angle-left How to Find a Distance to a Jump, Part 1

How to Find a Distance to a Jump, Part 1

Top professional competitors share horse-training tips for riding accurately to the jumps.
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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.

Heed these horse-training tips for success in over-fences classes.

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, aesthetically 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 Professional Horsewoman and 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.

To compete in AQHA-approved over-fence classes, you need a current AQHA membership. Join or renew today and enjoy the upcoming show season! Plus, take advantage of the hundreds of dollars in discounts and savings members enjoy each year!

1. Understand the 12-Foot Blueprint

Every great hunter ride follows a blueprint of specific strides, take-off and landing positions. Simple math 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.

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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.