Shoeing for Style: What Kind of Traction Does Your Barrel Horse Need?

Lee Olsen, CJF weighs in on a different perspective on shoeing barrel horses, focusing on the specific needs of a horse and rider combination.
Jamie Olsen barrel racing
Jamie Olsen in Spanish Fork, Utah. Phil Kitts/Avid Visual Imagery.

Lee Olsen, CJF, of Olsen Equine has learned a thing or two over the years about how to work with a rider’s style and ability level, and that of the horses underneath them so that both horse and rider can stay safe on a variety of different ground and setups based on shoeing adjustments.

Farriers and barrel racers haven’t always been known for having the smoothest relationships, but for Jamie and Lee Olsen, making it great is the foundation of their life. Lee owns Olsen Equine, a successful multi-farrier shop near the Olsen’s home in Brock, Texas, and Jamie is a barrel racer among the top 35 in the 2023 WPRA world standings. The crew at Olsen Equine been trusted by some of the top barrel racers in the game, including current top 15 athletes like Emily Beisel, Summer Kosel, and Sara Winkelman, and work on barrel horses as a large part of their clientele. Lee’s had the opportunity to travel with Jamie the past two seasons, as well, and he’s further expanded his knowledge on traction and the importance of shoeing for rodeo versus jackpot horses for all skill levels of riders.

Olsen noted that he’s seen far too many farrier-client relationships suffer over poor communication, and often, traction is one of the biggest arguing points. When a horse slips during a run, riders may blame their farrier, and the farrier might start blaming the rider. This can be solved by pulling out one’s cell phone on many occasions. Yup, one of the best tools a rider can present a farrier with is competition footage—cell phone videos, photos and different angles of the runs, along with the owner’s feedback on how their horses feel in practice and in competition and their upcoming competitive plans.

“(The horse owner’s) input is crucial,” Olsen said. “The only thing the farrier has to go by is what the feet look like and the shoes that were on them when they walked into the shop”

So that begs the question: How can it help?

Breaking it Down

I want to see the horse’s style, yes—does he slide around the barrels, pull with his front feet?” Olsen said. “Does he use his hind end? That’s all important, but what helps more is what the rider is doing. Do they ride square, or is that horse trying to compensate for them being out of position? Do they position him in too tight to make them blow off the turns, or is he not to keep his hind leg under himself and keep traction on the backside? Is his head close to the barrel, while his butt goes the other direction in the turn?”

Olsen made it clear that the shoer isn’t out to pass judgement on your riding. Barrel racers have different styles and skill levels and the goal is to give the horse the best chance to work underneath that rider as a team, not to force either outside of their abilities.

“The farrier can’t–and doesn’t want to— do anything about the rider,” Olsen said. “I’m never going to tell one how to do their job. Barrel racers like that as much as farriers love being told what to do. You just have to try to do right by the horse.”

Barrel horses need different levels of traction from their shoeing based on their running style
Barrel horses need different amounts of traction based on a variety of factors, like ground conditions they’ll be competing in. Phil Kitts/ Avid Visual Imagery.

Traction 101

Before determining how much traction your specific horse needs, understanding traction—and why the front and hind end of your horse are sure to have variances in their needs— is key. Luckily for barrel racers, horses’ anatomy can provide most of the clues you must know.

“The short: The hind end (of the horse) is for traction, and front end is for steering,” Olsen said. “Confirmation tells us this. Horses’ hooves in the back have a spade-like shape with a type of point that’s meant for digging and pushing into the dirt, and their muscles are built for propulsion. They also have ball-and-socket joints in the back—that’s why when a horse is really pushing, their front feet elevates off the ground. The front feet are more broad, they’re built for turning and navigating directional changes. The horse’s shoulders in the front follow this, their muscles are attached to the sides of their body. Therefore, both the front and hind feet have different needs, with fronts needing more mechanically.”

barrel racer
While the back end of the horse propels, the front end steers and stabilizes.
barrel racer
The front end will elevate when a horse pushes off with the hind end, which helps demonstrate how anatomy plays into traction.

The other component of the traction equation is the ground you plan to be competing on. Different regions are known for different types of footing, and rodeo ground in different associations and ProRodeo circuits can vary greatly. Communicating your goals for your horse— like will he be running on well-groomed dirt at futurities, slick clay at rodeos or South Florida sand—can provide your farrier with major clues to help make sure your horse has the appropriate level of traction.

You don’t want to have too much traction. That’s like stubbing your toe. The foot stops, and the horse’s whole weight goes over top of the leg. That’s how you can cause problems or lose time, and it can cause injuries.

Lee Olsen

How to determine how much traction your barrel horse needs

Olsen: Traction, to me, is like picking out a single or dual-wheeled truck. A dually stays on top of the ground typically, right? But a single wheel, that sinks in. Same thought process when it comes to putting shoes on—or not putting shoes on—barrel horses with different styles.

There’s really wide shoes out there people can use–like, one step below a slider. But those are designed for your heel horses that want slide. If they’re collected in the run and their style fits, some of them can get away being barefoot in the hind end. (That horse can get away with a flat shoe sometimes, also). Some people love that feel, and typically those types of horses hate traction because they’re underneath themselves and need a little bit of slide. Not like, tie-down horse slide, but enough that it acts like a shock absorber and and can drive and work correctly.

Example: Just yesterday, I spoke to Michelle Darling about Martini. That mare needs to have a flat shoe because she really drags her butt around the barrel.

The narrower the shoe, the more the foot sinks into the ground. That gets you traction on its own. So when you talk about a higher end traction, above an eventer, you’re going to look at a concave shoe. What that shoe will do is make the foot sink into the ground more and get dirt on the rim, which creates a dirt-on-dirt traction. This helps if you encounter a lot of slick or hard rodeo ground. But if you do that and take that horse and run it on great jackpot ground where the ground is deep, fluffy and watered appropriately, you’re going to tear that horse apart over time.

Example: We had two horses come into the clinic that we shod for several years, and the owner requested concave shoes one day for these nice barrel horses, with completely different builds and styles. We did that, and then they requested even more traction. So, we grooved the sides, Sidewinder style. They both ended up with hind suspensory injuries within six months. In my opinion, that’s from too much traction. 

If you’re looking for a shoe that fits somewhere in the middle, The Eventer Plus is our go-to shoe. It’s right in the middle of the traction department.

Lee Olsen, Olsen Equine

So when you’re rodeoing and you are going to run in hard ground one day and great ground the next day, and then some sand, and a little mud, you really have to find that thin line. Shoeing barrel horses at a high level is hard over a consistent time, but it’s a challenge some of us love. The key through all of this is communication with the owner, watching videos, seeing if the horse is slipping— and if they do slip, how and when they do.

Different combinations of horses and riders have different needs when it comes to shoeing based on their ability and style. Instead of arguing as hoofcare professionals, owners and trainers, let’s work together on making those adjustments for that horse through each rider and running season instead of arguing and getting stuck on thinking that there is only one way to shoe a horse, or ride a barrel horse.

This article is brought to you by Magic Cushion’s Happy Hooves Awareness Week.