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What is a Pommel Horse?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The pommel horse is a men’s gymnastic sport and the apparatus on which the sport is performed. It is a long beam, made either of plastic or metal that is covered by leather or synthetic materials. By today’s judgment standards, which are given in metric measurements, the horse section is precisely 160 centimeters (about 63 inches) across and 35 centimeters (13.78 inches) in width. Two pommels or metal handles are placed on the horse near the middle and can be adjusted to anywhere from 40-45 cm (15.75-17.72 in.) apart. Height of the beam above the ground is 115 cm (45.38 in).

The name of pommel horse is a reference to actual horses, and versions of this apparatus were used more than a millennium ago. There are records of Roman soldiers being trained on a fake horse so they could learn to mount and dismount with ease. Some early versions of this apparatus even include horse features like a head and a tail. This was abandoned by the mid-19th century, when the horse became not just about practicing getting on a horse, but also a place to demonstrate gymnastic prowess. At the first Modern Olympics in 1896, male gymnasts competed on the pommel horse.

Though male and female gymnasts perform some of the same sports, like vaulting and floor exercise, pommel horse is currently a male sport only. The amount of strength it takes to work the horse through a series of continuous motions is significant. Moves include scissors, leg swings, circles, handstands, and must be executed with perfect form in order to score highly on this event. Breaks in form are penalized, as is falling off the horse or failing to perform a perfect dismount. In most cases men are not sitting on the horse, but instead are using the strength of their arms to keep the upper body above the horse, as they travel back and forth from one end of the horse to the other, with complicated and skilled leg moves.

Strength and art are both required for this sport. Men must perform certain elements but the way in which these elements are performed and the ability to include more challenging elements are up to each competitor. Increasing difficulty of elements in a routine increases baseline score.

Another use for the pommel horse, minus the handles, was in vaulting. Both men and women used the horse until it was replaced on an international scale by the vaulting table in the early 2000s. The table is thought a safer device than the pommel horse for vaulting.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Apr 17, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Actually the most incredible gymnastic feat I've ever seen was performed by two girls in the same way that men perform on the pommel horse but without the benefit of a gymnastics bar or anything like that.

It was two young girls in a Chinese acrobat troupe I saw at Disneyland, and they were amazing. They climbed onto a couple of chairs and basically gripped the backs of the chairs with their hands and lifted their whole bodies into the air so that they were looking down at the ground.

They even did it with one hand! I mean, I didn't realize humans were able to lift their own body weight and balance like that with only one hand.

They did a bunch of other things, like swapping hands and twisting around and all the things the men do on the pommel horse.

I guess it was easier for them since they were only preteens and therefore didn't have the mass of an adult woman, but it was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

By lluviaporos — On Apr 17, 2012

@KoiwiGal - Sounds like you mean a version of the horse without handles before they switched to a vaulting table about ten years ago.

It wouldn't have been considered a standard pommel horse that people use for competition even back before then though, as they need to be of one piece and of a certain size for them to be considered.

Watching the pommel horse athletes at the Olympics is quite awesome. They are so incredibly strong and precise and they do things you wouldn't think a human being would be capable of.

I can see why women don't compete in that section as I'm pretty strong for a woman and I know most men could beat me at a test of strength.

It's nothing to be ashamed of, it's just the way biology made us.

By KoiwiGal — On Apr 16, 2012

There's actually a few different forms of gymnastic equipment which are called a pommel horse. They are all used for balancing on, but they are put together differently.

What I always thought of as a pommel horse was a very large and heavy stack of wooden boxes that slotted into each other to make a sort of narrow platform with a cushion on top that could be raised or lowered by removing the boxes.

But I think that's considered quite old fashioned now, because it's so heavy and difficult to rearrange.

You might as well just use a lighter version that's made of metal and can be raised or lowered using a lever or something.

I did have fun clambering on that thing when I was younger though. I was never much good at gymnastics, but it was just fun to climb up and jump off onto the trampoline or some mattresses.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Sports n' Hobbies contributor, Tricia...
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