Horse Activities: Contesting and Gymkhana

What better way to hone one’s abilities on horseback than by playing riding-related games or competing in mounted tests of balance, speed and dexterity?

That’s the idea behind contesting and gymkhana-type events, which have a history across cultures and in both English and Western riding disciplines. And small wonder: The pattern races and timed games at these events are a great way to engage children and willing ponies (although adults and horses can compete in some of these contests, too!).

Often organized locally in the context of 4-H, Pony Clubs or other riding associations (including therapeutic riding groups), you might see these competitions referred to as contests, playdays, gymkhana or O-Mok-See (a Native American phrase). But regardless of the region, the type of tack used or the participant age, they all have three elements in common: fun, learning and competitive spirit.

At their most basic, these activities might start out with informal horse show events like a “bareback dollar race” (where kids try to keep a dollar bill placed under one leg from falling during the race). Another popular mounted game for beginners is “red light, green light” (where riders must follow instructions to move or stop quickly, at the risk of elimination). Then, before long, things might progress to mounted “egg-and-spoon” races or single barrel races, on up to flag racing and pole bending.

At their most advanced, mounted games have developed into an international equestrian sport championed by Britain’s Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Played by people of all ages on equines up to 15 hands in height, these games demand considerable athletic ability, speed and hand-to-eye coordination.

You will also find classes for competitions like pole bending, flag racing and barrel racing at rodeos and horse shows from the local to national levels.

What’s it all about? Organized into team, pair and individual competitions, games and contesting activities can include races that require the rider to pick up objects from the ground while in the saddle; carry water balloons without breaking them; “weave” between poles set in a line; dismount and mount at a gallop; joust at a target and then hand the pole off to the next rider—and much, much more. In many such competitions, ponies are the mount of choice due to their handiness and proximity to the ground.

Rules and tack requirements vary with the association, the region and the individual competition. Penalties or disqualifications are usually given for touching, knocking over or dropping markers, barrels or objects during the riding of each pattern.

Above all, contesting and gymkhana-type activities test coordination, balance and effective use of the aids while encouraging healthy competition and building rider confidence. In the case of relay races, participants also learn how essential teamwork is; but a good horse-rider connection is the most important requirement, followed by good sportsmanship.

Some examples of contesting/gymkhana-type activities might include (but are by no means limited to):

  • pole bend
  • barrel race
  • flag race
  • water balloon race
  • keyhole race
  • keg race (“down and back”)
  • run and ride
  • socks and buckets
  • hurdles race
  • joust
  • litter race
  • pony pairs
  • mug shuffle

… and the list goes on. Be sure to ask your riding instructor or other professionals about local groups that teach or host these types of competitions.