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.
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.
- Lengthening and shortening on the flat will get you focused on a consistent, rhythmic pace.
- 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.
- 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 …