Pole bending is a rodeo sport in which a horse and rider race around poles in a timed event. The horse with the fasted finishing time is declared the winner, without incurring any penalties.
Pole bending, much like all other rodeo events, began as informal competitions between ranch hands across the West. Daily activities on the ranch required the cowboys to have a number of skills in riding. When neighboring ranches would meet, cowboys would show off their skills and race against one another.
The agility, speed and ability to change direction quickly were necessary when herding cattle. Oftentimes, the cowboy would need to change direction immediately to corral a cow back into the fold. These skills became the basis for pole bending.
Rodeo was organized starting in 1860 from informal local gatherings to larger scale competitions. Rodeo is still active today and often accompanies local fairs.
Pole bending competitions take place in an arena with 6 poles set up in a straight line. The horse passes the timer line at full speed, then proceeds to weave in and out of each pole. Poles are set 21 feet apart with an additional 21 feet after the timer line. Each pole stands 6 feet high. As the horse gallops the course, it must make sharp cuts and change leads between each pole. The horse must take a quick full turn around the sixth pole and then process to weave in and out of the poles again on the way back. The movement is called a serpentine pattern.
If the horse knocks over a pole, a five second penalty is assessed. If the rider or horse makes a mistake in running the course, both are disqualified. The rider is allowed to touch the poles with his/her hand but knocking over the pole will incur the penalty. In order to prevent animal abuse, contestants can be disqualified for using their whips, crops or cinch ropes in excess, as determined by the judge. A total time of 20 to 21 seconds is considered very good.
The two techniques commonly used in pole bending are slalom and side-pass. The slalom maneuver, named for the skiing move, is a technique in which the horse races towards each pole in a nearly straight formation and then barely misses the pole. The moment when the rider’s knee is even with the pole is the key moment for the turn around the pole. The horse’s body must be supple to the turns in order to avoid the poles which maintaining fast speeds. The horse must flex its body around the pole. Horses should pass each pole with shoulder out flexion. The horse’s neck, head and upper body should be aimed back towards the center-line so that the body of the horse forms a curve around the pole.
Around the final pole, the horse must execute a 180 degree turn to reverse direction and head back to the other side of the course. This turn is best executed in a three pivot turn. The horse pivots on the inside leg in three places in order to switch directions but maintain close to the pole. A horse that attempts to pivot in one motion will come to a complete stop the hindquarters and thus will have to regain all of the lost momentum.
Other pole bending riders choose to employ the side pass maneuver. In this movement, borrowed from dressage is another strategy for weaving in and out of the poles. The side pass is a sideways lateral movement. Rather than aiming straight for the pole and bending the body, the horse will move laterally. While this maneuver can be very effective, some believe that it slows the momentum. Other side-pass enthusiasts argue that the horse is less likely to knock over poles and incur penalties in a lateral movement.
Pole Bending Horses
In general, the horse of choice for pole bending is the Quarter Horse. The Quarter Horse has explosive start-up speed as the fastest horse timed across a quarter of a mile distance. Quarter horses have been used in ranch work far before organized rodeos for their ability to accelerate, stop quickly and turn on a dime. Quarter horses have been known to travel at speeds up to 55mph.
Quarter horses have a compact build, well muscled and strong. The horses have a low center of gravity, which helps them excel at balance and turning. Quarter horses have incredibly strong hind legs as well as muscular gaskins. Their chests are broad and heads small. The overall appearance of a Quarter horse is stocky yet elegant and very strong.
Tack and Equipment
Pole bending equipment includes the bases and poles. The bases must be 14” in diameter or less to avoid any tripping of the horse on the bases. The bases are made of either solid rubber or hollow plastic filled for a weighted base. The poles are 6-foot long PVC pipes. Most poles have a cap on top as an added safety precaution.
Participates in pole bending wear western riding attire and use western tack. Western saddles are always required over English saddles. Western saddles are more equipped to handle rodeo tasks. Generally, the stirrups sit a little lower in a western saddle, are made of heavy wood. The saddle itself is generally leather, decorated however the rider prefers. The saddle also has a horn that can be used for balance but is not strictly a handle. Pole bending riders should have their hands securely on the reins during the competition.
Western-style riding boots are must as they offer safety for the rider as well as a rodeo appearance. Many rodeos or 4H competitions require western apparel, including a felt cowboy hat, nice blue jeans, and a western long-sleeve shirt.
One variation of pole bending is the Nez Percé Stake Race. Rather than each competitor racing against the clock, two horses and riders will race side by side on identical courses. The Nez Percé Stake Race is part of the Appaloosa Horse Club show. The competition is named such after the riding skills of the Nez Percé tribe. Rather than racing once for the faster time, the winner of each race will proceed to the next round until one final winner is determined. The competition is arranged in bracket format so many competitors are able to race multiple times.
Pole bending is an equestrian discipline that showcases the skills of both horse and rider. From quick turns to careful maneuvers, pole bending is an exciting part of the rodeo tradition. The race is quick and knocking over the pulls come easy, so a perfect ride in a 20 second timeframe is a sight to behold.