Pole bending is a timed event that features a horse and one mounted rider, running a weaving or serpentine path around six poles arranged in a line. This event is usually seen in high school rodeos and 4-H events as well as American Quarter Horse Association, Paint, and Appaloosa sanctioned shows as well as at many gymkhana or O-Mok-See events.
Setting up the pole bending pattern is crucial to the success of this event. The pole bending pattern is to be run around six poles and to get a horse around each pole. Each pole is to be 21 feet (6.4 meters) apart, and the first pole is to be 21 feet (6.4 meters) from the starting line. Poles shall be set on top of the ground, six feet (1.8 meters) in height, with no base more than 14 inches (35 cm) in diameter. These are the measurements implemented and endorsed by the National High School Rodeo Association. The purpose of a universal pattern is to be able to track and compare times everywhere poles are run.
Good horsemanship is the foundation for success in pole bending and barrel racing. The horse and rider team must work as one in order to excel. Various methods are implemented in pole bending from the “slalom” approach to the “side pass” approach. Depending on the horse/ rider combination, the rider needs to experiment to see what method works best for their application.
Each contestant will begin from a running start, and time shall begin and end as the horse’s nose crosses the line. A clearly visible starting line must be provided. An electric timer or at least two watches shall be used, with the time indicated by the electric timer or the average time of the watches used by official timers to be the official time.
A horse may start either to the right or to the left of the first pole and then run the remainder of the pattern accordingly. Knocking over a pole shall carry a five-second penalty. Failure to follow the course shall cause disqualification. A contestant may touch a pole with his or her hand in pole bending.
Poles shall be set on top of the ground, 6 feet in height, and mounted in bases with a 14 inch diameter. Poles shall be PVC pipe, and bases shall be rubber or plastic. For added safety, PVC caps are recommended. Preferred color for poles is natural white, but red, white, and blue rings shall be allowed. Solid rubber bases are preferred, but hollow plastic bases shall be allowed only if filled completely to emulate a solid base.
When riding a horse through the poles, the rider must first look to where they want to go. It is essential that the rider sits in the saddle and uses lower body and legs to navigate their horse through the poles. Forward motion must be maintained in order to keep all of the poles standing. The use of the horse’s hindquarters helps the horse zigzag through the poles in a smooth weave.
Anytime all of the poles are left standing is considered a good run, however; some of the fastest pole bending runs recorded have been those run at the National High School Finals Rodeo (NHSFR). The fastest time recorded in the pole bending event at the NHSRF was in 2009 when Emily Miller from Ingalls, Kansas recorded a 19.579 run.