It has come to my attention that, while many trainers and coaches seem to use them frequently, grids are not something that I am ever inspired to set up in the jumping arena. So I thought I should have a think about why I don’t tend to use them.
My jumping training is based around making the horse as self-sufficient as possible. I believe that his sense of self-preservation is second to none, and figure I might as well harness this to help keep me safe while jumping. I believe that horses are the most incredibly brave creatures if given a chance to learn their job and we MUST furnish the horse’s innate ability to look after himself.
For this reason, I spend a lot of time in my jumping training, especially on the young horses, letting them get to the base of the fence wherever their canter (or trot as the case often is) happens to get them there. From here, I want them to learn to do whatever footwork is required to safely negotiate the obstacle. They may put one foot down (a quarter stride) or two (a half stride), or they may chip in a whole stride – whatever they do is up to them, my job is to stay out of the way and in the best balance possible.
As they get better and better at finding the jump and adjusting themselves, we have to find more and more excuses for them to use their footwork skills because out on the cross-country course things aren’t always going to come up perfectly and we need that back-up for when everything goes a little pear-shaped.
So, for this reason I find that grids, after the first repetition, are too predictable. Horses are very good at remembering where objects are in space, so once they’ve been through once you can make the jumps pretty big and they’ll work out how to get over them correctly without having to think on their feet much at all. Now I’m not saying this renders them completely useless. They can therefore be used to get the horse used to jumping higher than usual, with a fairly guaranteed take-off spot, and they can be used to give the rider confidence that she and her horse are capable of jumping a specific height that may otherwise seem frightening.
We’re very task oriented in our training so we’re always looking ahead to the next level, or where the weaknesses are at the current level. If an exercise is not working towards a specific goal we’re not wasting jumping miles on it. My preferred version of a grid, for making the horse think on his feet, and practice his footwork, is lines of small fences or skinnies scattered around, very rarely in a straight line, usually with tight bends that I will trot and canter over. I’ll have a helper on the ground constantly moving a fence here or there so that the horse can’t become used to the number of strides in any given line or turn. This way the horse is constantly honing his eye, his footwork and thinking on his feet, rather than closing his eyes and just jump, jump, jumping.
Grids are often claimed to improve the horse’s technique over a fence and can be used very successfully to do so. For me, I prefer to quietly work away at the horses symmetry (or straightness), and lightness on the flat and allow the jumping technique to improve organically. Technique issues can usually be put down to bio-mechanical faults, which are generally very hard to change even with the best intentions, or they are (very often) simply due to a lack of experience, confidence and strength. We need to think of dressage as part of the training program we have put in place to help us with our jumping and cross-country. We should look at dressage as an all-encompassing way of training that is there to help condition the horse. Not just to ride the movements. In this way developing your horse’s work on the flat will help you work on his obedience and calmness while jumping, his strength, and in turn his technique….without the need for lugging the jumps in to a row down the middle of the jumping arena and pacing out the distances that your Google search suggested.
No one’s training system is perfect, but very often it is as close to perfect for them, and their horses, as is possible. I feel that the more difficult the dressage phase of eventing becomes, the more controlling we have to be with our horses, yet on cross-country day we NEED our horse to use his initiative to help keep us out of trouble. So in my jumping training this has to be the number one focus at all times. It’s the biggest struggle we face as event riders and once we haven’t quite found the perfect solution for.
Happy jumping (and enjoy your grids if you feel they work for you!).