On the Grid—The Benefits of Gridwork

A tool for addressing many problems horses and riders face, gridwork and gymnastic exercises consisting of precisely placed poles and jumps are a common sight in a hunter/jumper’s arena. We spoke to trainers Lexie Lohrer of Wildwood Farm in Westford, MA, and Meredith Stimson-O’Connell of Madison Show Stables in Merrimac, MA, on how to begin using such exercises and their benefits. So, what is gridwork? In short, it is an exercise made up of a line of poles and jumps spaced at different intervals. Because the arrangement is fully customizable in terms of ground poles, raised poles, small jumps, and large jumps as well as the distances between each obstacle, how a person sets the course determines what can be worked on over the grid.

Setting The Grid

Before setting up a grid, make sure you have a measuring tape on hand. Ponies and horses have different striding, so it is essential to set the exercise correctly for your horse’s specific stride length. “The most important thing to remember when working a grid exercise is that measurement is key,” says Lexie, noting that setting a grid for one horse doesn’t necessarily mean it is correctly set for another.

Because grids aren’t foolproof, our experts agree that it is also important to begin using a grid with a professional before heading off on your own. “Improperly setting a gymnastic [line] can ruin the confidence or even injure a horse or rider. Always, always work with a professional,” warns Meredith. “You want to be careful not to over-face horse or rider by setting the exercise improperly or too difficult.”

As with all new things, it is important to start small. A long line of jumps can be overwhelming to horses and riders at first, so begin with a few simple set ups before (quite literally) jumping in. “It’s not necessary to have six jumps in a row or even six poles in a row right from the get go. You can start as simply as two or three trot poles, and then two or three canter poles, eventually moving up to small cavaletti, and then jumping,” explains Lexie, who advises gradually increasing the difficulty. “Make sure your horse is used to the formation before jumping through the whole thing by building it up jump by jump. Starting small and working your way up is vital for success.”

“The best way to introduce gridwork to a horse or rider is to work with a professional and start simple, low, and with no questions in the distance between fences. As the skill level raises, so can the fence height and technicality and adjustability,” adds Meredith.

Although the set up varies, Lexie recommends keeping the beginning of the line simple and then increasing the difficulty as the line continues. “I always set jumping grids one jump at a time, building them up slowly so you are jumping the first jump to a pole, then two jumps to a pole, and so on and so forth,” she explains. “This helps the horse understand what is coming without over-facing them.”

Both experts warn to not use gridwork too much, as the exercises may be physically and mentally tasking for both parties. “You must remember, when working with a gymnastic, there are several jumps in a row, so every time you jump one gymnastic line, you are jumping several jumps,” cautions Meredith, who prefers to keep the training sessions relatively short and sweet as not to overdo it. “Drilling any exercise can be detrimental to your horse. You wouldn’t go to the gym and do leg day every day, so you don’t want to school a grid every day,” adds Lexie.

The Benefits

Incorporating grid exercises into a lesson or training session can be beneficial for horses or riders, depending on different aspects of the layout. Modification of the obstacles and their spacing allows the grid to help the horse or rider focus on different aspects of their riding.

Lexie cites some examples that she uses in her training for horses with different needs, “If I am trying to help a horse be more comfortable jumping larger fences or pacing themselves in between fences, I find grids to be very beneficial as they are set to the horse’s stride and ensure correct take off points. If I need my horse to be better at collecting, I’ll set shorter exercises. If my horse is lazy and doesn’t like to push across the jumps, I may set the exercises longer to encourage lengthening.”

“Incorporating gridwork into your riding really helps horses develop the ability to balance themselves and measure their strides on their own without the help of the rider,” Lexie adds. “For young horses as well as more experienced ones, it can help them get out of sticky situations while on course, as well as pacing themselves consistently. Grids can also benefit a horse’s strength in their hind end and develop their topline, much like squats or similar strengthening exercises for people.”

From greenies to old pros, Meredith also finds gridwork to benefit horses of all experience levels. “It can help your experienced or green horse with consistency in a quality jump, fitness, straightness, and confidence. For green horses, the exercise should be set simple, low, and straight-forward. For the more experienced horse, the distances can vary a little so horse and rider will be confident riding longer or shorter distances.”

For riders, gridwork is all about perfecting your current skills, as most riders utilizing the exercise are already experienced over fences. Because a grid is often set up for a horse to jump through with minimal support from the rider, Lexie finds them to be a great way for riders to fine-tune their position. “Riders can practice different kinds of releases, tune their balance, and learn to get a better feel of their horse’s jump. Grids are also specifically a good exercise to strengthen riders’ positions over fences without stirrups,” she explains.

Most importantly, gridwork is supposed to be a fun way to change up your training sessions. Whether you are looking to improve your horse’s pace or perfect your position, the exercises that can be set will improve your ride outside of the grid. Lexie says, “It is never about how impressive or high you go, but more about subtle changes in the horse and rider that you can incorporate into your course work in the long run.”

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