Top professional competitors share seven tips for riding accurately to the jumps.
Today’s AQHA over-fence classes include working hunter, equitation over fences, hunter hack and jumping. Each event, though unique in style and purpose, demands horse and rider athleticism, efficiency, balance and a strong understanding of distances.
Define a Distance
Hunter-jumper riders and coaches use the words “distance” and “spot” to reference the exact geography in which a horse’s legs lift from the ground in front of a jump. A good “distance” or “spot” is a safe, esthetically pleasing measurement – typically about 6 feet away from an average 3-foot jump.
Some riders seem to be born with a natural eye for a distance. They can ride nearly any horse and harmoniously soar over jumps without a misstep. Whether consciously or not, those riders accurately calibrate their current speed, rhythm and the ground stretching out in front of them as they approach the jumps. They seldom change pace.
“You’ve either got an eye, or you’re developing your eye,” says AQHA competitor, coach and restricted hunter judge Sandy Vaughn of Ocala, Florida. “For some riders, it’s like breathing – we don’t think about breathing, we just breathe.”
On the other hand, Sandy says, no one rides a perfect distance all the time.
“Everybody is going to chip in at a jump at some point, and it’s not a cardinal sin,” she says. “I assure you, it’s going to happen. The challenge is to remember that it’s not over if you have one bad fence. So what if you had a bad fence? Your competitors might have five bad fences!”
A good distance is a critical component of a beautiful, safe ride. Horse-rider miscommunication about distances leads to haphazard, even dangerous, riding.
“If you do get to a bad spot, you have to sit deep and ride what you’ve got, without panicking,” Sandy says. “If you make a big move and don’t sit and wait, there’s a good chance you’ll be kissing the earth.”
Improve Your Odds
Whether you were born with a natural eye or not, the pros say you can always improve your odds of finding consistent distances. Dozens of great books, videos and DVDs are available on the topic, with scores of tips, ideas and coaching.
For this short refresher article, the Journal talked with six successful Quarter Horse hunter-jumper pros and noted their tips for finding distances.
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1. Understand the 12-Foot Blueprint
Every great hunter ride follows a blueprint of specific strides, take-off and landing positions. Simple mathematics rules the ride.
Hunters are expected to maintain a 12-foot average stride throughout a course to negotiate the obstacles properly and exhibit stellar jumping form. Without that rhythm, it’s difficult to find consistent distances.
“It’s custom to set a course of 3-foot jumps off the 12-foot stride, as long as the footing is good,” says Mike Christian, course designer for the AQHA and AQHYA World Championship shows. “If the footing is too deep, we might shorten the lines a little because the horse has to work harder to get to the jumps.”
Mike, who is an “R” judge for the United States Equestrian Federation, notes that for lower, 2-foot or 2-foot, 6-inch jumps, lines are set one-half to 1 foot shorter. Likewise, the lines can be set up to 2 feet longer for courses with larger, 4-foot jumps.
Still, he said, a 12-foot stride is the average. “It’s hard to judge exactly where horses leave the ground in front of the jump, but for a 3-foot jump, it’s about 6 feet away,” Mike says. “Then they land about 6 feet on the other side of the jump.”
In a perfect world, a horse will jump the first jump from 6 feet away, form a perfect arc over the top, land 6 feet on the other side, and continue away on a 12-foot stride toward the next obstacle. If horses were computers, and riders robots, the formula would work beautifully, and every horse and rider would achieve perfect distances and gorgeous, flowing rides. Unfortunately, when humans and half-ton horses try the task, the margin of error is substantial.
2. Know Your Horse’s Stride
How long is your horse’s natural stride? How do you know when you’re galloping a 12-foot stride?
Horses that compete strictly in hunter events can quickly learn to pick up a consistent, 12-foot stride with training. However, many versatile Quarter Horse hunters also compete in other disciplines, such as horsemanship, so they must learn to be even more adjustable.
“You need to know how to feel exactly the amount of ground you are covering with every stride,” says hunter trainer Lisa Brown of Charlotte, Tennessee. To develop a feel for your horse’s stride, Lisa recommends walking your horse through exercises with poles on the ground.
3. Practice Ground Poles
“Set up four poles on the ground in a big circle,” Lisa says. “Walk through those poles until you know exactly where you are in relation to the poles. Can you feel when your horse picks up his left front leg? How about his right front leg? Can you tell when you are far from the pole, near to the pole or on top of the pole?”
These exercises, Lisa says, seem almost too simple, but they work to train your eye to look and feel for distances.
“If you can’t walk over these poles and know where you’re at, then you’re definitely not ready to look for distances at a big jump,” she says. “When you can walk great through the poles, then try a trot, and ask yourself the same questions. Later, move on to the canter.”
An assistant is helpful.
“Everyone – even professional trainers – needs a ground person to give feedback and make recommendations,” Lisa says. “If you can’t work with a trainer all the time, ask a friend to help. It’s also a good idea to have someone videotape your rides so you can see for yourself how you and your horse appear.”
Eventually, Lisa sets three poles on even ground, spaced 9 feet apart, and canters through the poles to determine her horse’s stride length.
“If your horse can casually take one stride in between the poles, increase the distances to 10 feet, and then longer,” she says. “Ask your ground person to increase the distances between the three poles until they are spaced 12 feet apart and your horse can gallop through the poles consistently, without having to make a big change in step.”
As you go, remember that a faster pace does not necessarily mean that you have accomplished a longer stride.
“Sometimes, the faster you run, the shorter your horse’s stride can become,” Lisa says. “If you chase them, they are going to run and shorten their stride.”
Instead, work to create long gallops in big, open fields. If your horse isn’t especially tall, don’t give up. Plenty of 15.3-hand horses are known to have nice, long and flowing strides.
David Connors, trainer and coach of multiple world champions and AQHA Superhorses, teaches visualization as a pre-game warm-up.
“First, I tell my students to visualize the course and the approach they will take to the first jump,” says David, of Colts Neck, New Jersey. “Think about the way the course rides and the distances between the obstacles and the finish. Also, I always, always, always tell my students to look ahead to the next jump.”
“Look beyond the jump you are approaching,” she says. “And never look down. There is no golden spot on the ground. I find that when you focus on the ground, you get a chip.”
5. Maintain Rhythm
David Warner of Alto, Michigan, stresses rhythm as the key ingredient of a successful ride.
“When people start worrying too much about seeing a distance instead of riding a rhythm, it makes things more complicated,” said he says. “If you keep your horse on the correct, 12-foot rhythm, you’re not going to get the perfect distance every time, but you ride the distance you’ve got. You might ride a little long this time or a little short, and you can change it up a little, but it’s less complicated. People find their way around courses much better when they just lock in to a rhythm.”
David Warner tends to keep his students thinking about their courses as simply as possible.
“Remember that a jump is just a canter stride,” he says. “If you ride it well and consistently, the distances will come to you.”
6. Keep Coming
Shane George, world champion rider, coach and AQHA judge of Magnolia, Texas, stresses working forward out of the turns.
“The biggest thing I can say is, make sure you have your horse in front of you through the turn,” Shane says. “Do not be taking back and backpedaling. The tighter the turn, the more leg you should hold on your horse. If you allow things to change too much, you will have more trouble seeing a distance.”
The phrase “have your horse in front of you” means, essentially, “keep the rhythm consistently motoring along.” Don’t allow your horse to slow down and change pace. Slowing to balance a bit is OK, Shane says, so long as you get your horse back in front of you again as you round your corner.
“You don’t want to fly around the turn, but you also don’t want to back-pedal,” he adds. “A lot of times, people don’t know where they are. By the time they see a distance, it’s too late. Then they make a big move or just get that bad, tight spot. If the horse is in front of your leg, then you’re not pulling back or having to move up much at the jump.”
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7. Remain the Same
Most riders see a distance about three strides in front of the jump. At that moment, their tendency is to think, “Wow! There it is! I see it!” Unfortunately, at that point, instead of staying on the same rhythm and stride, the rider makes a big move – perhaps asking the horse to go forward a bit – and consequently riding past the perfect distance.
“Instead of sticking with a rhythm, they gun it,” Sandy says. “That disrupts everything. Instead, you should stay on a rhythm and let the jump come to you.”
One of the most complicated jumps to assess is a single oxer parked way out in the middle of the arena. Because of the long approach to the jump, riders tend to make stride adjustments along the way, resulting in a choppy approach and an inconsistent ride.
“People want to gear up way too early for this,” Shane says. “If you canter around the corner, take your time and hold your pace, your eye will find a distance.” Shane notes that some riders gallop directly to the single oxer, which can be impressive. Unfortunately, if they miss, it’s a big miss.
“Just be patient until you are three-quarters of the way there, and then you can see where you need to be” he says.