Gymkhana, racing to beat the clock

Gymkhana is an equestrian event that is all about speed. Bolado Park is hosting the championship finals this week

Hundreds of contestants, and a couple thousand siblings, parents and grandparents are spending July 27 to 31 at Bolado Park, near Tres Pinos, to take part in the California Gymkhana Association’s 43rd Annual Championship Finals. The event is free and open to the public.

Gymkhana is a term used to describe equestrian competition based on speed-pattern racing and timed games. Because anyone of any age can compete, it attracts families where moms, dads, the kids, and maybe even the grandparents, may be competing at the same show. Competition is solely based on ability and speed. It does not matter the age of the rider. If she or he is capable they can ride in whatever division they qualify.

“We have 30 districts throughout the state, from Redding to San Diego,” said Rodger Odom, chairman of the board of governors for the association. “This is our state finals. The riders come here to finish the season to get their last shot at winning year-end awards.”

Odom said the association was formed in 1972, as an independent nonprofit.

“During the year, riders compete in their own districts and all their points are compiled to a central state office,” he said. “At the end of the year, they can win buckles, jackets, saddles and different things. When we have our year-end convention in Fresno, we’ll have a banquet and an awards assembly.”

There are some cash awards, he said. If a rider breaks a state show record they can win $500.

Events during the day run at a leisurely pace, as the riders individually put their horses through their routines. All the while, they’re being closely monitored by judges, parents or spouses armed with stopwatches and shouts of encouragement from the grandstands.

The pace picks up at night, though.

Odom said, “We have match-races at night and the fastest 16 riders of the day will compete against each other. Each event we run today we’ll run those match races tonight.”

Odom explained that gymkhana is more than just a sport — it’s a lifestyle.

“We have ‘lifers’ who have been here since they were four or five years old. It is cyclical because it’s primarily girls and women. Probably 80% of our organization is women. Barrel racing is a big deal here. Some of them end up going to barrel racing professionally. Then they’ll have kids and their kids will start riding.”

There are currently about 3,000 members in the association. There is nearly a 35 percent turnover in membership every year.

Odom explained why: “Girls grow up, find boys, and they move on for a while. Typically, they have children and because it was a good thing for them when they were growing up, where they learned about responsibility in having to take care of their animal every day, they bring their kids to it. When my kids were growing up, I knew what they were doing. They were with their horses and going to horse shows. They weren’t hanging out on a corner with their friends.”

Taking part in gymkhana isn’t for the faint of heart or light in the pocketbook.

“Costs vary because horses are so different,” Odom said. “You’ve got to pay vet bills; you have to board them out if you don’t have the property; you’ve got to feed them; they’ve got to have their teeth and feet done; and you need a trailer and a truck to haul it. It’s a continuous thing. Some members are horse poor because they spend so much money on their horses they don’t have enough money to do anything else. It’s definitely not a hobby.”

For more information about the gymkhana event at Bolado Park, click here.

To see video from the event, click here:

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]