Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Finding a Distance"

There is a great thread on COTH right now about how to let the horse find his own distances, though I fear that it may be about to spiral downward into an online cat fight due to a snarky comment or two.  Regardless, there is some great advice there about establishing a good canter and then letting the horse find the distance himself, so ignore the snarkiness and have a look. 

I've been working really hard on this, because I feel like I am on the brink of getting it...  I'm slowly clearing the cobwebs out of my mind...  Starting to get a complete picture of what I'm supposed to be doing rather than watching vague concepts float around in my brain...  Feels as thought it's just slightly out of my reach... but I can almost get a finger tip on it if I stretch up on my tippy toes...

Here are the things I've pieced together (also known as, the things Alicia has been repeating to me for a couple of years now, that may finally be starting to sink in):
  • Pace is the key.  Establishing a good, forward canter rhythm, and not letting it change on the way to the jump, is really what it's all about.  I've learned that I am a slow poke by nature.  Whenever I think I have a good canter, I need to send him forward.  When he feels like he's going too fast, that's just about right.
  • From a forward rhythm, the horse has plenty of good options.  If he's engaged and moving forward, he can easily extend his stride a hair to make the long one not so long, or he can balance on his hind end if it's going to be a little tight.  Most of the time though, it comes up right out of stride if the pace is good, which to me says that the horse is rating himself and finding his own take off point.  If he's crawling to the jump, it's either the ugly chip, the long-and-weak, or chase the last three strides to get there (which typically sends us into orbit). 
  • Straightness is the second most important issue, if not equally important.  If your horse bows out, drifts to one side, bulges through a shoulder, swings his hips out, etc., that's going to change your track and make the distance that you both saw out of the corner suddenly become miles away.  I know this because it's one of my favorite ways to screw up the long approach to the single diagonal oxer. 
  • The rider needs to support, but not micromanage.  This means neither extreme will work.  The rider can't pick-pick-pick, change her mind, or shout out seven different directions three strides out from the fence.  (That last one typically causes Tucker to roll his eyes at me in disgust.)  On the flipside of that coin, the rider can't sit there and do nothing.  Supporting leg, supporting seat (whether that's a half seat or a deeper seat), and a light contact are still necessary.  Staring up at the treeline, taking your leg off, and leaning forward toward the jump is utterly unhelpful.  Trust me, I know these things.
  • Lastly, the horse needs you to hold your position still.  If you start moving around, it's going to change his rhythm or track.  Plus, a good position will hide a multitude of sins.  When my shoulders are back, my hand is up and following, my knees aren't pinching, and my weight is in my heels, Tucker can pretty much make any distance look okay.  Even if it's a chip, if I hold a good position and stay the heck out of his way, he'll still jump it pretty well.  Conversely, if I climb up his neck, stand on my toes, lean off to one side, and shove my elbows out (picture a drunken chicken trying to peer over a fence), I can almost guarantee that he'll jump badly, knees pointed toward the ground, neck arched, back inverted, instead of swinging through his shoulder with his front end up in front of him.
I've been having better luck practicing these things in the hackamore.  For some reason, I'm much less tempted to take too much contact and slow him down on the way to the jump (maybe because he's so much softer).  We've also been doing a lot of work on making me go forward to the jumps, which makes a world of difference.

In my last lesson, we were jumping a triple across the diagonal (vertical/oxer/vertical), and they were set at a steady four to a steady four.  The first time I tried to get a conservative distance in.  That didn't work though, because then I had to move up for the first four and therefore had too much horse for the second four, which ended up being about a three-and-a-half.  The second time I went forward to the first jump, had to collect in the first four, and then just steady a little for the second four.  The third and fourth time, I got the same forward rhythm going in, and by then Smartypants had figured it out for himself so all I had to do was stretch up tall and support with my leg and seat.  Ohhhh.... I get it. 

Then we kept going to a long approach on the other diagonal to a vertical, which was set at 3'3".  My goal here was not to micromanage, just keep counting the rhythm.  He saw the distance from way back in the corner as we turned off the rail, and I just stayed still, kept counting, and kept my leg on.  Success!  Every time we jumped it, he found it right out of stride from a nice, forward, engaged canter (which of course felt way too fast for me), and he jumped it beautifully.  I'm sure it helped that we spent pretty much the entire first 40 minutes of the lesson getting him straight on the flat, because we didn't have any issues with straightness to the jumps.  Also probably helped a little that I was riding the greatest horse in the world.


  1. Even as a relatively new rider, the list that you "pieced together" makes sense to me. I love the description of your lesson. :-)

  2. You're right, forward motion is the key. Tucker sounds like a great horse that 'gets it' and you both sound like a team that knows how to work together to achieve perfection.

  3. thanks for this. I no longer do too much jumping but when I do I think I tend to throw the horse away, micromanage, pick a slow pace and jump up the neck... sigh... I think it is all the overthinking I do that messes things up.

    How useful is counting strides and how often do you?

  4. finding the right distance is always my biggest 'thing' i need to work on, but your list sounds really helpful and easy to understand :)

  5. Golden, I find that counting "one, two, three, four" all the way around the course helps me keep the rhythm the same, because it helps me notice when we're slowing down (plus, it gives me something to do so I don't harrass him with my stupid adjustments that he doesn't need). Sometimes Alicia will also tell me to start counting from the corner until we get to the jump, which helps keep the pace the same on the approach. And of course, if it's a related distance, I have to count in my head very deliberately otherwise I will absolutely lose track of where I am.


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