Seeing a good distance is a skill that all riders should master if they want to be successful. Horses jump their best when they arrive at a jump in the correct balance and at the correct distance. Maintaining a quality canter should be your number one priority and you need to ride on the right side of your brain to keep this canter together. But even if you always arrive at jumps in THE PERFECT canter your horse will only be able to jump so big out the wrong distance. When your horse is too far away from the jump when it takes off it will have to cover an unnecessary amount of spread and its bascule will be flat. If your horse is too close to a jump it will struggle to get its front legs out of the way to clear the jump and cover the jump’s spread. Even if you have no desire to clear massive jumps, seeing a good distance will make your horse’s job easier and you will have far more comfortable rides.
It is impossible to master seeing a distance overnight; you have to ride over a countless number of jumps to develop a feel for seeing a distance. You cannot jump your horse seven days a week, three hours per ride, to speed up your learning curve. But there is a safe and effective way to hasten the development of this critical skill: pole work. How to implement pole-work in your day-to-day rides to accelerate the development of your eye for distances:
1. Warm-up over poles before jumping – Save your horse’s legs by jumping a little less and cantering over poles a lot more. In all of your jump school warm-ups canter over poles on the ground before you start soaring over jumps. Ride the lines you have set up in your jump school as just poles on the ground and work on riding the ideal canter down these lines to make the distances work. Treat each pole as though it were a ginormous jump. If you ride sloppily over poles because you know your horse can just canter over them, the exercise will serve no purpose. Once you feel that you are consistently nailing your distances over the courses as poles then start jumping. You should find that you are in a great rhythm as soon as you start jumping. No more wasting jumps trying to get your eye warmed up.
2. Dressage school with poles – Scatter some poles around your dressage arena before your ride. When you are schooling dressage canter and trot over some poles during your regular work. Work on finding that sweet spot to the pole every time. Adding some poles into the mix of your dressage schools will not inhibit your dressage training but it will give you the opportunity to have extra practice at seeing a distance.
3. Pole-work days – Add a weekly pole-work day to your horse’s training schedule. Set up trot poles (4-4.5 feet apart) and canter poles (9-11 feet apart). Decide how many trot or canter poles to put in a row based on your horse’s experience. My Preliminary horses can canter or trot over poles indefinitely but my four-year-old can only handle three to four in a row. The focus of this pole-work is to practice riding to the optimal distance over the poles and keeping the quality gait you arrive in over all of the poles. You can play a bit with the distance between the poles to make them require a regular, collected or lengthened ride. This is smart to practice because at competitions, course designers use a variety of jump types and distances between them, to test your ability to ride different stride lengths to jumps. Make sure you have done the right preparation to hit that perfect distance out of any stride.
4. The great ring of poles - You can also set poles up on circle or fan shape. Start with three poles and as your horse gets more comfortable with the exercise you can add more. The far outside distance between the poles should measure 12 feet and the inside distance should measure nine feet. Riding poles on a circle is a deceivingly challenging exercise because you have to control your horse’s bend and shoulders as it canters over poles. If your horse drifts in or out on the circle the stride length required between poles will change to quickly for your horse to adjust its canter. You can intentionally canter around the outside of the circle on a longer stride or the inside on a shorter stride. This helps improve your horse’s adjustability. I love this exercise because it forces me to be dead accurate and makes me immediately aware if I am letting my horse drift off my line. This exercise encourages you to hit the right distance into it because if you have a miss it will make it very awkward to keep your horse in a balanced gait over the poles.
Go throw some poles on the ground and pretend they are four-star jumps if you want to have the best eye for distances in 2016…