Difficulty in determining what adjustments must be made to place the horse properly for take-off is known as a “bad eye.” Two things have struck me about riders with this problem. First, they usually look too late at the upcoming fence, leaving themselves little time to make a decision and adjust the horse’s stride. Second, they usually have a poor sense of rhythm, which is evident not only as they approach the fences, but also when they work on the flat. They find it difficult to feel the tempo of the horse’s footfalls at the different gaits, even at the slowest gait, the walk. (Not surprisingly, they usually have little, if any, musical ability.) On course, the rider’s eyes should:
- look toward an outside line of fences as the horse crosses an imaginary centerline that bisects the ring lengthwise
- look toward a diagonal line of fences about two strides before this centerline
Your eyes should be lining up the centers of the fences and establishing a focal point at the end of the line of fences, giving you a specific point to which you must ride. When determining what adjustments must be made to meet a good take-off spot, you should still be aware of your focal point through use of peripheral vision. By looking soon enough and not allowing your eyes to wander for even a moment, you will notice that your success rate in meeting good spots will greatly increase.
As for the importance of rhythm, the reason for maintaining a steady tempo on course is to prevent the horse from having to change its pace drastically at the last moment to reach the correct take-off spot. Typically, the problem of erratic pace arises when a rider allows his horse to slow down when passing the in-gate. He must then drive the animal forward too forcefully a few strides before the upcoming fence to have enough momentum and length of stride to travel between the fences in the correct number of strides. To prevent this error, concentrate on maintaining even strides throughout the course, partaicularly when you are traveling past the in-gate or out-gate. This will make it much easier for the horse to meet the fences properly.
To improve your ability to dictate a steady tempo to the horse, practice humming a three-beat song or simply thinking a steady rhtyhm, such as “dah, dah, dum”….”dah, dah, dum,” throughout the course. An instructor can help you develop a stronger sense of rhythm by steadily beating out the downbeat for each stride–that is, the third beat, in which the horse’s leading leg strikes–using a riding crop against a jump standard. Another option is to obtain a battery-operated metronome and use it with a megaphone or microphone to project the appropriate tempo. The metronome is particularly practical because it provides a continuous beat that can be adjusted to suit your horse’s ideal rhythm.
Some riders have trouble finding a good distance because their horses are moving slightly slower than the appropriate pace throughout the entire course. If your stirrups are too long, you will be particularly prone to this problem. I think the reason is that long stirrups cause your seat to be closer to the saddle, so you subconsciouly slow the horse down to create a smoother rider. If the stirrups are the correct length for jumping (resting at the middle of your ankle bones when your feet are dropped out of the stirrups and your legs are relaxed), then you will not be uncomfortable at a hand-gallop and will therefore be more likely to maintain the proper pace. (When I’m very tired and start missing spots to fences, I take my stirrups up an extra notch to further distance myself from the horse’s motion, so that I will be encouraged to hand gallop rather than drop to a slower canter tempo to the obstacles.)