Thoroughbred Logic, Presented by Kentucky Performance Products: Good Grids

“It is often the slow repetitive progression through without rider interference that helps them think and slow their brain and thus, their feet…”

Welcome to the next installment of Thoroughbred Logic. In this weekly series, Anthropologist and trainer Aubrey Graham, of Kivu Sport Horses, offers insight and training experience when it comes to working with Thoroughbreds (although much will apply to all breeds). This week ride along as Aubrey shares her logic on purpose and usefulness of grid work.

Earlier this month, I taught a Thoroughbred Logic Clinic here at Kivu Sporthorses. Instead of doing a ground-work demo or the like, I hopped on Wolf (Louisiana Moon) to discuss the challenge of jumping a horse who rushes fences and what to do to help them slow their brain and body down. Wolf had spent the past week working his way through grids to help him both get ready for an upcoming show and this educational class. With each combinations of poles and fences, he showed off his catty enthusiasm, while I kept my tailbone down but stayed quiet in half seat.

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) scoping out some of the auditors a the recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by author.

When it came time for the demo, I warmed him up and made my explanation of what I was going to do and what I was asking of him in the grids and jump lines. I discussed his strong preference to rush the last stride before a fence and then… drumroll… the damn lovely horse didn’t rush a single fence. Not one. He was foot-perfect for the entire demo. And while I was thrilled with all he had accomplished, I had to laugh — that wasn’t exactly the best demo for teaching how to slow down the rusher… but I guess it proved that the tactic — and the grids — worked (at least at home).

Wolf (Louisiana Moon) picking his way carefully through the grid during his “how not to rush” demo at the recent Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Pacey Gilham for Cora Williamson Photography.

I spend a lot of time here thinking through and discussing flatwork and equitation. I’m a big believer in the cliché that jumping is just flatwork with fence-based interruptions. As an eventer and in an effort to produce well-rounded horses, my goal with all of the Thoroughbreds who come through my barn (and are physically able to jump) is to create quality gaits on the flat, introduce them to fences and see how they do outside of the arena.

Most Thoroughbreds seem to thoroughly enjoy jumping — and excel at it. That is, once they understand the ask and learn how to tone down the “flight response” that often accompanies getting from one side of an obstacle to another. We as riders are responsible for helping them figure out how to do that — and do it safely and successfully. And for that, I love grids.

Kat Page Dortenzo’s Pederson’s Courage figuring out his footing over an cross-rail. Photo by Pacey Gilham for Cora Williamson Photography.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here or claim to have created these exercises. Nope. There are grid experts and grid clinics (locally Beth Stelzleni is great) and grid books. And most of them are amazing, but book-wise, Jimmy Woffard’s “Gymnastics” is a classic and perhaps one of the best.

As with the clinicians and authors, I enjoy grids for likely similar reasons. On one hand, they encourage proper footwork for the horse. On another, they create a repeatable ride which builds confidence for both horse and rider. On another, they can introduce new elements gently — be it a vertical, an oxer or just an increase in height. They can help slow down the horse’s feet and brain and create success, and they give me space as a rider to hold my position, improve equitation and stay out of the way of the horse. OK, I think that set of examples gave me about six hands… close enough.

Aspenfiveoneseven, piloted by Charlotte Pinckney learns to confidently take on fences by walking through the grid first. Photo by Pacey GIlham for Cora Williamson Photography.

While I have grids set in my arena regularly, I often introduce these to my recent off-track horses after I have tackled poles and singe cross-rails. One of the biggest initial challenges in jumping is the horse’s belief that he or she cannot “break the plane.” They’ll look at an ‘x’ and often act like it is a wall to go around rather than through. Walking them over it on the ground or lunging over poles and small cavalettis helps create the confidence that objects can be stepped and hopped over, not just avoided.

Once that is sorted and the horse can quietly walk and trot a small cross-bar, I’ll begin to bring low grids into the picture. Importantly, we break grids all the way down for the greenies — meaning the poles are on the ground. I’ll walk them through first, find the straight line, and let them sort their legs out before asking them to trot through.  Then, to build it up, I’ll usually set the last fence in the line first and then as one progresses through with confidence, I’ll start adding in the other fences working from last fence to first.

Bria Barden and Zeuss (Illustrated) begin their jumping career by slowly working their way through grids both at home and here at the Thoroughbred Logic Clinic. Photo by Pacey Gilham for Cora Williamson Photography.

Importantly, I’ll ask the rider (or myself) to hop in a half-seat on the approach, regardless of whether approaching the grid at a trot or a canter. Once they’re there, they stay there, soft hands and upright. And once straight, I’ll usually be heard yelling to folks to grab mane and stay up and out of their way. As the horse goes through the grid, the rider does not get to adjust with the reins. They can drop their tailbone and use their core to slow the horse down, but they don’t get to pull or half halt with the reins.

If the horse bumbles through, tossing poles around or rushes, we can fix that. It is often the slow repetitive progression through without rider interference that helps them think and slow their brain and thus, their feet. Usually, the less we mess with them in an effort to fix it, the better they’ll head through the next time. In other words, grids are great for allowing errors to happen, and providing soft, accepting space for them to figure it out through repetition without rider micromanagement.

Uno (Hold Em Paul) shows off how grids can help not only footwork but form over fences. Screenshot by Alanah Giltmier.

Here are three of my favorite grids:

1. Pole, 9-feet to a cross-bar, one stride to an oxer. (When building this one, I’ll start with all poles, and then build the oxer first into a cross-rail, then add the first crossrail. I’ll then move the oxer into a vertical on the near pole, and after the horse is successful through the one-stride, I’ll change the last fence into a small oxer. *I use the dots on the edges to symbolize standards.

2. This is an addition on the one above by adding a bounce after the first pole. So: A ground pole, then nine-feet for takeoff to a crossrail bounce (separated by nine-feet) and then a 20-foot one stride to an oxer. The same principle applies here, break it all the way down and start by building it from the back to the front. If the distances are too big for a horse, or way too tight, adjust the fences in or out for success.


3. I love this one for fitness and footwork as well as teaching them to slow down and not rush. This one is an alteration of ground poles and cross-rails at consistent nine-foot distances. Effectively, the horse will slowly bounce their way through the grid, thinking carefully about landing and take off.

How to know the grid exercise is going well?

Grids are great when they do what they are supposed to: create confidence and encourage careful footwork and quality form over fences. If a horse is repeatedly blasting through, missing the footwork, or seeming to get faster or less and less comfortable with the ask, potentially stopping or wiggling out of the line, it would be worth while to break it back down to poles and bring the grids up more slowly. Depending on the horse’s stride too, the distances may need to be adjusted to help them figure it out.

But, if a horse is happily trotting in, popping over the fence(s) and landing in trot or canter and heading out quietly, it can be assumed to go well and over time (perhaps not the first day though), the grid can be built up slowly in height and complexity.

Curry (Curlin Lane) is always careful about his footwork over fences, and grids help him build his confidence as he moves up in fence height. Screenshot by Alanah Giltmier.

Where to stop?

This is always a tricky question. Less is always more. With recent off-trackers or those new to jumping and grids, I try to read the horse and not add too much pressure. Keeping grids positive is one of the most important things. So while there is an idea of a grid as “fully built,” many days with green beans, we’ll just get through the poles and maybe the last fence. As they gain more experience the grid can get built more fully, more efficiently. Overall though, each ride aims for a quiet pace, good, thoughtful footwork, and willing movement over the fence. If you get that, fantastic. Come back around and do more another day until they are well versed in grids and can really think their way through on the fly.

So folks, go build some grids, keep it simple, and enjoy the ride and the fence-by-fence progress.

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