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We Are Flying Solo

November 11, 2011

Gymnastics (Not The Kind I Sucked At When I Was Seven)

The sound of winter blowing in is the clink of blanket buckles against a stall front and the rustle of dead leaves under hooves. It's a bite to the wind that sneaks under your helmet and belies the bright sun.

But you're still sweating after you set 10 jumps with ground lines and complete your warmup trot circles.

Indeed, it was jump school day for Encore, with the help of his peanut bribery accomplice friend, Cindy, who graciously picked up poles AND shot video.

We began with just a few single jumps; straw bales between some barrels, single verticals, a plank oxer. Encore took me readily to each jump and lofted over, clean and clear. He felt good, confident, and we even had a modicum of steering to the fence!

Then it was time to tackle the gymnastic lines. And how exactly DO we tackle them?

I am a big believer in letting the horse work things out -- you have to allow him to make mistakes to teach him to solve problems and think for himself. Unless you can ride an entire cross country course without making a single rider mistake (superhuman, are you?), your horse MUST learn to find the solutions on his own while you stay out of the way.

Now, I'm not suggesting you sit up there like a dead toad (although sometimes I feel like that is my approximate level of usefulness); it is your job to set him up for success. You give him rhythm and balance and then you sit back and let your partner navigate the obstacle. Your reactions are not fast enough and you are not strong enough to do anything more over a jump than pull him off balance and invite disaster. Therefore, it's up to you to lay the groundwork beforehand so he is equipped save your sorry butt later!

So when riding a gymnastic, you should be balanced, with your legs wrapped around the horse, your butt off his back, your shoulder up, and a soft, preferably loopy reins. Your horse should have complete freedom to navigate the line.

"But, OMG, he will rush!" Probably so. The first time. That is why I use placing poles every stride to direct his footfalls. If he screws up, well, he's going to step on a lot of poles and bang himself on the rails while he's at it and that's just uncomfortable. A smart horse will only make that mistake once. Don't feel cruel -- the jumps are set low so he has a healthy margin for error. Far better he make a mistake and bang a shin now and learn from it then at full gallop on course where it might flip him over on you.

I set up three trot poles to a crossrail-bounce-vertical-one stride-oxer. We started with just the trot poles to the crossrail and the rest were ground poles so he could feel it out.

No problem. So we continue with the sequence -- ideally, you want to add a new element each time they go through successfully. The lesson is "always pay attention, stay quick with your feet, don't rush, and be ready for anything." The only thing constant is change. You are encouraging proper form, careful jumping, and quick thinking.

The trot poles stayed put for the entire school to set the pace. The second time, the exercise became a crossrail with a bounce to a low vertical. Then crossrail-vertical and one stride to a second vertical. Then the last vertical became an oxer.

Oh, and look who learned how to canter trot poles without stepping on them. Cheater.

Then we raised the first vertical one hole to up the ante. Surprise!  Someone forgot they had back legs...

It's ok to mess up, everyone will -- but the crux is, what happens AFTER you mess up. Since Encore's a clever boy, second time is the charm.

Just to finish off the day, with the help of some guide poles, we also conquered two slumbering trolls who have received much hairy eyeball from Encore. I'd been able to get him over the tire after about six tries a couple weeks ago, but only in one direction and he did. not. like it. Today, however, a gamer, more confident pony conquered his worries with ease.


  1. Is sitting there like a dead toad better or worse than riding like a sack of potatoes, do you think? ;)

    Lovely riding on your part, and Encore is one smart pony! As for the cantering over trot poles, don't consider it cheating... think of how careful he has to be with his feet to do that! (At least, that's what I always told myself, lol!).

  2. I'm not sure, jen. The toad would definitely smell worse. Oh and I very much like your logic about the "trot" poles, ROFL!

  3. I love gymnastics! I incorporate them into all of my lessons. It is great for building trust between horse and rider and a horse that is watching what he is doing.

  4. Aww, what a cutie! I think gymnastics are so important for babies to ensure they find that fifth (jumping) leg. He tackles it like a pro!

  5. Barbara, they are great, aren't they?

    Kate, this little horse is definitely a pro in all things!

  6. You have a friend with a camera... I have a friend with a camera... you have a massive gorgeous field with XC jumps, standards, and poles...



    I'm not sure we can be friends anymore. ;-)

    Your baby boy looks fab.