Get your distances right
Showjumpers commonly talk about ‘seeing’ distances when jumping. The problem with this approach is that it only deals with what happens in the immediate vicinity of the jump, and if you struggle to ‘see’ the distance, you can find yourself in a flat panic on top of the fence. Much more significant than the take-off stride itself is actually the strides that come before it, through the corner and from the landing of the previous jump. After all, as many have said before, jumping is just flatwork with some obstacles in the way.
Two key elements affect the take-off spot and thus the ‘seeing of distances.’ These are the quality of the gait with which you approach the fence, and the track you take to the fence. Here we examine both and give you an exercise to work on, which will help make ‘seeing your distances’ much less nerve-wracking.
The quality of the canter is defined by two main components: balance and rhythm. Balance is created through the use of half-halts, regardless of the speed of the canter. Horses naturally carry 60% of their weight on their forehand and 40% on the hind end. Our job as riders is to shift the additional 20% on the front legs towards the hind legs to try and reverse this balance. The way we do this is predominantly through the use of well-timed half-halts. A half-halt serves as a check, rebalancing the horse’s weight and, in effect, tipping the weight back where it needs to be.
The balance of the canter also, of course, affects the rhythm of the canter: a horse that has more weight on the forehand will gain momentum and become faster and faster through no fault of his own. However, the two are still separate and must be considered as different entities with some cross-influence.
The rhythm you choose depends on the horse, jump height, and questions being asked on the course. For example, the rhythm for a smaller course will be slower than the one used for a bigger course and a more technical course may require more adjustability than a more straightforward course. Horses or ponies that are less athletic are also likely to need slightly faster rhythms to jump the same sized course as a more athletic horse.
As mentioned in the introduction, the other element of creating the take-off stride is the route to the fence. Taking the route that allows you to give your horse the straightest approach is always going to be optimal, and you want to be heading for the middle of the jump each time. In a jump-off that is tight for time, this is a little unrealistic, but while you get your ‘eye in’ and learn about distances, it is a good idea to ‘set yourself up for success by taking a clean line into the fence.
A great low-impact way of practicing the concepts of the approach is to set up two poles or small jumps in a bending line with 20 metres from centre to centre.
Once you have warmed up, use an energetic rhythm to canter through the bending line, finding the track that perpendicularly intersects each pole at the centre, counting your strides. The number of strides you just did in the line is what you should use as your ‘original number.’
Your next goal will be to do your original number plus one stride. Evaluate your track and quality of canter from the first time you rode the line and think critically about which you will change to add a stride successfully. If you were very careful in your track, you likely wouldn’t have much to change except a slower rhythm with more balancing half-halts.
The next task is to do your original number minus one stride. This can be done by riding each pole at an angle, eliminating the stride in the middle of the line previously used to turn. Rhythm can be adjusted by speeding up the canter and increasing the length of stride, while a few well-timed balancing half-halts will ensure your horse is not barreling along on the forehand and pulling you through the exercise.
Be sure to practice this exercise equally in both directions, noticing if one lead is more challenging than the other. The more you practice, the more you will understand how to use track, rhythm, and balance to benefit each horse you ride.
Once you have worked on the track and quality of the canter, understanding where your horse will take off is much easier. This exercise helps you to become more in tune with your horse so that each stride becomes predictable for you.
Furthermore, your horse will be better able to deal with the fence in front of him when there is a straight, well-planned approach and a balanced rhythmic canter. As his weight is already shifted to his hind end, he will be more adjustable on the approach to the jump. He will also be more likely to push off with strength in his hindquarters and round his back, creating a better jumping effort. With all of these elements controlled, arriving at a workable take-off spot becomes much simpler.