Never Miss Another Jumping Distance!

If you struggle to meet your fences, the likely culprit is not your eye but inconsistent pace, says this top A-circuit hunter rider.
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If you struggle to meet your fences, the likely culprit is not your eye but inconsistent pace, says this top A-circuit hunter rider.

Quick: What's the key ingredient of most winning hunter rounds? Seeing every jumping distance? Wrong! It's rhythm—an even rhythm, consistent pace. In fact, a rhythmic round on a horse with a very average kind of jump is more likely to win a class than a round on a horse who has an outrageously fabulous jump but an erratic pace, slowing down to some fences and making big moves to others.

Scott Stewart on Garfield at the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Scott Stewart on Garfield at the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals © Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

The dilemma if you're a typical amateur, especially a nervous or inexperienced one? Erratic is what you seem to do. You see a jumping distance? You put too much leg on and gallop to it. You don't see a jumping distance? You use too much hand to steady, steady, steady and come back. You get so wrapped up in "seeing a distance" that you create too much, you try to force things to happen and there goes your round.

Forget the Distance—Just Canter!
I learned this lesson the hard way as a Junior. I mostly did the equitation, but every once in a while I'd get a catch-ride on a hunter, and I'd invariably miss the in-and-out. Oh, I'd see the distance far back—like 10 strides away—or I'd commit to it, giver 'er the gas, and charge. It didn't present a good picture or create a good jump. And I didn't start doing better until I stopped looking for the distance (for a while I even forced myself to close my eyes or look away from the jumps) and started hanging tight, trusting my horses, feeling a good canter rhythm and letting it all work out. Result? My horses just naturally started to carry the rhythm right to the base.

To help you create and maintain that kind of rhythm, the one that will allow you and your horse to "let it all work out," we're going to do three little canter exercises.

  1. Lengthening and shortening on the flat will get you focused on a consistent, rhythmic pace.
  2. An alternating five-and six-stride line will get you thinking about what you need to do to adjust within the rhythm for your horse's natural stride.
  3. A simple little hunter course will give you the feel of sitting still and keeping a steady pace all the way around.

Do the line and the course over groundrails so you can

  • ride them at home on your own, where you can think and feel for yourself and not worry about or second-guess what an instructor's going to say.
  • confidently and safely get the feel of jumping (and getting around), without the distraction of getting over obstacles or the fear that your horse will stop or you'll fall off.
  • get all the "over-fences" practice you need without pounding your horse and making him jump a thousand times.

And here's the best part: With repetition, you'll start to do the very thing I told you not to worry about-see a distance out of different strides. When that happens, it'll raise your overall comfort level with rhythmically taking back to add, loosening up and coming forward to leave one out, and making it all look the same.

Forward and Back on the Flat
The idea: To start thinking about the rhythm of your canter, and about what you need to do to tune your horse's response to leg and hand so he smoothly maintains that rhythm.

The how-to: Pick up a right-lead canter in a light seat (just softly up out of the saddle in two-point, your weight resting in your legs), and focus on the evenness of your horse's step: one, two, three; one, two three; one, two, three. When he's as steady as clockwork, turn onto a long side and ask him to lengthen and come more forward off your leg without getting faster: Squeeze, and if he doesn't respond by stretching out and galloping, touch him with your spur. If he continues to feel sulky, lazy, or dead to your aid, add a tickle with a dressage whip until he does come forward. If he tries to take off, you've used too much leg.

Approaching the corner, collect the canter. Touch the saddle with your seat bones (sitting softly without driving with your seat), bring your shoulders up a little, stop asking with your leg, and feel the mouth to smoothly, rhythmically bring your horse back. Next long side, lighten your seat and lengthen stride again.

After several times around, mix up the pattern so your horse actually has to listen and respond to your leg and hand aids, not just automatically say "CHARGE" and gallop every time he turns onto the long side. Gallop a long side, gallop through the turn and the short side, but then collect the canter on the next long side. Stay collected through the short side, and so on. Just remember to keep the rhythm the same as you go forward, and keep it the same when you drop back.

When that all starts to feel predictable, smooth, and effortless, move on to

Forward and Back in a Line
The idea:
By rhythmically alternating five and six strides in a line (see photos below), you'll start to figure out what you need to do to adjust rhythmically on course for your horse's natural stride (smoothly moving up if he's short-strided and coming back if he's huge-strided).

The setup: Lay two groundrails 69 feet apart (five strides—the distance would be closer to 72 feet if these were jumps) along the long side of your arena.

The how-to: Pick up a right-lead canter in the same light seat you used on the flat, just softly up out of the saddle. Canter around the arena, turn toward the line, and-without trying to adjust your horse or see a distance (look off to the side, or even close your eyes if you're sure he won't stop or run out)?canter the line and absorb the feel of riding it in five easy, even strides. Come again, and this time collect him and ride the line in six: Softly feel the saddle with your seat bones, open your upper-body angle, and take back smoothly with as much hand as you need but as little hand as possible. After the "out" rail, close your angle, return to your soft two-point, canter forward in a more lengthened, stretchy stride, and do the line in five.

Repeat this exercise until your horse responds as if he's listening and feeling your very thoughts. "Jump" in, sit up a little to bring him back (you'd like to feel you can dispense with some of your hand at this point and still het the effect you're after with your deeper seat and the change of your upper-body angle), and he should do six even strides. Jump in and change very little-perhaps add a touch of leg to come forward-and he should do five even strides. Five strides even, six strides even, never quick or hurried or sluggish, aids absolutely invisible, with you merely thinking it and your horse responding because you've done it enough.

When that happens, move on to

A Simple Course
The idea:
To start to feel, and to experiment with, how things work out when you sit still and let your horse-with his consistent pace-show you the way.

The setup: Build a straightforward little hunter course using groundrails and following the diagram. (I've given you footages, but don't get hung up on them. What you're really interested in is exploring the feel of how things work out when you keep rhythm.)

The how-to: Pick up a left-lead canter in your soft two-point, establish your "five-stride" rhythm, come around the top of your arena, and start things off right by getting straight out of the turn toward?

Groundrail 1: The Single
Find the middle of the rail, look at it, and just hang out. Don't start kicking or pulling back on the reins and interrupting your horse. Keep looking and he will pick up on the rail, study it, and be right on the distance you've seen. Even if all of a sudden you don't see anything, keep the rhythm, don't try to make something happen, and (of he's a nice-enough horse) he'll show you the way. If he doesn't and you make a mistake? Trust yourself to know what it was ("Oops, I went too fast") and to know how to fix it ("Better keep the rhythm next time"). Once you've jumped around enough times-and you can do this to your heart's content without pounding your horse's legs-you'll start to realize, "When I'm not sure about a distance to the jump, I just stay the same and it will turn up."

Land, ride straight to the end of the arena, turn left, look at the first rail in the line, but don't turn until you see the second rail lined up behind it. (Turn earlier and your horse won't be straight.)

Groundrails 2 and 3: The Five-Stride Line
Ride this line as you did in the separate exercise. And remember: You're not home free once you're out of the line, so don't drop your reins and allow your horse to cut in to the left. Do what I tell my students to do at home: Land, go exaggeratedly straight-almost as if you're going to ride to the end of the ring and pull up-and then make your turn. You're going to ride this course a lot of times. Every time you let your horse cut to the left, he's going to cut in shorter and shorter, and each succeeding turn to the next rail is going to be on a worse and worse angle. And any time he comes to a jump on an angle, he's not going to jump his best jump-perfectly straight with his body and legs high-and he's not going to find a good distance.

Groundrail 4: The Single Oxer
Look straight ahead over these two groundrails (laid about 6 inches apart to give the illusion of an oxer), jump, land looking straight ahead, and ask yourself how your rhythm feels. You're in the middle of the course, and your horse has probably built a little, so take a little extra time to slow him to the pace you started with. Softly bring your upper body back a bit and touch the saddle with your seat bones. If he barrels on and ignores you, take a little feel of his mouth. And do not turn and look for the in-and-out until he's back under control and maintaining the pace you originally set. Then, and only then, turn your head to look at

Groundrail 5 and 6: The In-and-Out
Think of the in-and-out as a single element: just worry about the rail coming in and the "out" will take care of itself. If you keep your rhythm and find the middle of the rails, you'll make it out OK. Done in just a nice regular canter, the 20-foot distance will ride easily, just as a 24-foot distance rides easily when you're using actual jumps.

After the in-and-out, land and regroup to your beginning canter. It's near the end of the course, when many horses get stronger. You want to pull yours together on the end of the ring so he doesn't get running to

Groundrail 7: The Single
Here's another long approach, testing your ability to keep the rhythm the same. Nothing about your pace should change.

As you finish the "course," ask yourself, "Do I have the same pace I started with? Where did I feel a difference? What can I do differently next time to make a smoother trip?" Walk to regroup; then have another try. Repetition will help you get the rhythm.

This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.