One of the best ways to get to know a horse – or get re-acquainted with an old partner after a long winter’s inactivity – is to set a simple gymnastic exercise that allows for a gradual increase of difficulty or technicality as you get comfortable together. It allows for the rider to get a feel for the horse’s stride length, preferences and other tendencies.

Some horses are naturally more rhythmical than others, while some can get excited with the prospect of jumping. Some horses have are stronger on one lead, some may have a shift of speed at the jumps or may even offer a different length of stride one way. These are all important things to learn about your horse at home before the show season begins, and work on any aspects that need to be changed, adjusted or moderated to some degree.

The simple exercise described here is set to canter into and is meant to be ridden both directions to allow for both leads to be worked on in the same exercise.


An illustration of a grid.

Setting the poles and jumps

Start by placing an oxer with groundlines in the middle of the length of the ring and build out from each side of that. Build a vertical on each side, 21’ away from the oxer (with no ground lines), then a pole on the ground 30’ from the vertical on each end.

It’s important to use a tape measure to double-check your walking paces – it’s actually good practice to calibrate your walking measurements from time to time!

Once the grid is built, remove the poles from the verticals so they’re just empty standards, so you start with just the poles at either end and the oxer set comfortably small in the middle. Warm up by going both directions from pole to oxer to pole, getting your horse comfortable with the distance and starting to identify some of the tendencies – straightness, rhythm, stride length on landing compared to takeoff, and so on. The distance from pole to oxer should be a comfortable four strides at a relaxed normal working canter, and again four strides on the landing to the next pole. (The distances might seem a bit snug on paper, but they ride well at a relaxed step and keep the horse compact and round.)

You may notice the four strides on the landing side of the oxer feels shorter than during the approach, which is an indication that your horse is getting quick or too intense at the oxer. Before building the rest of the exercise, this is the time to do a downward transition (i.e. pull up) before the landing side pole to ensure your horse understands we want them to stay in the rhythm and relaxed rather than escape across the oxer.

Head-on shot of a horse jumping a grid.

This exercise allows the rider to concentrate on straightness, pace and responsiveness. (Holly Grayton photo)

Once you have gone back and forth a couple of times, your horse is warmed up and you have made any adjustments to the canter, add in one vertical and start the exercise at the end you’ve placed the vertical – so it goes pole, two strides to vertical, one stride to oxer, and four strides to pole.

Again you may notice the addition of an element gets your horse excited on the landing side of the oxer, so watch for that and consider a pull up between the oxer and the pole to set the intention of them landing and coming back to you before continuing to the pole.

Repeat this phase until you feel your horse understands the task, and then reverse the approach so you start with the four stride line. If your horse gets excited here, remain smooth and clear with your instruction and if necessary do a downward transition after the last pole this time, rather than in the two stride space (that would be too tough and sharp to be helpful!).

Add in the last vertical and repeat both directions, thinking about your horse’s canter as well as your own position throughout – strong position allows for clear communication and most importantly allows us to follow our horses in the most sympathetic way.

A black-and-white photo of a woman with a horse.Typically this grid shouldn’t get very big – maybe only 1.0-1.10m at the biggest. The biggest learning for your horse will be seeing a line of jumps and not getting anxious, and listening to your voice and body language.



Holly Grayton is the head trainer, EC licensed coach and senior VP of Grayton Farms, a show jumping training and sales stable in Calgary, Alberta.