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Barrel racing, in which horse and rider rush around barrels in the fastest possible time, is the glitzy side of professional rodeo, with sequined shirts and gleaming horses under the arena lights. At the collegiate and professional levels, it is primarily an event for women. It’s also a highly competitive and professional sport, with times so close that a hundredth of second can make the difference between taking home a prize and being out of the money. Barrel racers earn prize money for placing in the top three positions of a competition.
Speed Means Money
Barrel racing is not technically an occupation, and many barrel racers earn their living in other ways, such as ranching, training horses or in other occupations. Prize money varies according to the size and prestige of the rodeo, whether competitions are sanctioned by the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) and other factors. Prize money can be based on a single barrel run, called a go-round, or the racers must run several times and take an average of their times. Prize money for first place in most competitions varies from $1,000 to $4,000, according to professional barrel racer and trainer Heather Smith.
Average Rodeo Winnings
Not all barrel racers are at the top of the money. As of July 2014, for example, the WPRA notes that among the top 500 barrel racers, winnings varied from the $253 won by Brooke Jeter to top-ranked Lisa Lockhart’s earnings of $67,345. Jeter had competed in 16 rodeos at that point, giving her average earnings of $15 per rodeo. Lockhart, however, had competed in 18 rodeos, for a per-rodeo average of $3,746. Nancy Hunter, the second-ranked barrel racer, had competed in 11 rodeos and won $66,973, so her per-rodeo average was actually higher than Lockhart’s at $6,088.
A barrel racer’s earnings are tracked on three levels: season winnings, National Finals Rodeo (NFR) winnings and total world earnings. A season was originally spring to fall, but the advent of indoor arenas has extended the season to December, when the NFR is held in Las Vegas, Nev. In 2013, the WPRA notes season winnings for the top 15 barrel racers ranged from 15th-place Jean Winters’ earnings of $69,846 to the $147,417 won by top contender Sherry Cervi. The top contenders are placed by combined season and NFR winnings, so a barrel racer might earn less in the season and still come out at the top of the list with significant winnings at the NFR.
National Finals Rodeo Winnings
NFR purses are much larger than the average barrel racing prize. In 2013, for example, the WPRA reports Sherry Cervi won $155,899 at the NFR. The prizes ranged from a low of $14,723 won by Sydni Blanchard, to Cervi’s top dollar. Six of the top 15 riders won $50,000 or more at that one rodeo. The top five barrel racers at the NFR in 2013 were Shada Brazile, Taylor Jacob, Mary Walker, Lisa Lockhart and Sherry Cervi. The first four won $61,889, $82,431, $92,247 and $102,163, respectively.
Total world earnings determine a barrel racer’s overall standing at the end of a season. The amounts of season purses and NFR purses are combined for the total world earnings figure. A barrel racer who had an excellent season but did not compete in the NFR is unlikely to finish high in the standings, because the NFR purses are so much larger. In 2013, the WPRA reports Michelle McLeod was fifth in the top five, with total winnings of $151,357. Taylor Jacob came next, at $164,484. Lisa Lockhart was third, with $184,200 in total winnings, and Mary Walker came in fourth at $229,363. Top-place finisher Sherry Cervi, however, had total earnings of $303,317.