Craving a backcountry break from the bright lights, big city? For veteran horseback riders, the rising popularity of rodeo sports offers an option: barrel racing, a beat-the-clock event in which you spur your steed around a cloverleaf arrangement of three barrels, trying to score the best time without knocking any down. Barrel racing began as a women's game -- in national-level rodeos, it still is -- so its focus is on the agility of both horse and rider rather than on brute strength. If you can saddle up, you can participate. And for the rodeo-curious novice, this is one of the tamest introductions: no bulls, no calves -- just you and your horse.

What to Expect: Champions are always working on speed. Course size varies, but winning times are typically under 19 seconds. You, though, should focus on building flexibility and endurance -- and easing in your horse. Any healthy steed can barrel-race, but many veteran riders prefer the quarter horse. "Quarter horses were actually bred for shorter runs at a faster pace," says Buttons Stetler, co-owner of Kris-Tan Farm in Waldorf and a 27-year rodeo competitor. In barrel derbies, thoroughbreds or cross-thoroughbreds are often used. Keep in mind that if your horse is used for English riding, it'll take awhile to adapt to this Western style.

One warning: Don't mistake this for an easy ride. Barrel racing's quick turns and hurried pace are pretty demanding. Stretching before and after is essential, and you should expect some sore muscles.

What to Bring: For your horse, you'll need a Western saddle. Silver belt buckles and pearl-button shirts are by no means required. Protection is key -- you'll want sturdy cowboy boots (say no to sneakers -- your feet could slip out of the stirrups), a long-sleeved shirt and thick jeans. For competition, a cowboy hat is required.

Cost: Lessons run $25 to $35 per hour; practice sessions range from $10 to $30 per rider.

Yawandale Birchett

Where to practice

Barrel Racing Clinics. 301-645-1193 or 866-645-1193. Waldorf-based trainer Bill Dunigan, 64, has been barrel-racing for the past 40 years. He teaches private lessons at the B&R Horse Farm (see below), starting at $35 per hour. No horse? No worries. He has a training steed.

B&R Horse Farm. 10301 Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro. 301-599-6717. Although this 65-acre farm's main trade is selling farm equipment and peddling quarter horses, riders can also practice barrel-racing on a by-appointment basis. Practices cost $10 per rider, and lessons are $25 per hour. All riders must be 18 or older.

J Bar W Ranch. 10530 Green Valley Rd., Union Bridge. 301-898-9841. On Wednesday nights, future buckle winners head here for practice and play. $30 gets you four rides: three with other trainees, and the fourth, a competitive ride to win a cash prize. All ages are welcome.

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Park your timidity back at the stable: You'll need all the attack you can muster to take those corners like a real cowboy and leave competitors in the dust.