Pommel Horse: Everything You Need to Know

Pommel Horse Photo with Marius Urzica
Marius Urzica (Romania) performs on the pommel horse at the 2004 Olympics. © Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

The pommel horse is a men's artistic gymnastics event. It's the second apparatus when competing in Olympic order (floor, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar.)

The Pommel Horse

The horse is about 3.8 ft. high. The length of the top is about 5.25 ft. and the width about 13.8 in. -- it is slightly smaller on the bottom. It's covered with leather and has two pommels that stand about 4.7 in. high and 18 in. apart from each other. The pommels are usually made of plastic.

A Pommel Horse Routine

Gymnasts are not allowed to pause during a routine and must continue to move throughout once mounting the apparatus. Routines are built off of different types and categories of circles (swinging both legs together one full rotation around the horse, while keeping the body horizontal to the ground) and scissor work (switching the legs over the pommel horse while swinging, sometimes up to a handstand and back down).

Routines may include flairs (a circle with legs straddled), elements on a single pommel, and ones that travel the length of the horse. All routines also are required to end with a dismount that may involve pirouetting and going through the handstand position. Dismounts should be stuck, just like on the other apparatus.

A Key -- and Tricky -- Event

Many consider pommel horse to be in the same vein as women's balance beam: it's a make it or breaks event. Many competitions have been lost on the pommel horse. At the 2012 Olympics, US gymnasts Danell Leyva and John Orozco qualified into the all-around finals in first and fourth place, respectively. In finals, the pair dropped to third and eighth, in large part due to low pommel horse scores.

What makes the event so difficult? Pommel horse skills don't really translate to the other events, so a gymnast who is very good on the other five men's events may well be weak on pommels. Also, the gymnast spends much of his time on one hand, as he shifts his weight back and forth and moves from skill to skill. A combination of balance, strength, and endurance is required to be successful on the event, and while it's not the riskiest or daring men's event, it's one of the hardest to learn.

The Top Pommel Horse Workers

Hungarian gymnast Krisztian Berki won Olympic gold in London, while British gymnasts Louis Smith and Max Whitlock earned silver and bronze. Though Berki won gold in a tie-break with Smith, Berki was no surprise victor: he'd won world gold in both 2010 and 2011 and was the 2012 European champion as well. Berki also won another world title in 2014. In 2015, Whitlock and Smith went 1-2 on the pommel horse podium at worlds. 

Historically, it's been an event for specialists, and some men have consistently prevailed: Hungary's Zoltan Magyar won at both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, and earned three world titles on the event as well. Romania's Marius Urzica took gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won two world golds, in 2001 and 2002. Xiao Qin of China matched that feat, winning worlds in 2005 and 2006 and Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008.

In recent years, Alex Naddour, a 2012 Olympic alternate, has been best on the horse for the US: He's won three straight titles from 2011-2013, was second in 2014, and won again in 2015.

Two notable exceptions to the specialist rule: All-around greats Vitaly Scherbo and Alexei Nemov also excelled on the pommels. Each won a world title, and Scherbo tied for Olympic gold on that event in 1992 as well.