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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.