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The Heartbeat of a Show-Jumping Course

Olympic course designer Steve Stephens shares insights on how to analyze questions to maximize your performance.

Course designer Steve Stephens
Steve Stephens
© Nancy Jaffer

You've studied the course diagram posted by the ring and memorized your route in the upcoming jumper class. The arena is now open for the course walk. This is the time to make decisions based on knowing how long and adjustable your horse's step is, figuring out the striding along the course, and spotting unusual—and potentially problematic—fences. How you evaluate a course before riding it can be crucial for a successful round. Olympic course designer Steve Stephens offers insights on how to analyze the test to maximize your performance.

Every course has a heartbeat that reflects the designer's style. As you walk the course on foot, ask yourself, "What is he doing out here? He‘s got a question that I‘ve got to solve."

The answer is unique for each competitor who enters the ring because every horse has a different stride and his own challenges. Some might not like walls or liverpools. All likely will favor one direction over the other. Left and right turns change a horse's balance and test your training skills, with lead changes and rhythm readjustments for the approach to the next jump. The better you know your horse, the better you can analyze the course to suit him.

The Science of Striding
The course designer also is thinking about how his plan will affect different horses as he puts together his route: "What is the short-strided horse going to do here? What is the big-strided horse going to do here?"


Sometimes when a course designer puts two fences in a row, he's giving you the answer to his question by requiring a particular stride between them. If it's five strides, that's the answer. But other times he's requiring you to make a decision. On one line, you might do five strides, while another rider will do six.

Walking the course, you have to know where your horse is landing to determine how tight a line is going to be. Most horses will touch down about 6 feet on the landing side of the fence. If your horse is scopey you probably will extend that distance to account for his ability to jump higher and wider, which will cause him to land farther from the fence. If your pace is stronger, you also will need to add footage to account for the arc of the jump. This is particularly important in combinations because of the set distance within one or two strides.

In figuring striding, a lot depends on the type of fences being used. For instance, 28 feet from one vertical to ­another in a one-stride is long, but it's not dangerous because you're not dealing with oxers, which require a greater type of effort. On the other hand, a tight distance inside at 24 feet 6 inches is such an easy question to ask. For a mid-level type of course, I am very comfortable making the distance 26 feet. It will feel long during the walk if you're figuring on the average 12-foot length of a horse's stride, but in reality, it would be a normal distance for vertical to vertical. You can leave your horse alone and just let him jump it with limited adjustments using your legs and/or seat.

For an oxer-to-vertical combination, 25 feet between the fences is a normal distance. Oxer-to-oxer is a whole different ballgame. For that, a very normal distance would be 24 feet. But by adding a foot and a half inside two oxers, bringing it to 25 feet 6 inches, it becomes a really scopey distance. Then it's a "Gem Twist, I can do that" sort of thing. You won't see this question in an ordinary Amateur-Owner class or a Level 3 jumper class (height 3-foot-6, width 3-foot-6 to 4 feet). I've probably done it in the American Invitational and the Gold Cup.

A designer also is careful where he uses that type of combination on the course. You can't do it coming to a corner or out of a corner, for instance, because a horse needs a little bit more galloping, a power approach to it.

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