First, do guys barrel race & run poles?
Yes. With a capital Y!
Look at Lance Graves, Bret Monroe, Ed Wright, and Troy Crumrine just to name a few. All men barrel racers and trainers; and darn good ones at that. Lance Graves World Champion Barrel Racer, barrel horses for sale, barrel horse training videos Troy Crumrine Barrel Clinic Slash W Barrel Horses - Home of Ed and Martha Wright - Barrel Racing at its best!
And let's not forget Wayne Sandberg, author of "19 second pole bending". Or Ken Smith, who teaches his method. Pole Bending Clinics with Ken Smith
Second, any other ideas on how to find groups to run in?
The only association I have ever heard of that does not allow male barrel racer would be the WPRA (Women's Professional Rodeo Association). Of course, your local rodeo clubs may follow suit and leave the barrel racing to the ladies, but pretty much any barrel racing club or gymkhana or playday is going to allow both genders to compete in both events. And if you are not sure if there is a gender "rule", ask! If there is nothing in the rulebook, then they have to allow your son to run if he pleases.
So really, you shouldn't have to "find" groups that allow men to barrel race. Unless its a rodeo, there are few and far between with that restriction.
Third, and this may sound stupid, but if we can find a group, how do I discern whether their methods are sound or not? I tend to be softer on my horses than I probably should, generally tending to try patience and pushing by small amounts rather than beating them into doing what I want (which seems to be the norm around here. "Real" horse people use spurs til they bleed, harsh bits, whips, yanking on mouths, etc. to get their desired results from their horses. Maybe I'm delusional thinking more force isn't always the best method).
Barrel racing gets a bad rap. I know that. And I don't mean to sound rude, but you even asking this question in the first place offends me. There are harsh/cruel riders in EVERY SINGLE HORSE SPORT. Yes, I've even seen 4H-ers and their parents doing nasty things to horses to get them to perform. I've been with people just out trail riding that mis-treat their horses. I hate it when barrel racers are automatically assumed to be abusive riders when it is clearly something that occurs everywhere and is not the fault of the sport, but is the fault of the rider.
You can't let the poor riders in the world influence your riding, because they are everywhere, unfortunately. And the group or club they ride in certainly has nothing to do with how someone is going to ride and treat their horse. And for that matter, the discipline they choose to ride also has nothing to do with how they are going to ride and treat their horse.
A bad rider = a bad rider = a bad rider. Period.
Barrel racing gets the bad repuation because people who don't know anything about it assume no training is required and you just kick and spur around 3 cans as fast as you can. For those bad riders who like to cut corners and just force their horse to do things, barrel racing seems pretty appealing. No dress code and basically no rules, for them.
So whatever barrel race you decide to attend, you'll have to deal with the bad riders and know-it-all's just as you would anywhere else.
I don't use whips or spurs on my barrel horse. He goes with the squeeze of my leg and my voice. I have limited riding with him right now due to graduate school, but when we had the chance to compete a few times last summer, we won the 1D on several occasions at nearby jackpots.
Kudos to you for being gentle and encouraging with your horses as well. But realize that barrel racing itself has nothing to do with poor riding -- HUMANS do.