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Gymnastic Days Are Fun! What Are Grids? Why Do We Use Them? And How To Build Them.

Gymnastic lines – series of jumps and ground poles strategically spaced to teach a particular skill to a horse or rider – can make for great-fun lessons. The teaching is easy because a well-built gymnastic line does most of the educating for me. The same is true when I am the rider, not the coach – if I build the lines well, the riding is easy. The gymnastics teach the horses for me.

Students often ask me what my favorite gymnastic is. I don’t have one because grids should be custom-made to develop whatever skill the horse or rider needs to work on.

This week I built a line of trot poles to three bounces, one stride to a vertical, then two strides to an oxer. I used the same grid, plus or minus some placing rails, for two four-year Irish horses that have a lot in common – both are high-quality, athletic horses, both are big, and both are quite chill in their temperaments. Both needed to work on doing quicker footwork, and both need to build strength behind the saddle.

They also have some differences – Leo has more knee action in the canter, making nimble footwork and a rounder trajectory more natural when he jumps. Spirit has a longer, more sweeping stride and is greener and more sensitive than Leo. Spirit is very sincere, tries hard, and wants to be perfect. Leo is immune to judgment, LOVES to jump, and approaches every fence like a schoolboy at a pool party, running down the diving board and bouncing in, splashing the other kids, and laughing (he is a proper Irish event horse!)

I used the same sequence of jumps for both horses, but I changed the distances between them. Leo’s jumps were closer together to teach him how to sit down behind and jump up and around the jump better. I used lots of placing rails to establish the trajectory and make him more studious about where he put his feet. I also varied the heights every time he came through so that he saw a new puzzle to solve every time he came through. He enjoyed it, tried hard, and jumped well. I love this video – he is focused, straight, and jumps excellent every time, just like the mature professional he will become.

Spirit’s jumps were smaller and farther apart. He is greener, so I did not want to challenge him to sit down behind and jump up as quickly as Leo. I gradually raised the jumps as the ride progressed. I designed Spirit’s grid to show him that he could solve puzzles, speed up his footwork, and start to jump higher. He also had a good ride and ended up jumping almost as big an oxer out of the grid as Leo did, albeit off a longer stride and without placing poles to close up his trajectory.

Both horses jumped the line as few times as possible to teach them their new skills – they both ended happy and satisfied but not tired. They will be cheerful to jump again later this week. This is important – it would be easy to over-do the gymnastics. It’s fun but resist the temptation to “go one more time” to see if they can do it bigger. When they’ve learned it, let them be finished.

I had a very experienced ride in the tack for these two green horses – my assistant trainer Ashlynn Meuchel. She has excellent upper body control and stays in the middle of the horses without interfering. I had a few observations for her, like “be taller in the air” on Leo to help him jump up and “loopy rein” on Spirit to make sure he had the freedom to use his neck to read the grid, but that was it. Ashlynn’s ride was easy, and the grid taught the horses.

We also use grids to teach less-experienced riders equitation and feel – but not on green horses. The grid is either for teaching the horse or the rider, not for both. It would be unfair to challenge a horse with a gymnastic at the same time you are challenging it with an unstable rider! If you are working on the rider, keep the grid mentally and physically easy for the horse. This will make the lesson more successful for the rider because it will be easier for her to work on herself if the horse does not need her attention.

Gymnastics are a regular part of training here. I love designing and building them, watching horses and riders work their way through them, and then making the incremental adjustments that make the day successful and fun.

Tips for Building Your Own Grids:

You can put all kinds of things in your lines – skinnies, fillers, and turns. Get creative, but start small to ensure you are setting the horses up for success. Don’t get greedy and accidentally make a trap.

Don’t be afraid to change the distances to help the horses gain confidence. We often think of grids as being set on short strides to challenge horses to compress and rock back, but sometimes it is helpful to make them longer and EASIER, so the horses find them easy, feel good about themselves, and gain confidence. Use good judgment – sometimes being challenged is not the right thing. Sometimes horses (and riders) need to experience easy success.

How you build each jump can improve safety in your ring:

- Use safety cups on the back of the oxers. If you don’t have safety cups, you should rest the poles on pencils stuck through the holes in the standard.

- Ensure the poles are not squeezed tight between the standards – there should be at least ½ an inch between the end of the pole and the standard on each side so that the rails will easily fall when hit.

- If you put barrels under your jumps, make sure there is a pole on the ground on either side to keep them from rolling if your horse hits them.

Footing is important too. Gymnastics, by nature, put lots of hoofprints in the same place and tear up the line. Make sure your ring is well-prepped and that you have a rake handy to keep the footing even.

Get a group of friends together to build the line, watch, and set jumps. Observing how the horses and riders are doing is always interesting, and more eyes on the ground are always helpful. Plus, it’s fun!

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