A sport for all ages based in history.
By Lori Hall-McNary
In the misty morning of winter, draft horses adorned in armor prance to the battlefield. Knights astride their powerful backs hoist heavy lances into position. Steam pours from the horses’ nostrils like a dragon’s fiery breath, ready to burn his enemy. They await their leader’s battle cry.
“Let the games begin,“ yells the scorekeeper.
According to the book LEGACY OF THE HORSE from the International Museum of the Horse located in Lexington, Kentucky, tournaments in the Middle Ages became the most popular form of recreation for knights all over Europe. To keep in shape for battle the events included jousting, melee, and fighting on foot. Although heavily armored knights became obsolete the sport of games on horseback retained its nobility, valor and grandeur.
According to Merriam Webster Dictionary the noun gymkhana (pronounced jim—‘ka-na) came into the English language around 1877. Today gymkhana is associated with games on horseback that involve skill and speed that test both horse and rider.
Testing one’s riding ability and a horse’s quickness and agility are nothing new. Many ancient artifacts depict games on horseback like the Javelin Throw as early as the 5th century B.C. Olympic Games.
Today, gymkhana is a global sport with many variations and regulations.
Modern day gymkhana events are steeped in historical tradition.
The South African Gymkhana Union of Middleburg, Cape, is the founder members of the International Tentpegging Association, along with India, Australia, England, and Israel. Currently the USA and Canada are not part of the International Tentpegging Association but that could change soon with the organizing of a World Games in the not to distance future.
Tentpegging was developed in India from the games and maneuvers of the British Occupation Army. The riders ride four abreast spearing a 3×12 cardboard “tentpeg.”
There is plenty of international competition. Another organization is Mounted Games, encouraging friendship between young people of different nations.
Mounted Games was the brainstorm of His Royal Highness. Prince Philip who asked Col. Sir Mike Ansell, Director of the Horse of the Year Show to devise a competition for children who could not afford expensive well-bred ponies. In 1957, the first Mounted Games Championship was held at Harringay Arena becoming an immediate success. The original format is still used in Team Competitions, but Mounted Games have added pairs of riders and individual classes.
Many of the games have historically recognizable names such as Sword Lancers, Moat and Castle, Victoria Cross, Triple Flag. Other game names seem to have a more modern twist like the Hula Hoop, Tool Box Scramble, Bottle Shuttle and Socks and Buckets.
No matter what the race, Mounted Games have very strict rules. Their dress code includes jodhpurs, jodhpur boots, and helmets. Only ponies are allowed and they can not exceed 14.2 hands. Despite the strict rules, the organization fosters an atmosphere of good horsemanship and sportsmanship for the whole family.
Countries that compete in the International Mounted Games include Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden,United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Another great family oriented games competition is the California Gymkhana Association (CGA). Founded in 1972 by a group of Gymkhana enthusiasts, CGA’s sole purpose is to promote the sport of Gymkhana and its riders. Only certified CGA judges may judge a sanctioned show. Safety (wear your helmet) and fun are stressed. CGA boasts a horse and rider combination of 2,800 with about 4,000 member’s total. What is unique about this organization is each rider can earn year-end awards based on skill and consistency not because they have the fastest horse in the country. There are special awards for the supreme and Hall of Fame horse and riders too.
Thirteen sanctioned events are offered through the year with classes like Barrels (adapted and modernized from the Nez Pez Indians stump race) Popularly known as Rodeo barrels, Clover leaf or Texas barrels, Poles II (a.k.a. Washington Poles), Figure 8 Flags and more. To assure fairness, exact measurements and two electronic timers are required for each race.
Divisions are based on a times matrix for both horse and rider.
Example a Future Champion Time for Barrels is 28.310 and above. Triple A plus rider is 18.709 and below. The time matrix allows the young rider being lead on a lead-line to a triple A plus rider to compete against people of their same talent and speed.
At larger shows the divisions are further divided by youth and adult classes in each division and pony classes. It’s not unusual to see Grandfather, Mom and grandson compete on their own horses at the same shows.
The oldest CGA competitor, is eighty-two year old Frank Hyde.
Proudly carrying the American Flag in the beginning ceremonies, he has never missed a CGA State Show. He still rides every day, and trains his own quarter horses, passing on words of wisdom to future generations, “Take it slow with your horse then gradually as your skill increases work up to speed. The biggest mistake in training for gymkhana is starting your horse too fast.”
Families love the games of gymkhana where the young and young at heart can compete in a sport steeped in history, but modernized to satisfy even the most contemporary rider.
It takes talent and skill, not megadollars or elite breeds, to enjoy the sport.
Organizations such as California Gymkhana Association, Mounted Games and others will continue to grow the sport and lead the way to a global explosion. Gymkhana will continue because of the friendships it builds, the family ties it creates, and the equestrian skills competitors learn will last a lifetime—and by involving the children the noble sport of gymkhana will shoot it’s historical arrows into the future.