Q: I ride a wonderful horse, but I just can’t seem to get a consistent and correct distance to the jump. My horse is adjustable, so the chips and long spots are usually my fault. What exercises do you recommend to help me better my eye?
A: “Most of the problems riders face when it comes to distances stem from last-minute panic and feeling that they aren’t going to get the right takeoff point,” says Becky Sanoja, a British Horse Society- and United States Hunter Jumper Association-certified instructor. Sanoja has been training horses and riders for over 40 years, from green to the Grand Prix ring.
“Riders start to doubt their distance and then get stiff in their arms and hands,” she says. “This interferes with the horse’s mouth, making him unable to maintain the rhythm and cadence needed to arrive at a good distance to the fence.”
To help improve your eye for finding the correct distance, give some of Sanoja’s favorite exercises a try:
- You can do a lot of jump schooling without wearing out your horse by practicing distances with poles on the ground. Set up some poles at measured distances around the arena.
For example, place two poles five strides apart (that’s 20 giant steps of 3 feet each). Take time to establish a rhythmic canter, and then work on shortening and lengthening your horse’s stride between the poles.
- Canter over poles in two-point (jumping position), keeping your arms relaxed from your shoulder joints to your hands. You need to stay balanced in the two-point position and not resting on your hands. If you do, then you need more work in two-point with and without stirrups.
- The last three strides to the fence should be about the horse. As a rider, don’t interfere with those last three strides by being too heavy with your hands. If you find your horse’s rhythm is changing a few strides before the fence, go back to exercise No. 2.
- Get a feel for distances by placing a canter pole about three strides from the fence. After you go over the canter pole, remember to relax your arms and go with the motion.
- Don’t look down at the bottom of a jump. It will make your body tip forward and you’ll lose contact with the reins. That will cause the horse to lose power in his haunches, put weight on his forehand, and take an extra step instead of taking off from the correct spot. To force yourself to look up, have someone place a glove or small towel on the top of the jump. Make yourself focus on the item so you’re not looking down.
- Give your horse a straight approach. Come through the turn with your horse bent uniformly around your leg from poll to tail, then stay straight once you point to the jump. This is essential for finding the correct distance.
ALLISON GRIEST is a freelance writer based in Texas.