Seeing a stride to a fence involves knowing the point from which your horse is going to take off in order to clear a jump. Is said to be a natural instinct that can’t be taught; a bit like singing; you can either hold a tune, or you can’t. However, that’s not to say we can’t improve the skills we already have – as with riding practice and correct training, the elusive stride can be seen and found!The best advice from many trainers is NOT to focus on seeing a stride when show jumping or riding cross country fences. Instead, it is better to practice correct riding and training, as this helps your horse develop rhythm and agility – this ability helps the horse clear a fence safely, ‘get out of trouble’ if the stride is wrong, and generally clear a fence. (Remember, this is our ultimate goal as horse riders, when jumping – we want to achieve a clear round that is also safe, and doesn’t adversely affect our horse’s soundness or health). A well-balanced horse with good rhythm is more likely to approach a fence on a good stride than one whose canter speeds up and slows down on a whim!
Here are our top ten tips to seeing a stride, and achieving a ride with your horse that lends itself to approaching a fence on a good stride:
- Know your horse’s stride length – the average distance used to calculate jumping distances, or poles used for cantering over, is 9-12 feet. This means your horse will cover at least this distance over a fence, more if the fence is wider. Work with a friend or instructor on the ground to ascertain your horse’s average stride, as you can then stride the distance out yourself on foot between fences, to work out how many you think he will take on a forward-going canter in a course of fences.
- It is important to achieve a canter that is forward going, whatever the pace – and it is perfectly possible to achieve a forward going canter that is slow, but has impulsion. Think of the show jumpers that clear puissance fences – often, their approach is very quiet.
- A similar point to number one; but don’t rush – many of us are guilty of ‘kicking on’ to a fence because we know we need momentum, however this can result in the horse jumping the fence badly, potentially causing injury and a loss of confidence to both horse and rider.
- Don’t copy someone else’s style. When show jumping was more popular in the media thirty years ago, many budding jumping riders copied their TV idols’ techniques; to many people, this appeared to involve a fast, yet contained approach to a fence, and a dramatic lunge with the torso (even over one side of the horse’s neck), as the animal jumped. However, fashions have changed over the years, and thanks to many international influences on the sport, 21st century show jumping is generally much quieter, with the focus on not unbalancing the horse. Focus on your own riding, and adapt it to suit your horse; you will know for example if he gets heavy on the forehand, or is prone to taking off early.
- Practice makes perfect. Have you watched the American show jumping teams, renowned for their accuracy? For many trainers, this country is notable because their show jumping classes are based on hunter jumping and equitation classes, with jumps at specific distances. Set up jumps at home or at your yard (with a friend or instructor to help), at different distances. For example, if you have a nice four stride, related distance between two fences, practice obtaining a faster line with three strides, and then slowing it down to achieve a more leisurely five strides; you will need to sit up, utilise your shoulders to slow the pace, contain the horse’s stride, and try to maintain a consistent pace between the fences.
- Get to know the different types of fences – for example, an upright, parallel or spread. The wider the fence, the wider your horse will jump. As a rough guideline, the horse will take off around the same distance from a vertical fence as it is high, although of course that does depend on the height of the fence and the horse’s style. (Eg, for a vertical fence that is one metre high, taking off one metre in front of the fence and landing one metre away should give you a nice jump, with a good ‘bascule’ shape. Mark out one metre from your upright fence in the arena surface as a guideline take off point. (NB, this tip may seem contradictory, but try not to look down! Look up and ahead.)
- Don’t neglect your trot work – many show jumping horses don’t trot much in the competition arena, but this doesn’t mean you should neglect the gait. Remember, we want to develop rhythm and agility, and a well-balanced horse.
- Equally, while the horse may compete and jump out of a canter, the walk is also important, and is often said to be a good indicator of how well a horse jumps. (Eg. a poor walk equals a poor jump.) Practice transitions through halt, walk and trot in the arena to engage the quarters and produce an hurried walk, whereby the horse ‘tracks up’ with his hind feet, eg. at least stepping into the footfalls of the forefeet. Use canter poles set at 9-12 feet apart (the same distance between each) in the arena and walk over them, focusing on a consistent pace. These poles help educate the rider’s eye.
- Verbally count out loud your strides as you approach a fence – try to start counting at least three canter strides from the fence; one, two three, etc.
- Don’t panic! If you’ve got a forward-going, controlled canter, you can jump most things, and will only be half a stride out if you do meet the fence wrong. As mentioned, if your horse is athletic, he should be able to jump the fence.