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Pole bending is 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 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. 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.

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Exercises for Horses That Are Beginning Pole Bending

by Laura College, Demand Media

Pole bending is a speed event that requires precision and stamina of both horse and rider. Practicing poles over and over again will reinforce bad habits and bore the horse, so it is important to conduct other exercises that will benefit your performance in pole bending but challenge your horse at the same time. When starting pole bending, focus on exercises that encourage responsiveness and agility.

Halt and Reverse

Practicing only speed for a speed event will yield an unresponsive horse. Your mount must learn to wait for your aids and respond to them immediately, which is why the halt and reverse is one of the best pole bending exercises. Walk, trot or lope your horse in a straight line. Sit back in the saddle and apply light pressure to the reins. If he gives his nose and lifts his shoulders in preparation for a change, reward him by releasing the pressure. If, however, he sets his jaw against the bit and lifts his head, halt him immediately. Back him up by alternating pressure on the left and right reins until he yields his nose and reverses. Then send him forward again. Repeat this exercise two or three times per training session in both directions.

Trotting the Poles

One problem frequently encountered in speed event exercises is the repetition. The horse knows how to weave the proper pattern through the poles, so he does this automatically without listening to his rider. To increase responsiveness, bring your horse to a trot on the first and last poles of your pattern, then complete the rest of the pattern at a lope. Focus on collecting your horse around those crucial poles so he lifts his shoulders and brings his hocks underneath himself. You can also try the entire pattern at an extended trot, then bring him down to a collected trot or a jog on the first and last poles.


Pole pending requires the horse to be flexible at all times, particularly when changing directions. During schooling, expand the pattern to the entire arena and ride several serpentines. Divide the arena into four or six loops, then trot and lope the pattern. Focus on collecting your horse on the ends of the loops and letting him extend down the center. Combine this exercise with the halt and reverse by finishing the serpentine and backing up. When conducting this exercise at a lope, remember to ask for a simple or flying change down the long side of each loop.

Lateral Flexion

Pole bending can stress your horse's joints and tendons, but exercises that increase strength and flexibility will diminish that stress. Start with simple lateral flexion. Warm up your horse at the walk, trot and lope, then bring him to a halt in the center of the arena. Using direct rein, ask your horse to bring his nose toward your right or left boot. When he gives his nose, release the rein pressure and send him forward at the walk. Repeat this exercise in the opposite direction. Once you have mastered lateral flexion, move on to other lateral exercises, such as two-track work and side passes.

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