Pole Bending: A Nez Perce Tradition

Pole Bending competitions have become a staple in High School and 4H rodeos around the country.  Typically accompanying barrel racing, this race is generally limited to only girls, but it hasn’t always been that way.  The 6 pole,Arkansas High School Rodeo Pole Bending figure 8 race is said to have its origins from the Nez Perce Native American people.  A large tribe that settled in the Pacific Northwest region of Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington, the Nez Perce people were noted in the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Nez Perce literally means “Nose Pierced,” I’m assuming the name sounded prettier in French when William Clark gave the 12,000 members that description.  The Nez Perce people were excellent horse breeders and took great care to refine their breeding to obtain Appaloosas.  Unfortunately, the Nez Perce people are probably most famous for the battles and 1,170 miles they ran to escape the US Soldiers pursuing them.  Pole Bending is one of many sports that the Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC) participates in honor of the Nez Perce People and a nod to the heritage of Appaloosas.

Pole Bending CourseThere are two traditional types of pole bending.  The figure eight race is a one-rider event where the horse and rider are timed for completion of the course.  Six poles are placed 21 feet apart in a straight line.  The poles are 6 feet tall and are grounded in the arena for stability.  The poles have slight flexibility in them that allows them to be slightly bent without being knocked over.  The rider must race the horse in a straight line up either the right or left side of the poles to reach the last pole in the line.  From there the rider enters into a series of figure eights going down the poles.  Once the rider reaches the last pole, they circle the last pole and enter the figure eights again going back up the line.  The ride is finished by the rider coming out of the furthest pole and racing straight down the opposite side of where they started.  The time is based on when the horse’s nose crosses the marker, very similar to barrel racing.  According to the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA), a contestant and her horse are allowed to touch the pole, but are given a 5 second penalty if the pole falls down.  Contestants are given a no-score if they have a broken pattern and do not complete the figure eights correctly.  Along with all of these normal rules, they also like to throw in a 5 second penalty if the rider enters the race without her hat on.  Mental note, must stay in style if you are going to compete in pole bending.

The other style of pole bending pays special homage to the Nez Perce People and is referred to as the Nez Perce Stake Race and is generally put on by the Appaloosa Horse Club Rodeos.  This race involves two riders racing against each other on two identical courses, side by side.  This definitely reminds me of watching skiers during the Winter Olympics race each other down the mountain in a figure eight pattern around either blue or red gates.  In this event, the horses are not timed but it is a simple elimination game.  The horse who completes the poles correctly and fastest, wins.  The other horse is eliminated.  Definitely gives a new meaning to the luck of the draw, as contestants are drawn in the order of who they compete with.

Although advertised as a girls event, pole bending is an excellent event for all riders as it teaches the rider great horsemanship.  Using mostly leg cues, the rider must learn how to control the horse in the course by giving the horse time commands on when to start the turn and how fast to go while in the poles.  21 feet may sound like a large gap between poles, but when you have a thousand pound animal pushing itself to be as fast as it can be while turning sharply it might feel like trying to drive a giant passenger bus through the streets of Manhattan.

Help me cheer on these ladies and gents as they show off superior horsemanship and control winding through these pole bending courses.  Next time you see the competition pole bending listed on your program, be sure you don’t miss it!

Written by Kara Grimes