University of Vermont AAHS


A Barrel Racing Case

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Summer 2001 Caution:Horses, Vol. 6, No. 2]


A recent case involving a professional barrel racer resulted in a settlement for the plaintiff of several hundred thousand dollars. The plaintiff had suffered severe injuries and on the surface appeared to have made a good recovery however his permanent injuries were to an extent that he was unable to resume his life as he had before the accident.

In this case, the barrel race was a well-known competition with enormous prize money. Entrants came from all over the United States to participate. The arena is well designed and uses a split alley-way which is preferred by many professional barrel racers. It was the management of this alleyway that caused the accident that resulted in the lawsuit.

A split alleyway is one in which there is a divider running from the area, down the middle of the alleyway to the holding area. It is hoped that there is enough room to get a running horse stopped before leaving the alley and entering the holding area where people are waiting.

The racers enter through one side of the alley and exit through the other avoiding the danger of a collision if one racer is started before the other has completely cleared the alley. An adjustment is made for the two percent or less of the racers who go to the left barrel first and run the pattern in reverse which is completely permissible. That is the contestants choice.

The common practice is to have gates on the arena end of each side of the alley and as each racer clears the gate the gate is closed. As the contestant is racing for the exit the other gate is opened to permit the racer to cross the timing light at full speed and exit the arena running.

The accident happened in a practice run during which the timing lights were operating and times were available to each contestant. Racers were given one minute to make their practice runs and the management maintained that it was keeping track of that minute and that was the reason for the timing lights to be running. They claimed that the barrel racers should just be schooling their horses.

In previous years the gates at the entrance of the arena were manned during practice just as they were during the actual runs for the prize money and this is common practice in the places where split alleys exist.

This accident happened at a time when the show management had decided to leave the gates unmanned. The victim had run there before and the gates had been manned. As he was making his practice run both gates were open and as he was about to exit through the appropriate side, his horse swerved for an undetermined reason and the contestant was slammed head and shoulder first into the metal dividing post, sustaining serious injuries.

The victim admitted that he had seen the unmanned gates when he had arrived but needed to take care of his horse after a trip crossing several states to get to the fair grounds so he did that, picked up his time for his practice run and went to the motel to get some sleep.

He was a professional barrel racer, having more that 1000 runs to his credit. He trained and sold barrel horses first as a hobby and later as a more serious endeavor.

The show management maintained that when he elected to make his practice run he should have only been schooling his horse, not running flat out and that he had assumed the risk of running with open gates when he decided to run. He was not required to do it and he did not ask anyone to man the gates.

The critical issues were those of economic pressure and fatigue. The contestant had spent nearly $1000 on entry fees alone, not to mention the expense of preparation and a trip halfway across the country to compete. After many hours on the road, sleep was first in his mind. He had expected the facility to be run as it was in the past and there was nothing in the literature notifying contestants that practice runs would be made with unmanned gates. His options were limited.

A lesser issue was the fact that the center post was not directly in the center of the alley but slightly to the right as one exits the arena. The portion of the alley that is usually the exit side is slightly smaller and a bit darker. In order to leave the third barrel and head for the appropriate gate the racer who runs the most common pattern or goes first to the right hand barrel must veer slightly right to exit through the other gate. That may or may not have been a factor as there are few split alleys and most horses are accustomed to running straight back through the same alley. With both gates open and the post being painted a dull gray, it is arguable that the horse thought he was going where he should.

The contestant himself believed he saw someone sitting on the alley divider who jumped down into the alley he was about to enter. This was never proved or disproved.

The importance of this case is that where on the surface it would appear that a rider assumes the risk of unsafe conditions if he goes ahead and rides, there are circumstances where the rider cannot afford to pull out or not take his practice ride, or use the warm-up.

The situation was further aggravated by the fact that the conditions that would have been safe were in place in prior years, are accepted practice with this type of alley, and would have cost only volunteer time or minimum wage to put in place.

Economic coercion rebuts the defense to negligence of "assumption of the risk" and anytime competitors have invested time and money to get to an event it is unwise to expect them to take the responsibility of assuming the risk of unsafe conditions, especially those conditions that would be considered unsafe in any trainer’s barn or that are contrary to common practice in the industry. Common practice is not always an excuse for unsafe conditions, especially if it is a condition that no reasonable trainer or owner would allow in his own barn.

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