feet while traveling around the can. The first step occurs as the horse enters the barrel and is slowing for the turn. It is 3 feet from the barrel. The second step propels the horse around the backside of the barrel and into position for the final step, the placement of the pivot foot, which also drives the horse away from the can.

As Jane approaches the barrel, she's aiming for wider than 3 feet. (See Diagram 1.)
At the top of the barrel, Jane's distance from the can is 3 feet.
Through the next quarter turn, Jane remains 3 feet from the barrel.
Jane gives the horse room on the backside so he can take a long stride, reaching for power and speed out of the turn.

Overturning the Barrel

Jane warns of another time thief: staying on the barrel too long, or “overturning” the barrel. The concept takes the 3-foot rule too far on the backside of the barrel. 

“Barrel racers got to where, when they left the second barrel, they step over here (Diagram 3) when they finish the barrel,” Jane shows. “Then, as they went on, they had to jump out. Well, when they jumped out, they would get out too far.”

The result was a loss of valuable time. 

Traveling to the third barrel, Jane tells the group, “When they turn the third barrel, they overturn it back this way again. Those horses, if you do that too much, they don’t even know how to come home.”

When correcting a horse that flares off or out of a turn, many riders use the overturning exercise to teach the animal to stay on the barrel and complete the turn. The drill is a good one until it is overused. 

“Horses can get in the habit of falling to the left as they leave the turn or riders get in the habit of making all these zig-zags as they come across,” Jane describes a situation where a horse and rider lose their center when traveling from barrel to barrel.

Moving along toward the second barrel on foot, Jane sidepasses as she travels over the cross she pointed out earlier. 

“When I leave my first barrel, I do step over for the second barrel but it is one movement so I am in line.”

Power Out of the Turn

Once again mimicking the “old” style of turning the barrel with a big pocket, Jane demonstrates and says, “It is hard for a horse to turn when his hip is stuck over here.” 

She continues, “When the horse’s hip is right behind him, it is easier for him to turn.” 

Noting that professionals in other disciplines such as reining or working cow horse may concentrate on having the hind end of the horse underneath them, Jane maintains, “The hind end is always going to follow the front end. In barrel racing, I need to feel the front end because it needs to reach. If I have the hind end underneath them too far, then the horse loses momentum” … and the power needed to attain top speed again quickly.

The fastest time wins in barrel racing. Shorten the distance, reduce the number of steps, make straighter lines and, then finally, add power to get to the finish line faster. The 3-feet rule brings all of these things together accelerating the run. 

“If you slow the horse’s feet down coming into the turn, stay tighter to the barrel – that 3 feet distance – then give the horse enough room so he can take a long stride to reach for power out of the turn, you will be faster,” Jane says. 

“If you scramble the feet going in and you wad them all up, then there is no reach, you lose that power.”

The Science of the Barrel Racing Turn

Just before the turn of the 21st century, a company created a timing system for barrel racers that allowed contestants to examine seven individual segments of their run. The information allowed contestants to analyze their runs and compare them to the top performers of the event. 

Breaking down a run and spotlighting the times around each barrel, it is evident. A contestant is able to pick up time on each of the three barrels by tightening the turn to a path 3 feet from the barrel. A horse need not run faster to improve the overall time. The pilot should guide the horse along the most direct line around the barrels to improve the overall time.

Jane agrees that the data and science collected by that company support her method. However, she cautions students to consider a multitude of variables when comparing their run to anyone else’s. 

“Perfect is the best you can do to be perfect. If you put in 110 percent and you do the best you can do to make your situation perfect, then that’s perfect. Then you just keep working at it. The definition of perfect is different for everyone,” Jane says.

She shares a recent situation: “Cayla and I entered an open rodeo in northeast Oklahoma. The ground was really hard and I was on a 5-year-old. I was up in the slack, so I watched the rodeo and thought to myself, ‘If I were to take the top 50 WPRA barrel racers, I don’t know if five of us could run with these amateur girls.’ It was amazing. They rode the hair off of those horses. None of the horses slipped. All of the horses knew how to slow down and handle the ground. Then it was my turn. I ran in there and I felt the ground was hard, I mean really hard. I could feel myself, my eyes squint and my teeth grit. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, don’t fall, place your feet.’ I placed her feet and we ran exactly 0.7 seconds off the winning time. When I came out, Cayla asked me why didn’t I just let it rip. I said, ‘I am building a horse. I don’t want to hurt her or destroy her. I'm building her for the future.’ ” 

Jane’s definition of perfect did not include winning the rodeo that day. 

Barrel racing has evolved over time. It is different now and riders must adapt to stay competitive. 

“The technique has changed. We changed to get faster,” Jane says. 

One thing will always stay the same, though: The fastest time wins.