It doesn’t catch your eye when you walk in the arena.
The pommel horse, a leathery rectangle with two protruding wooden handles, is usually placed off in a corner. Pommel horse performances don’t have the explosiveness of the floor exercise or the drama of high bar.
But the event is often the difference between a win and a loss.
For the first time in years, Michigan has a strong pommels squad, ranked fourth in the country.
The current incarnation of the horse team, like most things with pommel horse, took shape slowly. Finally, with the postseason looming, the squad has settled into a rhythm as comfortable as a good pommels routine.
“I just know that I feel confident in all the other guys and their ability to hit,” senior co-captain Paul Woodward said. “So it takes pressure off each individual. . Instead of worrying about staying on the horse, you’re worried about trying to make a big score.”
To the casual observer, a pommel horse routine seems boring, even easy. But it takes years for a gymnast just to learn a simple circle, where his legs make a full rotation around his center of gravity. For the length of the routine, the gymnast supports his entire body weight on his hands.
And the horse is the most unforgiving apparatus in the gym, requiring not just strength but pinpoint balance, endurance and steadiness, too.
“You have a very small area and not a lot of space to move your hands,” sophomore David Chan said. “If you miss something on floor or (parallel) bars, you can save a fall by taking a step. But if you’re off on pommels, there’s nowhere to put your hand – you’re just going straight to the ground.”
Junior Phil Goldberg and freshman Ben Baldus-Strauss have been providing hit routines to lead off the rotation, giving their teammates a boost of momentum and a little more wiggle room.
“Even if you’re the best team, pommel horse is an area where you can ruin it just like that,” sophomore Mel Santander said.
Baldus-Strauss said he thinks horse is one event where even the most impassioned cheering can’t spur the gymnasts to new heights.
“On certain events, your energy goes up, like floor,” Baldus-Strauss said. “But (on) horse, you have to have control and steadiness.”
To achieve that state of balance, many of the pommel horse competitors use pre-routine rituals.
Woodward leaps high into the air, tucking his knees all the way to his chest, before planting his feet in the furthest corner from the horse. Goldberg meditates for 10 seconds, running through his routine in his head. Freshman Chris Cameron gives the horse a few resounding whacks before retreating to wait, perfectly still, for the judge’s signal.
The ability to forget bad routines quickly is also a key to pommel horse success. More than any event, horse requires a gymnast to be completely in the present. Dwelling on mistakes, from either one second ago or a week before, is a sure way to fall off.
“There’s a weird balance of being aggressive at the same time as being calm,” Goldberg said. “There’s no other beast like horse.”
This season’s horse squad has finally found that balance. As a team, the Wolverines won pommel horse in their final three regular-season meets. Winning the event at the upcoming Big Ten Championships would put Michigan well on its way to returning to the top of the podium for the first time since 2000.