Gymkhana: Everything You Need To Know About The Sport

I was talking to a friend recently about her daughter who, as a member of the Pony Club, was about to enter her first gymkhana. My friend didn’t really know what to expect or the sort of events her daughter might be competing in. Having held a number of gymkhanas myself I was able to answer her questions and thought it would be helpful to others if I wrote an article about the sport, and as you’re reading this now I guess that was a good idea!

Gymkhana is a series of timed racing events designed to demonstrate controlled movement and teamwork between horse and rider. Often thought of as being for children and young teens only, gymkhana is actually open to riders of all ages and abilities, even if you don’t have your own horse.

Being a collection of timed races there’s a lot more to gymkhana than just going flat out all of the time. More than speed, gymkhana is all about having fun around horses and a rider’s conduct (with riders being disqualified for using offensive language). Read on to find out more about this fun, family-oriented, adrenaline fuelled sport.

What is gymkhana?

We often think of gymkhana (or mounted games as it’s often called) as a modern invention but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While the sport’s popularity has grown in recent decades its history goes back almost as far as the domestication of horses. Early European and Asian horse cultures used timed racing events as a way of demonstrating (and improving) their controlled horsemanship skills.

It’s believed that the Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, competed in a gymkhana-style race where they had to retrieve a flag from the ground by sliding under and around a horse while at a full gallop.

More recently colonial cavalry officers would compete in timed races as a way of sharpening the skills of their horses as well as their own ability. In time this evolved into the fun sport that we know and love today.

It’s also worth pointing out that, while the word gymkhana translates to mean sports ground, today its interpretation has morphed to mean a skill-based contest. That said, in some western states it’s referred to as O-Mok-See which is a Native American Indian word meaning games on horseback. Wherever you are in the world through gymkhana is also known as mounted games.

What do you need to know about gymkhana?

There used to be a time when you had to have your own horse to compete in gymkhana but these days this isn’t the case at all as many clubs have horses that you can either lease or borrow for the day. That said though some clubs don’t have ‘spare’ horses for people to use so if you want to take part with one of these clubs you’ll need to either have your own horse or be able to use a friend’s horse.

To do well in gymkhana it’s important that you have a good solid seat, you’ll be leaning a lot when maneuvering so this is essential. It also helps if you can learn to get on and off of a horse quickly and from both sides. While mounting and dismounting from the other side takes some getting used to it will save you a lot of time.

Having good but controlled speed as well as the ability to stop suddenly and turn quickly will also help a great deal.

Do you need any special kit for gymkhana?

Unlike some other horse sports or disciplines you don’t need any special equipment for gymkhana, other than the riding boots and, in some cases a riding helmet. That said though if you have a few cones, poles, and or barrels at home you can practice maneuvering around them at speed.

Mounted pony games are great fun

What are the different types of gymkhana events?

There are a huge number of different types of events involved in any gymkhana but some of the most common (and most popular) ones are:

Arena Races

Arena races are probably the simplest of all gymkhana events and take place in an arena (or enclosed or fenced-off area). The idea is this is that the rider has to race from one end of the arena to the other with the quickest rider being the winner. There are variations of this where the rider needs to ride a particular pattern or has to perform a certain task, but they still need to ride from one end of the arena to the other.

Barrel Racing

Barrel races are by far the most famous of all gymkhana events and are even their own complete discipline. The idea is to ride around three barrels in a clover leaf pattern as quickly as possible (or at least within 60 seconds).

There are a couple of variations of the standard barrel race, bareback barrels, and double barrels.

  • Bareback barrels – This is exactly the same as the standard barrel race except that the rider has to compete without a saddle. While this might seem easy it’s a lot harder than you might think because you’ve got nothing to hold onto at all but still have to go as fast as you can.
  • Double barrels – This involves two riders, riding side by side, each holding the end of a 6 foot strip of tape. If either rider lets go of the tape then they’re both disqualified.

Bean Bag Race

Don’t worry this doesn’t involve the giant bean bags you’re used to at home, the bean bags are small enough to hold in one hand. The idea behind this race is to test your precision (especially at speed) and it’s done by placing a bean bag on top of a barrel. The rider has to race up to a barrel (usually placed at the other end of the arena), pick up a bean bag and take it to a bucket before dropping it in and racing back to the start/finish line.

The objective is to race in and out of poles, around a barrel, and then back through the poles again. If they move too far away from the poles or miss any out without trying to go back and correct the mistake they’re eliminated.

Dress Race

Like pretty much every gymkhana event, this is about speed and the goal is to be as fast as you can be, but it’s also about having fun. The rider needs to ride to the finish line where they’ll have to dismount and put on some clothes (such as a shirt, pants, hat, boots, etc) from a pile of clothes on the ground. They then need to get back on the horse and ride to the finish line.

There are a number of different versions of this race that can involve the rider drinking a can of soda, eating a candy bar or cracker, or drawing a picture of a horse.

Egg & Spoon

If you ever took part in an egg and spoon race during your school sports day you’ll know exactly what this race is all about. The only difference is that you are on a horse and have to race around a barrel rather than in a straight line. If you drop the egg then you have to dismount to pick it up before getting back on and carrying on to the finish line. 

Flag Race

Similar to the bean bag race in that you need to ride to pick something up before riding back to put it somewhere else. This time though a flag is placed in a container (sometimes on top of a barrel), the rider needs to collect that flag, ride around a second barrel and then race to a third barrel to put the flag in a container there.

While three barrels are used most of the time, if young children are competing then only two barrels are used instead.

In a flag race you need to take a flag from one place to another

Goat Tying

A variation on roping, a rider has to ride to a goat that’s tied (on a 15 foot rope) at the far end of the arena, dismount, and tie three of the goat’s legs together. After they’ve done this they need to step back and signal time. If the ribbon falls off within 6 seconds the rider’s time is wiped and they’re eliminated.

Young riders only need to tie a ribbon around the goat’s tail, although it still needs to stay in place for at least 6 seconds.

Hoop Game

Like the egg and spoon race, the hoop game is based on a sports day race and is all about fun (as well as speed of course). The rider has to race up to and around a barrel before stopping and dismounting. They’ll then need to step into the hula hoop (which is placed on the floor), pull it up and over their head before remounting and racing back to the start/finish line.


More common in European events, jumping involves a small course that the horse and rider have to clear as quickly as possible. The course can involve show jumping fences, cross-country obstacles, or a mixture of the two.

Keg Race

A narrow ‘lane’ pattern is laid out with poles and the rider has to ride through the pattern, turn round and ride back as quickly as they can. While the aim is to be as quick as you can you also need to have precision and control. If you knock any of the poles down you’ll be disqualified.

Keyhole Race

Similar to the keg race but at the end of the lane of poles there’s a keyhole shape (which is often marked out using flour). The objective is the same but this time they have a bigger area to turn around in, although they don’t need to use the whole of it to turn.

Musical Mounting

A mounted version of musical chairs, musical mounting is a group event that involves riders riding around while music is being played. As soon as the music stops they have to stop, dismount and then remount on the opposite side, with the last rider to remount being eliminated. The process is repeated until only one rider is left.

For young children the event takes place at a walk or trot but for everybody else the judge decides the gait.

Plug Race

This is probably the quickest and simplest of all gymkhana events, although it still requires a lot of skill because the rider needs to get their horse moving as quickly as possible while also being able to slow them down quickly. The goal of the race is to ride up to and around a barrel, as well as back again, as quickly as possible.

Pole Bending

Sometimes described as slalom on horseback, the idea of bending poles is to weave in and out of the poles as quickly as possible. This tests, not only the horse’s speed but the rider’s ability for precision and controlled actions.

Potato Race

Similar to the bean bag race, the rider needs to ride to the end of the arena, where a potato has been placed either on the floor or on a barrel. They need to pick it up and ride back to the start/finish line as quickly as possible. If the rider drops the potato they’ll need to go back and pick it up before continuing to the start/finish line.

Relay Race

Unlike a lot of the other events that are individual races, the relay race is a team event where riders work together to complete the race as quickly as possible. Working in a team, each rider will take it in turn to ride from one marker to another, handing a baton to the next rider who’ll do the same thing.

While this is a team only one rider is allowed to complete at once, if more than one rider from the same team is on the course at the same time the whole team will be disqualified.

Rescue Race

Along with the horse and rider, these races also involve another person who is waiting at the other end of the arena to be ‘rescued’. The object of the rescue races is for the rider to ride down to the end of the arena to rescue the person waiting there. They do this by offering an arm to them and helping them onto the horse where they’ll sit just behind the saddle. Together they’ll both ride back to the start/finish line as quickly as possible. 

Ride & Lead

The rider rides, as quickly as they can, past a marker at the other end of the arena before dismounting. They then lead the horse back to the start/finish line, again with the fastest rider winning.

Ring Spearing

Based on the medieval sport of jousting, ring spearing involves the rider having to ride past a post as quickly as they can. The post will normally have a ring hanging from it which the rider will have to hook with a spear or lance.

Sack Race

If you’re thinking about the sack races you used to do at school then think again, the use of a sack is where the similarities end. Instead, the sack is filled with straw and is placed at least 100 feet away from the start/finish line (but normally at the other end of the arena). The rider needs to ride up to the sack, rope it and then drag it back to the start/finish line. If the rope comes loose, the rider must stop and re-rope it before continuing.

Stake Race

The objective of this race is for the rider to race between two poles that are placed 100 feet apart. They can’t simply race from one pole to the other though, instead, they have to follow a set pattern. To follow the pattern the rider needs to ride around the second pole making sure it’s on their left, around the first one with it being on their right then back to the second again with it being on the left. After that they need then to race back to the start finish line.

Steer Dobbing

Along with goat tying, steer dobbing is the only other race that involves another animal but this time it’s a steer. Unlike goat tying the steer isn’t tied at all and is instead released into the arena when the rider is ready. The rider, who has a 4 foot dobbing stick dipped in paint, then has to ride after the steer and leave paint on the front of its shoulder. After they’ve done this they have to raise the stick (signaling they’ve finished) and call for time.

Walk & Trot

As you can imagine this race requires the rider to walk and trot to specific points. They first need to walk up and around a barrel (which is around 100 feet from the start) then trot back to the barrel at the start line. If they start to canter then they have to trot a circle before continuing, at a trot, to the start line.

A variant of this race is walk, trot, and gallop and has the rider galloping to the finish line after they’ve trotted around the barrel at the start.

What are the rules of gymkhana?

Being a series of timed races you’d think that the only rules are about how much time you take to complete a race but this isn’t the case. There are time limits to each race but you’re penalized by points for exceeding the time rather than by disqualification. While you won’t be eliminated if you take longer than the allotted time to finish a race, you will be if you don’t take your go within one minute of being told it’s your turn.

As well as penalty points for time, you’ll also receive penalties for knocking down or touching an obstacle or for dismounting in the arena without permission.

If you go too far off course without correcting it, or lose control of your horse, or if you break a barrier or the timing equipment you can be disqualified. If you’re taking part in a team race and two or more riders from the same team are on the course at the same time it’s also an automatic disqualification.

Being a family-oriented sport your conduct can play a role in whether you’re disqualified or not. If, for example, you (or your family) are rude to other riders or use offensive language you’ll be disqualified. The same is also true for not looking after your horse properly.

Want to give gymkhana a go?

If you want to give gymkhana a go then most clubs offer a variety of classes for all ages and abilities so finding a class that’s suitable shouldn’t be too difficult. There are also different speed classes too so you don’t need to go flat out if you don’t want to.

If there aren’t any clubs near to you that do gymkhana then you could join the Pony Club, 4H, or even the International Mounted Games Association.

The Pony Club was first established in the UK in 1929 and the United States Pony Club, which was set up in 1954, is based on the UK original. Just like its parent, there is an age limit of 8 to 25 years of age. You can find out more about the United States Pony Club here.

Like the Pony Club, 4H has an age range, but this time members have to be between the ages of 5 and 18. Unlike the Pony Club though it’s not solely about horse riding but is actually a youth organization that is aimed at improving the development of young people. If you want to find out more about 4H then check out their website.

Unlike the other two clubs, there is no age limit to the International Mounted Games Association which is open to riders of all ages around the world. While the International Mounted Games Association was only founded in 2003 it’s based on the 1957 championship set up by Prince Philip. Today they also have a world championship for gymkhana every year. If you want to know more about the International Mounted Games Association visit their website.

Horse gymkhana is pure adrenaline

I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.

Recommended products 

Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.

  • Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
  • Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
  • TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
  • Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
  • Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
  • Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.

Shopping lists

I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉

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