Sharp and snappy: gridwork with Gemma Tattersall *H&H Plus*

  • Olympian Gemma Tattersall puts two event horses at different levels through a grid designed to teach them to jump both boldly and carefully

    Gemma Tattersall shares with us a gridwork jumping exercise using V poles that was inspired by her friend and fellow event rider Laura Collett…

    Gridwork is often known as gymnastic jumping, because it helps teach the horse to be more elastic and enables both horse and rider to hone certain techniques without fussing about the perfect stride. Grids are typically set up on slightly short strides – seven yards to a horse’s stride rather than eight – to encourage the horse to be sharp with his front legs and not flatten, instead making a rounded bascule over the fence with the forelegs tucked up. There are myriad grid formats you can set up, but in this session with two of Gemma’s event horses, she chooses one set out on “true striding”.

    “This grid is inspired by my friend [CCI5* winner] Laura Collett, who uses it sometimes when she’s schooling racehorses,” Gemma says. “It’s useful for getting horses to be more careful when jumping out of their normal stride.

    “Heavy canter poles are a must for this,” she adds. “I am teaching the horse to be careful by being aware of where they are putting their feet – if they can’t feel the pole, they won’t learn. And it’s safer because there are quite a few poles on the ground in this exercise and if they roll under the horse’s foot, they can turn an ankle. I’m just using big, heavy poles, but you can also raise them on a brick.

    “Each fence has a placing pole three yards in front, which tends to make the horse do a small jump over the pole on the final stride before taking off over the fence, which encourages them to pick their front legs up.

    “The distances for this grid are true, because I don’t want the horse backing off too much. It is designed to make them sit back, jump the pole and snap up in front.”

    Gemma first brings out one of her top eventers, Santiago Bay (Kizzy), and warms her up for 10 to 15 minutes in walk, trot and canter. She incorporates transitions, flying changes and ensures the mare is listening to her aids.

    After cantering down the line with the poles on the ground, to familiarise Kizzy with the task in hand, Gemma shows her the first fence.

    “She can be a monkey at the first, so I always show her it before we start jumping,” Gemma explains. “It’s her quirk, but I don’t let it bother me. She’s an amazing showjumper and has real fight about her; it’s what makes her so good. But she can be spooky, even in the school.”

    Gemma builds up the grid fence by fence, starting with a 2ft 9in vertical. She has a helper – her head groom Charlotte Overton – on the ground to adjust the fences so that she can keep coming off both reins, with a fence added each time she completes the line. The grid builds up rapidly into a vertical to two oxers and finally a vertical. Although Gemma has a 20x60m arena, she says it would be doable in a short arena with just three fences rather than four.

    Each fence has V-poles resting on the fence which, together with the placing pole, give the horse a lot to take in visually and assess what to do with their feet. However, Gemma doesn’t use extra poles underneath the top bar, to teach horses that’s the height to worry about. Kizzy performs exactly as required, cantering in strongly and basculing beautifully.

    “I’m moving up quickly with her because she’s a five-star horse and she knows the exercise; this will just sharpen her up,” says Gemma. “The first time you do this, you should start small because it takes horses a bit of getting used to.”

    The true distances between fences, combined with the placing poles the horse needs to negotiate, are the essence of this grid.

    “It’s a mix of teaching the horse to be careful and staying on a natural forward stride,” says Gemma. “You have to be brave and keep coming at the fences, but let the grid do the work. It helps the horse snap out of an onward stride. If you’ve got one that dangles its legs or doesn’t lift the shoulder, this is a great exercise.”

    Kizzy is now jumping 4ft as the final fence, and gives one of the V-poles a slight tap.

    “The grid drew that mistake out of her; she was blasé and she’ll learn from that,” Gemma says, asking Charlotte to widen the gap between the V-poles slightly for the next attempt – which she jumps perfectly. “You have to read your horse and react each time to what they need and whether to adjust the Vs. If you have a horse who is worried about them, position them wider initially and gradually bring them in.

    “I knew Kizzy would be sharp enough second time, so I widened the Vs to encourage her and she was super-careful – so I’ll leave it at that. It’s important not to overdo it and finish the session with them feeling happy.”

    Using the exercise for a less experienced horse

    Gemma’s second ride of the day is a totally different prospect – Chilli Rocks, a gangly rising six-year-old gelding. Gemma laughs as she works him in, having swapped from a highly tuned advanced ride to a baby just finding his feet.

    “He’s hilarious, legs everywhere,” she says. “He’s very green. Chilli Morning’s foals tend to be late developers and babyish so you don’t push them early. They only become ‘wow horses’ when they are older.”

    Rocky’s inexperience doesn’t hold him back from schooling through the same grid as his senior stablemate, however. Gemma simply builds up much more gradually than with Kizzy, and keeps the jumps relatively low.

    “With a young one, I come in trot initially so they learn not to jump the fence and the placing pole in one go – I’ve had a few do that!” she says, trotting quietly through the line a few times with the poles on the ground.

    Next she adds in the first vertical and again repeats, rather than moving straight into adding extra fences.

    “He jumps in slow motion,” she grins, as Rocky carefully works his way through the grid. “He has to learn to have quicker reactions, but he’s seeing where he is long and he really tries.”

    Gemma plays about a bit with the V-poles, first pulling them together to teach him to be more careful and then widening them to give him the confidence to jump through. After three goes of the full sequence, Gemma senses he’s done enough for one session.

    “Always end on a good note – and he’s made a good effort today,” she says. “This is a hard exercise and really makes them work.”

    While Rocky hasn’t put a foot wrong, Gemma has some advice for green horses if they are struggling.

    “If they keep knocking fences, sometimes it’s right to stop and come back the next day and try again,” she says. “It’s amazing how horses seem to absorb what they’ve been taught overnight.”

    The trainer

    Gemma Tattersall is an Olympic event rider who competed at Rio in 2016 on Quicklook V and won team gold at the World Equestrian Games in 2018 with the popular Arctic Soul. She has been Event Rider Masters champion, British open champion and finished third at both Badminton and Burghley. Gemma also competes in international showjumping and jumped on the Portuguese Sunshine Tour in the autumn.

    The horses doing gridwork with V poles

    Santiago Bay (pictured), a 16.1hh mare by Ars Vivendi out of Zantus (Aldatus Z), is rising 13. She won two CCI4*-Ss last season and was seventh at Burghley CCI5* in 2019. “Kizzy” is owned by Caroline Teltsch and will be aimed for top level events again this year.

    Chilli Rocks, a 16.3hh gelding by Chilli Morning out of Gemma’s Olympic ride Quicklook V (Urkel), is rising six. “Rocky” is owned by Chris and Lisa Stone and has been competing in young horse showjumping classes, but is destined to be an eventer.

    Ref: 21 January 2021

    You might also be interested in…