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May 24, 2022

Gymkhana pushes competitors to their limits

Horse enthusiasts young and old have turned out in droves to
camp, shop and compete at the California Gymkhana Association’s
33rd State Championship Finals at Bolado Park.
Horse enthusiasts young and old have turned out in droves to camp, shop and compete at the California Gymkhana Association’s 33rd State Championship Finals at Bolado Park.

Gymkhana, timed obstacle racing on horseback, traces its roots as a sport back to colonial India, when cavalry soldiers would play games to perfect their horsemanship during leisure time.

“For a long time Gymkhana wasn’t taken very seriously,” said Association Secretary Charlea Moore. “It was sort of a ‘wrong side of the tracks’ sport tacked onto the end of bigger horse shows. In 1972 Gerald P. Davis wanted to support his children with a club for gymkhana riders, and he started the first district in Gilroy. It’s been amazing to see the club grow and evolve – today we have 32 districts and some 5,000 members.”

Services for Davis, who recently passed away, were held yesterday, with many of the events’ participants attending.

California boasts the only statewide gymkhana association in the nation, and as such, the CGA has out-of-state members from Oregon, Nevada and as far away as Texas who bring their horses out to compete.

This year, 297 riders are competing at some level in the championship. Over 2,000 people have set up camp at Bolado for the show, which started on the Sunday and concludes Saturday.

“I think this show is the best thing in the world,” said Moore. “It’s a safe, family-oriented environment – a lot like a big sleepover with your horses, and dogs, cats, birds, pot-bellied pigs, whatever.”

Participants compete in up to 13 individual events designed to test the strength, speed and agility of both horse and rider, as well as five team events.

Riders are classified into one of five competition divisions, from the least experienced, Future Champions, to the best of the best in the AAA+ division. Typically, contestants are sorted into age categories within their divisions to compete, except for the match races, in which the top 16 riders from each event compete against each other for the best time.

“Most of the horses love the competition,” said Moore. “You can see the focus on my horse’s face. You can’t make a horse do something like this if they don’t want to, but to watch a perfectly paired horse and rider is really a beautiful thing.”

It doesn’t hurt, Moore added, that she feeds her horse about a pound of carrots for every event they compete in together.

The CGA stresses the fact that riders of all ages and experience levels can compete and win in a show at any time, provided they are members of the organization. This year’s youngest participants are Felicity and Makindra Forbes, age five. On the other end of the spectrum, Frank Hyde, who has missed only two championship shows in 33 years of gymkhana enthusiasm, is 88 and is the flag bearer in the opening ceremonies.

“I’m pushing myself harder here than I do at my local district,” said 17-year-old Molly McGill, of San Diego. “The competition here is much more fierce, but the competitors here are willing to help you, which is totally different from other (equestrian) sports I’ve done. Everyone here is part of a good group, because the rules about sportsmanship are so strict.”

“The kids here learn about responsibility real fast,” said Moore. “And in turn, when they do well, you can really see the good it’s doing for their self-esteem. We have so many kids who grow up with the CGA, go to college, get married, stop riding for a few years. But then they come back when their children are born, to give them the same kind of upbringing. You get these huge camps with aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and little kids running all over. It’s one of the greatest things you’ll ever see.”

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