The Ultimate Guide to Horse Gymkhana

Written by Beulah Martin

When raising my children I tried to encourage them to enjoy their horses and use them as much as possible, horse Gymkhana became everyone’s favorite way to do that.

So what is horse Gymkhana? Gymkhana literally means “Games on Horseback.” Horse and riders compete individually and are timed to see how fast they can run through a set pattern of poles, barrels or other obstacles. The fastest time is the winner.  It is an event that is growing ever more popular because it is fun, exciting and family oriented.

Sometimes the organizers might call the event a “Playday” or even a “Rodeo”, but the official name for what is being offered is Gymkhana. There are many different events included at the Gymkhana. Some competitors specialize in just a few races, while others compete in every race that they can qualify for. Usually on the same horse for each event.

My daughter, Holly Jo, winning a leadline class with me leading the line

The winners of the different events are usually awarded trophies or ribbons. Sometimes even cash, tack or useful horse supplies are given. Gymkhana mainly used to be for the beginner or intermediate rider, but as more people get involved, many are becoming very professional in their events.

The sport has taken on a festival appeal. There are divisions for every age from 2 to 92, and all levels of ability. There are leadline classes, walk and trot events, and also professional barrel racing competition. Something for everyone who would like to participate.   

A history of Gymkhana

It’s interesting to know that Gymkhana actually started a long, long, time ago. In fact, it is actually centuries older than the invention of cars.

In the European and Asian cultures, as a way of showing off their skills in horsemanship, races were held that were timed obstacle events. Even Genghis Khan has been said to have competed in such races. Picking up small flags from off the ground as he rode his horse at a full gallop.

Native Americans had races and games on horseback to show off their skills and bravery. They took the challenge of riding close enough to a charging buffalo to slap them on their side among other daring contests.

O-MOK-SEE is a term used in some parts of the Western U.S. describing games played on horseback. You might have heard that term connected to “Pattern Horse Racing.” It is thought to have its beginning with the  Blackfeet Indians.

Unlike most Gymkhana events, the O-MOK-SEE races are held with contestants competing at the same time in an arena, in 3 or 4 separate lanes. The racers all run their race in their own lane. The riders are able to see their competitors in real time and know whether they are ahead or behind. This probably makes for a more exciting competition to compete in and also to watch.

Pony Clubs have been very instrumental in the evolution of Horse Gymkhana competitions. The first Pony Club was formed in 1929 in Great Britain. It’s objective was to find a way to help young children have an opportunity to interact with their horses or ponies, learning how to ride and care for them.  

There were multiple breed clubs and organizations (such as 4-H) around the world that wanted activities to encourage the horse and rider to work together. It has been proven that if the young rider is having fun and enjoying himself while learning, he or she will be a student for life. Gymkhana competitions have been able to provide a reason for the rider to improve on their skills and horsemanship and have tons of fun while doing it.

Most of these competitions were usually held in the summer months, and the get togethers were held outside. Yet, with more indoor arenas being built, many riding clubs and organizations hold year long activities where points are earned and championships awarded at the end of the year. Along with trophies, many year-ending championship saddles are awarded.

Gymkhana teaches sportsmanship.

As early as possible, the child should have the responsibility to care for their own horse. They will learn that if they take good care of their own equipment and their horse, everything will perform better.

Horse Gymkhanas is a good clean sport that teaches a person horsemanship and responsibility.  

There is a great feeling of comradeship in Gymkhana. Everyone is willing to help others and root for each one’s best efforts. All are encouraged to be good sports, play by the rules and play hard.

Choosing the correct horse for a beginner

First of all you want to choose a horse that is SAFE. Which means he should not have bad habits. You do not want a horse that will buck, rear up, bite, or kick. The horse should be well trained. If you can get one that is a little older and more settled, you will be able to learn that much quicker.

Usually a beginning rider does not have the lightest hands. They pull too hard on the horse and hang on the reins for balance, putting a lot of pressure on the horse’s mouth. The rider’s legs are heavy and they are unaware that they may be kicking the side of the horse unnecessarily.

If you buy the wrong horse, one that is already sour or spoiled, there is a chance that the child will become frustrated and disinterested and no longer want to participate.

Many times a beginner, whether the child or the parent, will make a mistake and “over mount” themselves. This means they might buy a horse that is already well trained in the games, because they want to have as much speed as possible, but they are not skilled in handling a horse. In this case, a trained horse might prove to be unsafe, since it is going to want to go too fast for the level of skill a beginner will have. There is a real risk of injury when speed is concerned.

The size of the horse is important. It should fit the rider so that they can mount or dismount without any problems. Some of the games require the rider to dismount during the race, so the size of the horse will really make a difference. A rider will also gain more confidence quicker if the horse fits them better.

When choosing a new horse you need to make sure he is sound. You will be better off if you can take a vet to check him out first, since running Gymkhana events requires you to have a horse that is healthy and in good shape. You will be glad that you take extra precautions where this is concerned.

Make sure when selecting a new horse that he/she is easy to load and haul in YOUR trailer. If you are planning on competing in the Gymkhana events you will have to trailer the horse to the locations where they are held. The last thing you need is to have to fight your horse to get him loaded. He will not end up in the right mood to compete and neither will you.

Choosing the horse for an intermediate rider

An intermediate rider has lighter hands. They are not going to be hanging on the reins, pulling and giving conflicting signals. They will have better control of their legs and they will remain more steady. They will “have a good seat in the saddle and ride very balanced. Because they are a better rider they can handle a younger and more spirited horse. They might even be able to train the horse and introduce it to the games.

You don’t have to buy a registered horse for Gymkhana if you are not competing in a breed organization event, any trusty mount will do. However there are some breeds that have proven themselves as a great choice when looking for a horse that can “do it all.”

Here are some more things to think about as you choose your horse:

  • Calm and patient – good disposition
  • It should have a lot of athletic ability – agile and quick
  • Great attitude – have a big heart, desire and willing to learn
  • Age – not too young, horses don’t mature until 5 or 6 years old
  • Good conformation – the horses shape and structure
  • What type of past experience the horse has
  • Smooth way of going – not rough & jerky
  • No bad habits
  • No old injuries
  • Have speed
  • Breed

A thoroughbred that has been bred for speed can be made into a good “gaming horse” if he is not too high strung or too big. They make great timed event competitors for your more professional riders. You will see many of the winning barrel racers riding thoroughbreds. Though, many thoroughbreds are too hard to train unless they are really calm and easily handled.

Quarter horses are good at timed events because they have been bred to be quick. They are able to run short distances in very fast time. Quarter horses are very agile, good athletes, and tough competitors with lots of heart. They usually are calm and easy to work with. They like to compete.

For a younger rider or a small adult I would not hesitate to recommend a Pony of America (POA). This is a breed that was started here in America to be a suitable horse for a youth rider. The POA horse combines the characteristic of the Arabian and Quarter Horse with loud Appaloosa coloring.

My son, Wren, on a POA named Cobra

They are considered a small horse with a height of 46 to 56 inches, which is just under the height requirements for a horse. The POA is the breed of horse that we raised when my children were young and proved to be great horses in every event in a horse show: Western Riding, Trail, English and Jumping. As soon as the “rail” classes were over all the contestants and their horses geared down by having fun in the Gymkhana events. It proved to be a favorite for everyone.


A word about equipment

Your equipment is a very important part of becoming a Gymkhana winner. Here is a short list of tack you may need.

Bits

The Bit you use on your horse is something you are going to have to experiment with. It goes in the horse’s mouth and is attached to the reins.

Snaffle Bit

A Snaffle Bit is not severe and works well when you are having to hold onto your horse like you do on a timed event. You can take hold of him without it being too hard on his mouth.

A Mechanical Hackamore Bit or a Bosal Bit is another choice. It does not have a bit to go in the mouth, but it can also be tough on the horse’s nose if the rider uses too rough of hands. Either of these are good to use if you are a novice rider, or just starting your horse out.

As far as a Curb Bit – there are many types to choose from. Some can be very harsh. Any Bit with a Shank can be overdoing it if you do not know what level of strength is being applied. It is probably a good idea to get a professional’s opinion about the Bit you are thinking to use. It’s better to avoid bad habits than to try and correct them.

Reins

In Gymkhana events you will probably want to use a roping type rein. This is a continuous, single rein that is not split as in regular trail riding. This is good because you won’t run the chance of dropping a rein and can use one hand on the rein and one hand on the horn if you need to steady yourself. You should have a shorter rein rather than a longer one. A ¾ inch leather rein works good or a rope type of rein, whichever feels better in your hand.

If you are in an event where you need to get off your horse, you will want to switch to a split rein. This way you can still keep a hold of him when you dismount. In barrel racing or pole bending you will want to use the single roping rein. This allows you to guide your horse through the pattern by giving him the cues using a neck rein as he weaves around the obstacles.

Tie Down

Tie Downs seem to work well when running timed events. You don’t need a heavy one, a light one will do. It will keep the horse from getting their head too high. Some riders, who hold their hands up too high will tend to get their horse to hold his head up high. The Tie Down will take care of that problem.

You can figure out how long to make the Tie Down by fastening it at the nose and then to your saddles girth. Have the horse stand up straight and push the strap up until it touches the throat latch lightly, adjusting it so that the Tie Down will not be too tight or too loose to do any good. This will help balance the horse so it will be able to make better turns.

Saddle

You might consider using a breast collar to keep your saddle from slipping back. That will be very beneficial when making fast sharp turns.

The saddle will need to fit you as well as your horse. There are barrel racing saddles that allow you to sit down deep into them and give you good support. Here again, you do not need to invest in a high priced saddle to be competitive. If your saddle is comfortable and stable and your horse performs well in it, any functional saddle that you already have will do.

You will want a saddle with a smaller style horn so that you can get your  hand around it. This will give you something to hold so you can balance yourself when making sharp turns.

Stirrups should fit your foot. You want your feet to stay under you, not to get in front or behind you, so you can stay balanced. Monty Foreman introduced a balanced ride saddle for that very purpose. There are many saddle makers now who have followed his lead if you are lucky enough to find one.

Pad

Make sure you have enough padding in your saddle pad to keep from hurting your horses back, but not too much so you will still be able to feel your horse under you. A saddle pad that you can wash and keep clean is a good choice so it won’t get all stiff. You might need a couple of pads to do the job.

The right pad will keep you from having to tighten your girth too tight. A Mohair girth will not rub your horse like the cotton one will. Buy the best quality you can afford. Check out my article called How Tight Should a Horse’s Girth Be to learn how tight to make it.

Whips & Spurs

Whips, bats and spurs are sometimes added equipment and can usually be used when running the Gymkhana events. However, the overuse or abuse of this type of equipment can cause the contestant to be disqualified.

Bell Boots

You will want to know how to keep your horses legs safe. Because of the tendency your horse might have to injure himself when competing in speed events, you might want to invest in some bell boots or leg wraps just to be safe. The last thing you want is a lame horse.

Helmet

Rae riding in safety helmet by Danielle Poteet

One of the main pieces of safety equipment you should consider is the safety riding helmet for yourself. This is not required equipment in most of the local Gymkhana events, but it is definitely a requirement in any of the 4-H competitions and many pony club events. It’s highly recommended for your own safety and especially that of young and inexperienced riders. Landing on your head can cause an injury that is easily avoided with a helmet.

Gymkhana events

In giving a list of a few of the Gymkhana’s actual races, I do not want to get too technical with all the measurements and patterns. For this article, I will just explain about some of the most popular events so you can get a good idea of what is usually required and how much fun they are to compete in. When actually getting ready to attend and or compete in a Gymkhana it is a good idea to get a copy of their rules. Each event might differ somewhat on how the individual races a run and what patterns are being used.

Barrel Racing By Danielle Poteet

Barrel Horse Race

By far the most common and popular event is the Barrel Horse Race.  

This will be found in almost every Gymkhana that you go to. This event is also used in all the professional Rodeo competitions. It started out as a way that women could compete and be competitive in their own event and soon became a favorite of the spectators and the riders. You can read my article called Horse Barrel Racing 101: answers to all your questions which goes into the details of this exciting event.

Pattern A: The rider crosses the starting line and circles barrel 1 clockwise, then she rides to barrel 2 and circles it counterclockwise then proceeds to barrel 3 and circles it counterclockwise then she runs between barrels 1 & 2 back across the finish line.

Pattern B: Is just the opposite – Rider can circle barrel 2 first in a counterclockwise direction – proceed to barrel 1 and circle clockwise then go to barrel 3 and also circle it clockwise. Then race for the finish line.

To get a fast time a horse should be able to do flying lead changes as he approaches a barrel. This means it can make tighter circles if it is on the right lead leg when turning right and the left lead leg when turning left.

Riders are disqualified if they knock over a barrel (in some smaller competitions they will be penalized 5 seconds time) or do not run the pattern correctly.

Pole Bending

Is an event that is in almost every Gymkhana and is very popular. It has the same type of skills that Barrel Racing has. The horse needs to be able to change his leads as he weaves in and out of six poles.

The poles are placed in a straight line. The contestant can start on either side of the poles when he crosses the starting line. He runs in a straight line beside the line of poles to the last pole – makes a 180-degree turn around that pole and then begins weaving between each pole back to the first one in line. Does another 180-degree turn around that one and continues to weave between each pole back up to the top pole, at which point he heads his horse towards home in a fast straight line to cross the finish line.

Since the contestant can start on either side of the poles you need to decide which way your horse turns best, a right turn or a left turn (just like in the Barrel Race), to get the fastest time. You can be disqualified by running the pattern wrong. For instance, if you turn the wrong way on a pole or miss a pole altogether. There will be a penalty for knocking over a pole or if you reach out and touch a pole to keep it from falling over.

Flag Race

This was one of our favorite events. The kids really liked to run this. Here is a picture of my oldest son, Wren, on his POA named Cobra.

The course is set up as if you were going to run the cloverleaf Barrel Race. There are 3 barrels set up in the arena. On top of the 1st and 2nd barrel there are 5-gallon buckets filled half way up with sand. A small flag on a wooden dowel is placed in the bucket. The rider crosses the starting line on whichever side he chooses and picks up a flag from the bucket. He then rides up and around the #3 bucket to the opposite side from which he started and places the flag in that bucket. Then he crosses the finish line as fast as he can.

As you can see this is a pretty simple race. You do not have to have a horse that can do flying lead changes and the pattern is very easy to understand. Even the very youngest can enjoy competing in this event.

You can be disqualified by not picking up or putting back the flag, dropping the flag, knocking over a bucket or a barrel, and of course falling off your horse.

Keyhole Race

Another fun easy race is the Keyhole Race. It is an easy pattern and if you have a horse who will really listen to you it will be easy for you to place or even win in this event.

Looking at the picture above is the best way to understand this race. There is a “keyhole” drawn in lime, chalk or flour. Some kind of material you can draw this circle in the sand. The keyhole is in the form of a broken circle with the opening facing the starting line. The horse and rider crosses the starting line and enters the keyhole. He has to turn a circle, in either direction, without stepping on the chalk line and then exiting out the circle at the opening and race across the finish line.

Your horse will be very excited when you run him into that little circle, so you will have to keep him calm so that he will not step on the lines. The disqualification would be stepping on the line, or not doing the pattern.

Handy Horse

Here is another easy one like the Keyhole race. Easy to learn and easy to do.  

The rider crosses the starting line and circles around both barrels into a limed or chalked square. The rider stops his horse in the square and has to stand there for five seconds. There will be a timer in the arena with a stopwatch who will yell “Go” when the five seconds has passed. The rider then races to the finish line. Here again the horse is almost too excited to stand still. You can be a winner in this event by working with your horse to be calm and follow your cues.

There are many other events and variations to the common ones. Anything can go in a Gymkhana that will give a horse and rider some creative ways to show off their skills in horsemanship. There are some races for two people like the Rescue Race, with one rider picking up another one. Or the Ribbon Race where two riders have to circle the arena holding a ribbon between them without breaking it.

There is the Keg Race, which is like musical chairs. The riders start off of their horse, sitting on a keg. At the start signal each rider has to jump on his horse and run to the end of the arena, circle a barrel and return. While they are on the other end of the arena someone removes one or more of the Kegs. This is repeated until only one person has a Keg to sit on. This gets pretty exciting when you are down to two or three contestants. They get desperate and will do almost anything to end up sitting on the last Keg, even jerking it out from under the other rider.

So as you can see there is a lot of fun and excitement to be found at a Horse Gymkhana, whether competing in it or watching it. Having a fun experience between horse and rider helps to develop good riding skills, a high degree of athletic ability, determination, and hopefully good sportsmanship. Have Fun and Happy Trails.