In recent years Gymkhana has been steadily gaining in popularity. The equestrian event consists of speed pattern racing and timed games for riders on horses.

Classes include timed speed events such as Barrel racing, Keyhole race, Flag race, and Pole bending. All of these events are designed to display precise, controlled actions and tight teamwork between horse and rider at speed, although most clubs offer a variety of classes, allowing riders to compete at the speed level they are most capable of, and feel comfortable with.

Much like a horse show, riders show their skills in obstacle courses, races and relays. Often gymkhanas are aimed at kids and ponies with the main focus being fun and teaching horsemanship.Gymkhana is the action packed, precision sport of the equestrian world. A good Gymkhana horse must have the speed of a race horse, the turning quickness and agility of a cutting horse and the control and responsiveness of the stock horse.

Pole Bending

Pole Bending is a common gymkhana game. As with other rodeo or gymkhana games, pole bending is a race-a timed event. The object is to run the pattern correctly as quickly as possible, without knocking down any of the poles. The rider must train the horse to obey rein and leg aids for the best results.

The Pattern

For pole bending, you'll need to set up a straight line of six poles 21 feet (6.4 m) apart. The line of poles should start 21 feet from the start. The height of the poles should be six feet (1.83 m). This is very important because there is less chance of horse or rider falling on a pole and being injured, it also requires that the horse move its head and body to bend around the poles. If you're making home-made poles it's important to make them from a safe material like PVC plastic that doesn't splinter when broken.

A starting line should be marked and there will need to be a method of timing-either an electronic timer or a person holding a stopwatch at the start/finish line.

Running the Pattern

Pole bending times are fastest if you have a running start. You can start your ride well before the starting line. You can approach the line of poles either to the right, or the left of the line. If you start by running down the right side of the poles, you will run to the end of the line of the poles, and then turn left around the top pole in the line. You will then weave back between the poles in a serpentine pattern towards the finish line. As you reach the last pole, however, you go completely around it and weave back towards the top pole. On reaching the top pole, you will finish your race by turning around the last pole and running straight down the line of poles and across the finish line.

If you start by riding up the left side of the poles, you'll need to turn right around the top most pole. Choosing whether you start on the right or left side will depend on whether you and your horse feel the most comfortable turning to the left or right

Timing and Penalties

If a horse and rider miss a pole, there is a five-second penalty. If the horse and rider go off course, they will be disqualified. No penalty is given if the rider touches a pole with their hand. The fastest time wins. Winning times in official competition are often less than twenty seconds.


The key to running the poles quickly is having a very agile, responsive horse that knows how to do flying changes of leads at the gallop. The rider must stay in control and running the pattern accurately is as important as going fast, especially when you're first starting out. For this reason, trotting the pole bending line may actually be quicker than galloping, because it's easier to stay in control.

Pole bending or riding a serpentine is a useful schooling technique for both horse and rider as well. Used for schooling a horse, or riding lessons, there is no specific number of poles required. Pylons or other safe markers (bales of straw or hay) can be used instead of the poles. Time is not the most important factor when schooling or using poles as a riding lesson exercise. The rider will be looking for proper bend and obedience from the horse.

Barrel Racing

Barrel Racing is a timed gymkhana event where horse and rider attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around pre set barrels in the fastest time. Time is what matters most as Cowgirls compete in the arena against each other and the clock.

Barrel racing is about cooperation between horse and rider.

For the barrel racing event, the arena is cleared and three barrels are set up at different marked locations. The riders then enter the arena at full speed, quickly rounding each barrel in a cloverleaf pattern and then exiting where they entered. A stopwatch or timer is used registering down to a hundredth of a second.

Speed is what it is all about in this event. The riders steer their horses as close as they can to the barrels trying to shave precious seconds off the clock. For each barrel they knock over (which happens sometimes) a 5 second penalty is assessed to their total time. Leaving the barrels standing and ripping through the course is every barrel racers goal. 13 to 14 seconds is generally a winning time in this event, but this will vary according to the size of the arena, as all rodeo arenas are not created equal.

Barrel Pattern

The Rules

In Barrel Racing, the fastest time will win. It is not judged under any subjective points of view, only the clock. Barrel Racers in competition at the professional level must pay attention to detail while manoeuvring at high speeds. Precise control is required to win. Running past a barrel and off the pattern will result in a "no time" score and disqualification. If a barrel racer or her horse hits a barrel and knocks it over there is a time penalty of five seconds, which usually will result in a time too slow to win. There is a sixty second time limit to complete the course after time begins. Contestants cannot be required to start a run from an off-centre alleyway, but contestants are not allowed to enter the arena and "set" the horse. It is required that the arena is "worked" after twelve contestants have run and before slack. Barrels are required to be fifty-five gallons, metal, enclosed at both ends, and be at least two colours.

Keyhole Race

Just like barrel racing and pole bending, the keyhole race is another common and fun gymkhana game that can be played by anyone with good basic riding skills. The keyhole race is a timed event that requires speed, obedience and agility. The object is to run the pattern correctly as quickly as possible, without stepping outside of the keyhole shape marked on the ground. The rider must train the horse to obey rein and leg aids for the best results.

The Rules

A horse and rider must gallop to a keyhole design marked on the ground, without going beyond the opening of the keyhole or stepping on or outside of the marked keyhole, enter the keyhole, turn their horse around and exit the keyhole and race back to the finish line. The contestant with the fastest time wins. Contestants will be disqualified for going past the beginning of the keyhole opening, stepping on or outside of the marked keyhole or not entering through the keyhole and turning around inside the circle section of the keyhole and exiting through the keyhole altogether.

Keyhole Pattern

Embrace the Cowgirl Spirit! Saddle up a horse and go riding!

Return from Gymkhana to Little Cowgirls Page