My favorite jumping sessions are those centered on gymnastic exercises. They were also some of the most beneficial for improving jump position, balance, centeredness, strength, feel, and more. They’re challenging but really fun, and are essential training exercises for beginners to the most advancer riders.
Gymnastic exercises are a series of ground poles and jumps with no more than two strides between that are commonly used in jump training for both horses and riders. They can be set up a million different ways: different number of jumps, ground lines, verticals, oxers, and bounces to different degrees of difficulty.
Here’s a really great overview and sample of an exercise from Nona Garson, an Olympic veteran:
When setting up gymnastics, it’s important to understand the stride distance for setting jumps. To set up a normal jump line in which you canter in and out, the average canter stride is 12′, and you need to allow 6′ for landing and 6′ for take off. So, to set a jump with three strides in between, there should be ’48’ between the jumps (6 for landing, 36 for three strides, and 6 for the takeoff). However, you typically trot in and canter out of gymnastics, which makes your horse’s stride shorter. In general, allow 12′ per stride and add 6′ for landing and take off. So, if you are setting up a cross rail to a vertical with one stride in between, the distance should be 18′ (12 for the stride, 6 for the takeoff and landing). When doing gymnastics, this is a good place to start, and then you can adjust as necessary for a horse with shorter or longer strides. It’s important to make the jumps a comfortable distance for the horse so he can go right through without having to adjust.
One of my favorite gymnastics is a ground line, a cross rail, one stride to a vertical, and a bounce (three total jumps). Start with the cross rail with a ground rail 9′ in front. Trot in and canter out (typical start for a gymnastic). Once the horse is comfortable, add a vertical one stride (18′) beyond the crossrail. Keep it low (2′ ish) to start. Once he’s comfortable, add some height to the crossrail. Once he’s comfortable with that, add a third jump with no strides in between (9-12′). Keep it low to start, and then work the height up as he’s comfortable. The bounce in particular is great for getting him to round his back and neck.
Two essential keys: 1. build the gymnastic up slowly, one element at a time, so as not to scare the horse or make him uncomfortable. 2. Always trot in and canter out.
The rider should go to 2-point over the ground rail and hold it until she’s all the way through the gymnastic. The idea is to feel the horse coming up to her over the jump. This improves balance and helps the rider to stay over the center of her horse — interfering with his jump as little as possible. Nona explains this really well in that video.
An easy way to set the second and third jumps for a gymnastic (if you have someone helping on the ground) is to place a ground pole where the jumps would be (ground line, cross rail, ground line, ground line). This allows you to watch as the horse trots in and canters out and set the poles for the latter jumps to match his stride before adding any height.
The gymnastic in Nona’s video is a great one to start with. it’s a ground line to a crossrail, one stride to a vertical, one stride to an oxer. This is a great one for a first go around. Remember to build it up slowly, though, one obstacle at a time.
Gymnastics are very very very useful exercises for both the horse and the rider, and they are a whole lot of fun. Oftentimes, we’d set up a gymnastic on the long side of the ring and use it to start a course of jumps. it helps get the horse’s impulsion up and gets him focused.
- American System of Forward Riding DVDs and Workbook (I saw the authors do a clinic at Equine Affaire and they were amazing. Great teachers and great exercises. I highly recommend them).
Videos on Youtube
Here are some samples of other gymnastic exercises: