Pole Bending Basics for Beginners

Learn to Run a Pole Bending Race

Pole Bending
A rider rounding the last pole during pole bending.. Tom Purves/Creative Commons/Flickr

Like barrel racing, pole bending is another common gymkhana game. As with other rodeo or gymkhana games, pole bending is a race, so it is 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.

Setting Up 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). That the poles are tall is important because there is less chance of horse or rider falling on a pole and being injured and it requires that the horse move its head and body to bend around the poles. If you're making homemade 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.

How to Run 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.

Young Man Riding Horse During Pole Bending
Tim Mullins / EyeEm / Getty Images

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. You may of course "bend the rules" for a small playday or gymkhana.

Tips for Running Pole Bending

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.

Young woman training horseback riding technique with instructor
EmirMemedovski / Getty Images


Another similar race is called a "stake race," run at Appaloosa Horse Club shows. Two lines of poles are set up, and two horse and rider teams are pitted against each other. The winners of each match compete against each other until a winner is determined.