In My Boots: It’s boots and chaps and cowboy hats…

…spurs and latigos. After four days of immersion in British-based Olympic eventing, Kristen Kovatch transports us to a very different world–and they call the thing a rodeo.

In My Boots: Jackpot vs. rodeo

We enjoyed a night out at the county fair a few weeks ago to see the sights—prize sheep, dairy calves, the glittering if rusty midway, and the traveling rodeo that stopped to do a show right in front of the grandstands of the old harness track. We cheered ourselves hoarse for the bull riders (it’s amazing what putting on a cowboy hat and climbing aboard a bull can do for someone’s overall appeal) as well as our friend in the barrel race. In the parking lot after the rodeo, we chatted about our friend’s horses and how she wanted to start running fewer barrel jackpots and more rodeos.

A race is a race, right? Cowgirls run their horses around the barrel pattern as fast as they can. There’s actually a number of differences between a conventional barrel race or jackpot event and a rodeo.


Jackpot races are typically sanctioned by a barrel racing association—the most famous of which is the National Barrel Horse Association or NBHA. These events can draw thousands of entries, all of which compete together. Riders and associations alike pay lots of attention to the footing; riders have been known to have horses better in indoor or outdoor arenas, certain venues, certain conditions. I’ve heard riders talk about the differences between running in New York and running in North Carolina—the footing is completely different and the horses don’t run the same (for better or worse). At a jackpot race, the only event running is the barrels—no other events other than a handful of exhibition or small-stakes races. The environment is generally fairly quiet and it’s a great place to exhibit a young or green horse.

The major difference between a jackpot race and a rodeo is the 4D rating system. The cutoff times for each division are set by the horses running in them—so if the fastest horse runs a 16.0 second pattern, the horses who run less than half a second off that time are considered 1D horses. Horses running a half second off 1D times make up the 2D division; horses running a full second off of 1D are 3D, down on to 4D running two seconds off of 1D times.

This rating system means that the very fastest horses are not constantly taking all of the top prizes—all of the divisions typically pay out the same, so riders can still be remarkably competitive at lower levels. It also means that jackpot races turn into a little bit a gamble as well—where did the rest of the competition fall? Is it more worthwhile to speed up or slow down?


Rodeos, on the other hand, are all about the show. The fastest rider is rewarded—you simply want to set the fastest time; there is no division. In addition to the barrel race, rodeos typically include other traditional events such as tie-down roping, team roping, roughstock events, and sometimes even goat tying, steer wrestling or mutton busting (tie your toddler to a sheep and hope for the best!)

The footing is not always consistent or conducive to racing—for example, sometimes the ground in front of the bucking chutes is harder than the ground elsewhere in the arena. Some riders don’t mind the difference, training their horses to run no matter what the footing to encourage their best performance in any conditions. The environment is quite different from a jackpot race as well—imagine all of the stock at a rodeo show, including the competitors in half a dozen different events, the roughstock, the roping cattle, and sometimes an attached fair or midway or festival. Rodeo horses have to be able to put up with a lot.

Good jackpot horses are not always good rodeo horses and vice-versa. This is not to say that one system is better than the other—just two different ways of approaching the same sport. Ultimately, the ability of the horse to run one event over the other comes down to the rider’s passion and ability to get the best out of the animal.

Go barrel racing.

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