The Course Design Process: Q&A With Course Designer Nick Granat

Photo by Emy Lucibello


One of the main priorities of competing at a horse show is to memorize the course, and often, the jumps are just as eloquently decorated as the horses and riders are. However, in the hustle and bustle of competing at a horse show, many don’t have the time to consider the brains behind the strategically, and sometimes challenging, courses. Recently, I interviewed course designer Nick Granat and discovered his thought process behind his designs.

What is the typical process of designing a course?
“I hand draw it first and I just start with a line. Then I start to put the fences on the track. I draw the track before I draw where the fences are, sort of like a path around the ring. I’m a big doodler.”

One of Nick Granat’s course “doodles.” Photo courtesy of Nick Granat.

What is it like to design for local versus big horse shows?
“At the local shows you want to keep it as simple as possible. You won’t play with the distances so much. You might work with maybe a little shorter distance at the local shows where the horses don’t have the same type of stride.”

What is it like to design for hunter versus jumper courses?
“So in the hunters it’s very standardized, there’s not a whole lot of variation in the courses. It’s more of the figure of eight and set distances, whereas the jumpers you could be far more creative where you place the lines: going towards the gate, against the gate. You don’t have that kind of flexibility in the hunters so I for sure enjoy the jumpers more.”

Emily Elek and her son, Matthew, strategizing for his next course. Photo by Eden Irving

How significantly does an arena / climate impact course design?
“Everything affects it. Size of the arena, type of footing, if you have shadows, time of day. You really have a lot of variables to think about. Sometimes in the morning you have to change your course because you have a line jumping right into the sun and you can’t see the fence anymore. Sometimes you have to the opposite where there’s a shadow and there’s a dark spot and you can’t see the fence also. You really have to take that all into account.”

How do you draw the line between a healthy challenge for riders and safety?
“I think that comes with experience. I came up as a rider in the horse business so I sort of understand what’s difficult and easy. FOr me I kind of understand it. It’s not normally a surprise if something ends up being difficult. I try to save the difficult things for important classes. As the week comes I bring in the challenges, in the beginning of the week you keep the courses a little bit simple and give the horses confidence. And as the week goes on you tighten the screws a little bit.”

A trainer talking to her student as they discuss a course. Photo by Emily McNeill

How has your riding experience impacted your design?
“I think you just get the feel for what’s correct and what to ask your horses. You’re not going to spin them in circles or make very awkward lines when you ride in general so I don’t see why you would do that in a course. So I keep the lines very rideable and keep the jumps in front of the horses where I am not turning the horses inside themselves. I think from riding I kind of look at it from the horse’s’ point of view and the rider’s point of view.”

As you gained experience over time, have you developed a “style” or particular pattern you often utilize during course design?
“For sure. You end up doing a lot of the same things. I try to have a balance of right and left turns. It all depends on the size of the ring also. In a bigger ring you have more options of different lines, where if you’re in a very small ring you’re kind of locked in with more or less of a figure of eight to get started with a course.”

The beginning and then final stages of one of Nick Granat’s course designs used at the County Heir II Grand Prix. Photo courtesy of Nick Granat

If you had one final fact to tell equestrians about the art of course designing, what would it be?
“I think you should watch a lot and get a feel for what you like and what you don’t like. Asking a lot of questions and most course designers are willing to sit down and talk with anybody. I think it’s all about asking questions, being around, watching online. There’s so much information out there now that it’s a lot easier. When I was younger I used to collect all these videos, but I think the biggest thing is watching and watching.”

Thank you to Nick Granat for participating in this interview! If you would like to learn more about him, check out his website: