Monday, August 6, 2012

Apple #597: Pommel Horse

The voting on which entry I should do next was a dizzying deluge, but the winner is clear: pommel horse. One Daily Apple reader in particular said that the reason she wants to know more about it is to learn why our American gymnasts don't seem to be very good at it.

I'll start off with some basics, and then hopefully along the way I'll be able to uncover what makes it so challenging.  Whether or not I can say why our gymnasts have trouble with it, we'll see.

KrisztiƔn Berki of Hungary won gold in the pommel horse at London 2012. Look at that insane extension of his legs.
(Photo from Kagura-girl)

What's a Pommel?
  • First things first, let's define this word pommel.
  • I had thought the pommel was the knob that sticks up from a horse's saddle. But it's not the knob (which is actually called the horn); it's the arch on which the horn rests.
This diagram of a Western saddle is pretty complex, but it shows where the pommel is. It's the arch that stands up from the saddle, and the horn stick sup from that.
(Diagram from Fine Saddles)

  • The real purpose of the pommel is that it holds the saddle together.  But conveniently for the rider, you can also grab onto it if your horse is bucking.  The horn, which sits atop the pommel, makes the emergency grab even easier. 
  • The other purpose of the pommel is to help you mount the horse in the first place.  After you put your foot in the stirrup, you reach across the back of the horse to grab the pommel on the far side of the saddle and use that as leverage to pull yourself up.
  • The thing to note here is that when you're mounting the horse, after you've pulled yourself up on the stirrup, you have to swing the other leg over the back of the horse.  
  • When you're dismounting, from a seated position, you lean forward on the pommel to push yourself up so you're standing in the stirrups, then swing your right leg back over the horse and, with one foot still in the stirrup, bring your legs together, then turn to remove your foot from the stirrup, and slide down to the ground.

This instructor takes every step of mounting and dismounting very slowly and deliberately, but if you're patient, you'll see the similarities with pommel horse gymnastics routines.

  • Sound familiar?  That's because the gymnastic pommel horse event comes from the art of horse mounting. 

Pommel Horse Origins
  • Long, long ago, going at least as far back to Alexander the Great's time, soldiers used to practice mounting a horse by using a wooden horse as a model. 
  • In the 17th century, a drill instructor began teaching his students various horseback acrobatics as a way to improve their ability to mount horses under all sorts of challenging battle conditions.  Soon the cavalrymen were showing off about who was the best at these various equestrian acrobatics.

Pommel horse from 1795.  As far back as that, the legs allowed for adjustable height.
(Image from GymMedia

Pommel horse today.
(Photo from Smartly)

  • The soldiers' routines mainly involved climbing onto or jumping over the horse.  While the false horse did have two pommels, they didn't really figure into the acrobatics much.
  • But eventually, when the practice moved from the battlefield into the gymnasium, the gymnasts began to use the pommels as something to swing from, first with one leg, then the other.  By the 1880s or so, German gymnasts had innovated the two-legged swing, and that is where the real similarity with today's sport begins.
  • To back up and clarify a bit, there was this whole movement in the 1800s in Germany, emphasizing the importance of exercise as part of any man's education (back then, it was only men who were going to school).  Gymnasiums sprang up at universities all across Germany, as men were trained to exercise their bodies as well as their minds. 
  • During this time, a gymnastics instructor developed all sorts of equipment and exercises as part of the effort to exercise his pupils in new and more challenging ways.  This instructor,  Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, developed the equipment or the exercises that went with them for the parallel bars, the horizontal bar, the vault, and the pommel horse -- all of which are standard elements of men's gymnastics today. 

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the guy who invented the gymnastics pommel horse as we know it today, and probably the focus of lots of curse words from lots of gymnasts.
(Image from Pfannhauser)

What Makes the Pommel Horse so Difficult?
  • The pommel horse requires tremendous upper body strength.  You're swinging your legs around, doing handstands, spinning about, and your legs aren't supporting you at all. The only thing holding you up are your hands and your arms, and you have to hang on tight while your legs are whipping around.

This is Louis Smith, who won silver for Great Britain at London 2012. Please notice the enormous muscles in his chest and arms.
(Photo from not sure)

  • Other events in men's gymnastics really put a strain on upper body strength, most notoriously, the rings.  Those things are just punishing.  So how is the pommel horse different?
  • The pommel horse also relies very heavily on momentum.  You have to get a lot of speed going to execute those spins properly, and in fact, you rely on the momentum to carry your legs more than you could do on your own. If you make a mistake, you lose momentum, and you therefore also lose the ability to perform the next skill, and the whole thing falls apart like a house of cards.
  • How you do each element depends on your individual height and weight.  You have to keep your weight distributed evenly throughout each skill or you'll get thrown off.  What's more, the differences in each person's body make it difficult to teach someone else exactly how to do a skill. A taller, thinner gymnast will have to hold himself differently than a shorter, heavier gymnast, for example. These variations make trial and error crucial to learning the skills. 
  • Combining the importance of upper body strength and momentum, how you position your hands is crucial. Placing them in even the slightly wrong spot can throw off your weight distribution and thus your momentum, and then everything can go wrong very fast.

This is Danell Leyva of the United States at London 2012, just prior to falling off the pommel horse. I suspect that his critical mistake happened before this shot was taken and here he's already on his way off. But I think I can guess how this photo shows that he's destined to hit the floor.  His weight is thrown well forward of his supporting left arm, his right arm is only brushing the side of the horse which can't give him much support, he is bent at the waist, and his legs aren't held tight together. All of these things would throw anybody's balance off-kilter.
(Photo from The Spokesman-Review)

  • The individual skills -- to say nothing of stitching them together into a seamless routine -- are just plain freakin' hard to master. 
  • One of the central skills is to spin in circles. You might think this would be like flinging your legs out or up to get them to go over a horse, but that's not how you do it.  You have to keep your legs clamped together and rotate your hips to make your legs swing around. (This seems pretty intuitive to me, like how I spin myself around in an inner tube in the water. But it's probably a lot harder when you're holding yourself up in the air rather than floating in water and supported by an inner tube.)
  • They say the best way to learn how to do the circles is not even to involve the pommel horse at all for the first few weeks or months because you'll be too freaked out by the possibility of whacking your legs or your special parts against the pommels. So you learn on what's called a mushroom, a little round table-like thing with a padded top, and you spin around that. Then you progress to mushrooms that are higher up and progressively more like a pommel horse.
  • A common mistake people make when learning to do the circles is they bend at the waist in mid-circle. This slows you down and eventually makes you stop. You have to keep your body straight the entire way around the circle. 
  • There are all sorts of techniques to keep you from "piking the circle," including putting your feet in a bucket which is attached to a rope that holds the bucket hip-high and helps keep your body straight as you work your way around the mushroom.

This looks like a mild form of torture to me.

The subtitles in this video are kind of annoying ("let's c some circles b4 we start"), but it shows the difference between someone who can do circles adequately and someone who can do them really well.

Why Aren't American Gymnasts Very Good at the Pommel Horse?
  • Here we enter the realm of gray area and speculation.  So let me give you some data first.
  • US athletes have not medaled in the pommel horse since 1984 -- which was also the year of the Soviet boycott, so they might not have even won then if the Soviets had been playing.
  • Countries with the most medals in pommel horse, going all the way back to 1896:
    • USSR or Russia -- 13
    • Switzerland -- 9 (only 1 after 1936)
    • Finland -- 6
    • USA -- 6 (3 from 1904)
    • Germany -- 5
    • China -- 3
    • Romania -- 3
    • Great Britain -- 3
  • Though the Russians haven't won recently, they have traditionally owned to the pommel horse.
  • Why this is, I can't say for sure.  Perhaps it's just one of those things about sports, that the people who are best at it tend to stick around and coach the kids in their homeland. Since the younger athletes learn from the best, they in turn become the best. 
  • As for why the US isn't all that great in it, I'd guess there's a similar factor working the other way: that their coaching hasn't been as good as the Russians'. All of this is just my guess, though.

Here's Xiao Qin, who won gold in the pommel horse at Beijing in 2008. He breaks his line a bit at one point, but he keeps going. His body is very straight throughout, and he keeps his speed.  (This video is from Televisa, so there's English & Spanish commentary.)

This is Alexei Nemov of Russia from 1996 in Atlanta. He took the bronze. But for my money, his performance is better. Obviously huge upper body strength, but he goes faster and more smoothly, the straightness and flexibility of his legs on the flares is impressive, and he didn't have a break in his line the way Qin did.  Yeah, I've watched a few videos so now I'm an expert.

  • I will leave the final thought to Katia Bachko who, writing for The New Yorker, said this:
Everyone who is Russian has a thing for gymnastics. It’s an innate affinity. . . . We are born loving vodka, cold winters, and pommel horses. 

Sources, pommel
Certified Horsemanship Association, How to Mount a Horse Video
GymMedia, History of the Pommel Horse, What is the origin of gymnastics equipment?, June 14, 2011, Men's Pommel Horse Olympic Gymnastics Medalists
The Atlantic Wire, The Weird End to the Men's Gymnastics Team Final: A GIF Guide, July 31, 2012
Drills and Skills, Pommel Horse Drills and Skills
Made Man Manual, Pommel Horse Skills
American Gymnast, Pommel Horse Training Progressions, July 10, 2010
BBC Sport Photo Galleries, Gymnastics Photo Guide
Katia Bachko, Why I Wish the Russian Gymnasts Had Won, The New Yorker, August 1, 2012

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