In recently posting a video of the 2009 Medal Finals, I mentioned that a long approach to a single fence often encouraged riders to find a longer than desirable take-off spot to a fence. I’d like to elaborate on this. The pace for a hunter or equitation course is based on getting a horse to consistently take 12-foot strides, for courses in the United States are based on this as the median length of stride for horses. A short-strided horse might naturally cover the ground in 11-foot strides, while a long-strided horse might take 13-foot strides. To be as fair as possible to all, the 12-foot stride was adopted. The short-strided horse could pick up the pace to make the distances between the fences, and the long-strided horse could ease the pace back a little.
When the short-strided horse increases pace, not only will the distances between the fences be covered more easily, but the take-off and landing spots will also naturally increase. The extra momentum of increased pace will encourage the horse to be bolder to the fences, so that it will take-off farther from each fence. The natural flight pattern, which is to leave and land the same distance from the center of the fence, coupled with the increased momentum will cause the horse to also land farther from the fence. Additionally, the horse’s momentum, longer stride, and bolder mindset will encourage the rider to look for a take-off spot that is farther than normal from the fence. This is called “lengthening the rider’s eye,” and that is precisely what happens when a rider makes a long approach to a single fence. The horse has lots of room to increase its pace and, particularly when the fence is being jumped toward the in-gate, the horse and rider tend to seek a long take-off spot—sometimes way too long!
Conversely, when a horse decreases pace, the momentum drops, the stride shortens, and neither the horse nor rider are as likely to look for a long spot. In fact, they are both likely to seek a take-off spot that is too short. Once you know this, you can use it to your advantage, dropping the pace to help you find a medium to slightly-short take-off spot before a tight turn or a test such as halting after a fence, or increasing the pace when you know the upcoming line of fences is set for longer than normal strides. Even for horses that normally have a 12-foot stride, there can be challenges on courses, particularly in equitation and jumper classes where the strides are changed throughout the course. Some distances between fences may be based on an 11-foot stride, while others are based on a 13-foot stride. These challenges test the skills of the riders and abilities of the horses.
When approaching a tight line, by decreasing the pace a little—or, in the case of an advanced rider, by collecting the horse into shorter strides on the approach—the rider can help himself find a slightly shorter take-off spot, making the landing a little shorter and the following strides a little shorter, so that everything fits perfectly in the line. When approaching a long line, by increasing the pace—or, in the case of the advanced rider, by lengthening the strides on the approach—the rider can help himself find a slightly longer take-off spot, making the landing a little longer and the following strides longer, too, so that everything fits well in the line.
To make the most beautiful performance, the changes in the length of stride need to happen incrementally over the course of many strides so that the changes are barely perceptible. There is a lengthy discussion of riding distances in my latest book, The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing, and Judging, for those of you who are interested. At the highest level of competition, success depends upon having a detailed plan and riding through it well. If you don’t understand exactly what the test is in the various elements on course, it is nearly impossible to be competitively successful, so it is very important to have a good education on this subject.