show jumping

Show Jumping: Simplifying Distance and Approach

Beginners, advanced amateur riders and even some fresh pro riders worry about missing jumping distances. Find out ways to stop missing yours!

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The Pivoriders Team
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Beginners, advanced amateur riders and even some fresh pro riders worry about missing jumping distances. Many riders brag about how great an eye they have while others are worried about their erratic approaches and they think they don’t have “the eye”. 

This article aims to help you jump more confidently even if you are having a bad time seeing your distances.

Distance Briefly Explained

When you are riding down a fence, your horse will take off to overcome the obstacle at some point. There is an acceptable take-off area that is neither too far nor too close to the obstacle. As fences grow bigger, the ideal take-off area or “sweet spot” gets smaller. Missing a distance may end up in a knock-down in the best-case scenario.

To see a distance is to know (or at least have a good guess) where the horse will take off to jump an obstacle.

How Important is It To See a Distance?

You may have learned that knowing your distance in anticipation will help you make corrections to take-off from the right spot.

Many riders are in the habit of counting strides as they approach a fence. Let’s say, for example: 3,2,1 or 1,2,3. Counting strides can be effective for training purposes and beginners, but it’s not advisable while you are jumping a course. Counting strides is only advisable when you are jumping related distances. Then you know exactly how many strides there are between the obstacles.

If you don’t see your distance, don’t hold your horse back to try to find it; it’s the worst mistake you can make. To clear a fence you need momentum, rhythm, and confidence. Just don’t lose focus and keep cantering towards the jump. Trust your horse. He is the one jumping the fence after all. If you give him enough confidence and let him reach the fence with enough momentum, he will jump from an acceptable distance. 

If you are having a hard time seeing the distance and you hold your horse to try to see it, he will lose momentum. He won’t feel confident enough to overcome the jump. In this case, there are two possible outcomes, depending on your horse’s character. A strong and big-hearted horse will try to clear the jump for you, but the lack of pace and momentum will make him “chip in” (jumping too short). If your horse is not strong enough or feels insecure, he may refuse or avoid the jump not to get hurt, and who can blame him.

What some riders do when they don’t see the distance is to push their horse against the fence. The horse will lose rhythm and gain speed, but he may let drive himself, taking off too far from the fence. He will have to make a big effort with high odds of knocking the pole down. What’s worse, he may not be willing to make such an effort, which may end in a runout.

Some riders charge into obstacles as soon as they have seen the distance, get anxious, and run towards it. This may take the horse out of distance and cause a missed jump because distance varies with speed.

Show jumping is all about knowing our horse, rhythm, balance, and quality and good canter. If you manage to ride following these rules, and you have done a fine flatwork, you won’t need to find the distance. The distance will find you.

Enjoy Your Ride, Just Relax

There are many exercises you can do with poles, cavalettis, and crossrails to train your eye, but what’s most important is to get to know your horse. It’s best to focus on training your horse and your riding skills to achieve a good-quality, paced canter. 

When you are walking a show jumping course, don’t just do it to memorize it and measure the related distances. Take some time to develop a plan. How would you take the curves to have a good approach to the obstacles? Check for any slopes on the terrain. See where the entrance door and the stables are and remember that horses tend to go faster when they are heading towards them.

Once you started your round, don’t pay that much attention to distance. If you have a good canter, and you are approaching the fences with enough rhythm, take your horse steady to the jump and wait for the fence to come to you. Focus on keeping a good rhythm along the course. Compensate the slopes and other external factors. If you can do this, you will be able to do a smooth round, which will look natural and harmonious. 

Riders too aware of distance are so worried about not missing it that they may end with no faults, but their ride will look uneven. You can tell that they are intervening too much. If you are doing a class against the clock, knowing your horse is essential to know how much you can ask of it, and he will find the distance himself.

A “good eye” is only another aspect to keep in mind, but it’s not the key to the sport. Practice a lot, exercise your horse, and try to have great equitation. The rest will just come to you. Good luck on the course!

Interested in getting more instruction on your riding? Consider joining Pivo Circle where you can find the best coaches, no matter your location.