Question: I just moved up my 6-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred to the 2-foot-6 hunters. Though he has a good-sized stride, I'm having trouble getting the correct horse striding in the lines at shows. They are set based on a 12-foot stride, which I understand is considered the ideal for jumping 3 feet. At 2-foot-6, though, I feel like I either have to run him down the lines to make the correct horse striding or settle and add a stride—neither being ideal. Do you have any suggestions for getting the correct striding at this height without causing him to look rushed and get flat to the jumps?
Answer: You point out an unfortunately common problem with course design at the lower levels. It's not necessarily the 12-foot striding that's giving your horse trouble. More likely, it's the overly long takeoff and landing distances for fences this size. To produce an ideal bascule, your horse should take off and land a distance away from the jump equal to about one or one-and-a-half times the height of the fence. Courses set on a 12-foot stride usually provide 6 feet on either side of the jump for takeoff and landing. This is actually more suitable for fences 4 feet and higher, but it generally works out fine for 3-foot and 3-foot-6 jumps, too. The above formula doesn't work perfectly with jumps smaller than about 3 feet because it results in a bascule significantly shorter than your horse's normal stride. For example, if your horse takes off and lands 2½ feet from a 2-foot-6 vertical, his jumping effort spans only 5 feet—much shorter than a normal 12-foot stride. Most horses naturally cover more ground than that over smaller jumps, basically treating them like another canter stride, just transferring some of the forward energy upward.
So, in essence, jumps this size act more like speed bumps, slightly shortening your horse's stride momentarily over each fence—and forcing him to lengthen his stride even more to make up the distance in between the jumps. Alternatively, horses learn to make up the distance by taking longer leaps over the jumps and flattening their bascules, which is not desirable in a young horse you hope to train to higher levels.
Unfortunately, because this striding is the norm at shows, judges still reward the horses who fit in the standard number of strides. Many big-strided, easy-going horses can "step over" the jumps without shortening their strides much, and make up the extra distance fairly comfortably without losing their form or rhythm. But this can be challenging for horses with average or shorter-than-average strides. It can also be difficult for more sensitive horses—including many Thoroughbreds—who tend to quicken, rather than lengthen, their strides in reaction to your leg.
Teaching a horse to lengthen his stride without losing his balance (falling on his forehand) and rhythm takes time and patience. At this stage, it's much more important for you to focus on teaching your horse to relax in the show ring, feel comfortable about the jumps and maintain his rhythm and balance before and after each jump. Adding the stride on the lines will help you achieve these goals. It won't win you points with the judge, though, so treat your shows at this level as training sessions.
When your horse has learned to land and "wait" for you, rather than rush to the next jump, he's ready to learn to lengthen his stride. Instead of falling on his forehand when you close your leg, he'll now be able to stay balanced back on his hindquarters, where he can produce the power necessary to make bigger strides.
By the time he's reached this skill level, though, he'll probably also be ready to move up to higher jumps. These will require longer takeoff and landing distances, which will mean less ground for him to make up in between jumps. So the striding problem will disappear! And in the meantime, you'll have produced a balanced, competitive jumping horse.
In the last three decades, Karen Healey's students have won more than 75 medal finals and hunter/jumper championships. Many have gone on to be successful grand-prix riders. Like her mentor, George Morris, Karen advances the highest standards of horsemanship in riders of all levels. Based at Shelburne Farms in Hidden Valley, California, Karen also serves on multiple US Hunter Jumper Association committees.