Don't let the winter weather get you down when you can use being stuck in the arena as an opportunity to fine tune your riding! In this series, we are reviving past Grid Pro Quo articles from Eventing USA to help you use the off-season to your advantage and keep you and your horse in tip-top shape for when it's time to get back out there. Click here to check out other past Grid Pro Quo exercises to spice up your arena this winter!
As eventers we are always looking to teach our horses to think on their feet and have that fifth leg that allows them to be responsible over fences. Gridwork exercises are great tools for sharpening up horses’ reactions as well as helping riders learn to stay balanced over fences. The reality of our lives as eventers is that we are jumping solid obstacles 50 percent of our competitive careers. So it is imperative that when things get tricky, your horse has the ability to think for himself and get you both to the other side safely, and you have the ability to stay balanced and out of his way. Good horses become great horses when they are able take care of their riders while doing their job flawlessly at the same time. Good riders become great riders when they are able to allow their horses to do their job. If you go to any four-star event, you will see horses that love their jobs and riders that are playing a supporting role. When the riders have to “ride” too much, trouble is bound to happen.
The tight distances in Exercise #1 and the spreads in Exercise #2 really force the riders to have a soft rein while riding to the deep distance. The only way for your horse to learn to think for himself is if you allow him to, so stay quiet and steady and let your horse jump up to you. I find that these two exercises also really help to instill the method of riding from leg to hand. More importantly, you should be riding evenly on both sides, meaning that you should be balanced in the middle of the saddle and not shifting off to one side or another and unintentionally using one aid stronger than another.
I usually start by warming up thoroughly on the flat with the focus being on self-carriage. Your flatwork is the time to make sure that your horse is not running through your hand. To test your horse’s self-carriage, simply soften your hand and see what happens. If your horse falls forward or starts to rush when you soften the reins, keep working on your balance in the flatwork. Move your horse from side to side, ask him to come rounder and then stretch forward, lengthen his stride and then collect it. All of these things will force your horse to think for himself and be responsible for his own body. If your horse stays in balance, perfect! You are ready to start jumping.
Once your flat warm-up is complete, start working through the first exercise with just rails on the ground. This will help both you and your horse to tune in to the distances.
Trot through it a time or two and then canter through a few more times. From here, put all the jumps up to small verticals and angle the first and fourth verticals to quickly warm-up your jump muscles. Once you jump those a handful of times, come right to all four verticals right away. Remember this is a footwork exercise, so what better way to force your horse to use his feet but to surprise him a little with four verticals in a row? Before you think that this is too rushed, remember that we have already thoroughly warmed our horses up on the flat so that they are carrying themselves and not leaning against the bit, and we have already gone through the exercise with the poles on the ground. By keeping the verticals small the first few times through, we have done everything we can to set our horse up for success.
If you are a greener rider or are on a greener horse, break the exercise down a little by starting off with just the first two verticals, leaving the third and fourth rails on the ground. This way the pair starts to understand the 18-foot distance before moving on to the full exercise.
The key to Exercise 1 is to ride with enough power in the canter to be able to answer the question. Some riders mistake power for speed and then you lose your adjustability, which will catch up with you later. This is the perfect exercise to teach a rider the difference. I will often ride up to the first vertical and then make a conscious effort to soften my hand, which really gives your horse every chance to jump around the fences. You will quickly realize that if you hold your horse to the first vertical, they will end up jumping too far in and then run the risk of bouncing some of the distances.
As you work through this first exercise, do not worry about the height of the fences. I rarely make them bigger than 3’3”, regardless of the experience level of the horse. The distance is tight enough (remember, your typical one-stride is three feet longer at 21 feet) that your horse is really going to have to rock back and power over the fences. If you were to make the fences too big, you would be making the exercise near impossible for your horse, but if you find that your horse is skipping through this exercise without blinking an eye, you can raise the challenge without raising the physical expectations by alternating the sides that are raised on the vertical. The easiest way to accomplish this is to work through the exercise until you are at your desired height. Then lower one side two holes, and raise the opposite side two holes. When you look down the exercise, you should have alternating heights throughout.
After you have completed Exercise 1, give your horse a bit of a break so that he can think about everything and let it settle. By this point, you should be amazed at how quickly your horse’s feet are moving!
Jump both of the oxers in Exercise 2 separately on an angle, just to give the horse a chance to see the fences. Then approach the two oxers in the strong show jumping canter that Exercise 1 has helped you create. Encourage your horse to jump in an almost slow motion manner. As the oxers get wider, your horse will start to learn how to jump across a fence, so you need his canter to be quiet, connected, and thoughtful. You have two full strides before your next oxer, so there is no need to rush!
Start widening the oxers once your horse is cantering through the exercise in a strong but connected canter. For the more experienced combinations, I will actually widen the oxers into the exercise so that you end up making the distance a little tighter. For the novice combinations, I will widen the oxers out of the exercise so that the middle distance remains unchanged. The height will never get above 3’6” regardless of my horse’s experience, but I will challenge the horses (and riders) by widening the oxers to up to four feet across. If you are worried about your horse stepping in between the rails, put a rail diagonally across the top rails, or put a brick wall or owerbox in the middle so that the horse and rider can look at something more solid.
As the oxers get wider and the distance potentially gets smaller, use the same principles as you did in Exercise 1. Approach the fences with a strong, balanced canter that encourages your horse to jump from the base of the fence. If you are running into trouble with your horse rushing through the exercise, or even bouncing parts of Exercise 1, put placement rails between all the verticals. This will really force the horse to put a full step in and think about his feet. If your horse is still rushing, go back to your flatwork and ask your horse to go forward and come back; keep striving for that feeling that when you soften the rein, your horse stays in balance.
Keep in mind that this is a tough exercise, so you will not master it immediately. Most gridwork exercises do all the work for you, whereas these two exercises are geared towards expecting your horse to keep his balance and self-carriage with minimal jumps. As a rider, your job is the same as it would be in a more traditional gridwork exercise: stay balanced and allow your horse to jump. Sometimes this is harder than being told to do four different things with your legs and hands. So be patient and let the exercise teach you.
About Will Faudree
Based at his own Gavilan Farm in Southern Pines, North Carolina, Will Faudree has quickly established himself as an accomplished international eventer. He has represented the United States in both the 2003 Pan American Games and the 2006 World Equestrian Games. He has competed internationally for the last ten years and was a member of the silver medal Nations Cup Team at Boekelo CCI3* in 2010. Will was a reserve for the 2012 London Olympics with Andromaque and Pawlow. Learn more about Will and his horses at www.willfaudree.com.
This Grid Pro Quo first appeared in Volume 43, Issue 2 of Eventing USA.