Adjustability to the Canter

I’ve talked recently about transitions within the gait, and using the idea of a scale of 1-10 to help get the idea of different gears and transitioning between them.

This month’s clinic had the theme gears to the gait, so I concocted an exercise and lesson plan to improve the rider’s feel for their canter, improve their horse’s adjustability, as well as improving their overall canter.

I had my riders warm up in working trot, working between a 4-trot and a 6-trot while I assessed them and made corrections to their position and way of going. We did the same in canter, and even just by riding small transitions the horses started to use their hindquarters more, to lift their shoulders and get more power to their trot and canter.

Next up we started working through a related distance: it was walked as three horse strides and four pony strides to accommodate all sizes and stride lengths. I had them jumping the related distance, with reasonably sized cross poles until the horses had settled into their usual jumping rhythm and were jumping the fences appropriately. Not too big, yet not being complacent and tripping over the fence. Once we knew how many strides a horse got between the two fences when in canter gear five, we could start to make some changes.

Firstly, I asked my riders to approach the related distance in a more collected canter – fourth gear – and to see if they could hold the canter together between the fences to get an extra stride in. Some horses manage this easily, but others who lock on to a line are less adjustable and tend to launch over the second jump rather than fit in a small stride. Not naming any names Phoenix…

To help anyone who struggled to keep a shorter canter between two fences I had a slightly different experience. I asked them to jump the first fence and then ride a circle away from the second jump, of 10-15m before jumping the second element. I laid a pole out to help them scribe a circle. It could become a jump if necessary.

Doing this circle exercise a few times helps the horse maintain a more collected canter, teaches them not to lock on to a jump too early, they become more responsive to the rider’s half halts, and pretty soon they start to fit in that extra stride in the related distance.

When the exercise is ridden well in fourth gear, there should be four regular strides between the two fences. It’s vital that the rider sets up the more collected canter early in the approach, rather than trying to adjust the canter in the middle. It usually takes a couple of attempts to get the four regular strides, rather than progressively shorter strides between the jumps.

Then it’s time to lengthen the canter over the jumps. When you jump from a more extended canter the horse’s bascule will change as their take off point moves further back and the arc they make becomes longer. Think of steeplechasers. A lot of horses here will fall onto the forehand as they try to pull themselves along, and then they aren’t in the best position to jump so can either chip in or bring the fence down with their front legs. The answer is to practice lengthening the canter on the flat and over canter poles to build the strength in the hindquarters.

Once my riders could adjust the number of strides between the related distance we moved on towards dog legs and built a simple course, but with the added challenge of trying to get a different number of strides in each related distance. The dog leg distances were all walked as three horse strides or four pony strides as well, so I challenged my riders to jump round changing between their fourth, fifth and sixth gear canters.

Each jump could be jumped from each direction, and the easiest course was to progressively lengthen the canter throughout. Starting in fourth gear and then finishing in sixth gear. Harder, was starting in sixth gear, dropping straight to fourth and then back up again.

By the end of the sessions the horses were all more adjustable in their canter, were better balanced and more uphill in all the gears. And the riders had a better feel and understanding of the canter they needed to create before jumps.

So how does this impact your course riding? Well, at competitions there is a measured distance between jumps, but when you’re walking the course and striding out the distances you may discover that the distance is a bit short or long for your horse’s normal jumping canter. In order to jump smoothly and be in the best position to go clear the stride length of your canter needs to be adjusted to best fit the distance. So when you walk the course you can start to plan your gears on the approach to jumps to best ride the getaway and hopefully go clear!

Pole Distances

A lot of people say to me that they can’t practice grids or related distances because they don’t know the striding. So let me break it down for you.

Firstly, it’s important to realise that there are two types of distances with regard to jumping; training distances and competition distances. Competition distances are standard and work on a set stride pattern. However, training distances should be bespoke to individual horses in order to enhance their strength, gymnastic ability, technique and confidence. After all, there’s no point drilling a  green horse through a grid at competition distances which are long for him, having him refuse or chip in a stride. Build him up with a grid set to his stride length and when he’s stronger, more experienced and confident you can progress to competition distances so he learns how to adjust his canter in order to go and compete successfully.

Starting with poles, it is usual to work with an odd number of poles – three or five is common – to reduce the chance of the horse trying to jump the poles. As a  guide, the distance for trotting poles is 4’6″. However each horse varies in their stride length, so you need to adjust this distance to suit your horse. As an instructor, I also don’t want to unbalance the rider. If, for example, I am introducing poles and jumping, I err on the side of caution and have the poles slightly closer together so that the horse or pony doesn’t make an exaggerated step and upset the rider’s balance. You can tell if your poles are too close or too far away for your horse’s stride by watching  where his feet are placed through the poles. With too close poles, your horse’s foot will land closer to the upcoming pole, and with poles that are too far apart the foot with land closer to previous pole.

It is at this point that it’s useful to have someone on the ground, to adjust poles and watch where the hooves fall.

Canter poles should have 9-12′ between them. Again, this depends on the length of your horse’s canter stride, so have a play around with the distances until your horse is comfortable.

Before we move any further, it’s time to get mathematical. I work, to my father’s pride, in imperial units as one of my strides is approximately one yard, or three feet. At a stretch, I can pace in metres, but I’m far more comfortable with yards and I think this length of stride suits the average adult. Practice striding out until you can stride a yard easily and confidently.

Now we will return to competition distances. A non-jumping canter stride is four yards for a horse. Three strides for a pony. So by using your four (or three) times table you can calculate how many yards are needed for an number of canter strides. I will continue talking in yards so that we don’t get confused between horse strides and human strides.

However, when you are jumping, the distance between two jumps is not 12 yards for three strides because a horse also needs room to  take off and land after a jump. Again, we keep this nice and simple, and say that two yards is required either side of a fence to allow a horse enough room to jump well. Of course, once we get to the big boys level of Newcomers, Foxhunter and beyond the horse needs more space than this, but let’s keep things simple.

Are you following this?

Let’s put the theory into practice. To put a one stride double up to competition standard for a horse, you need to have two yards after the first element to land, four yards for your non jumping canter stride, and two strides to take off over the second element. Equalling a total of eight yards, or human strides.

For a two stride double, you need two yards to land, eight for the canter strides, and two to take off – totalling twelve yards or Human strides. 

From here you should know be able to stride a related distance at a competition and know how many strides they expect you to get between fences.

Now let’s return to our training distances, and knowing our horse’s particular stride length. Lay out two canter poles and canter over them a few times, counting the number of strides you get between. Adjust the poles so that it’s a comfortable distance, with no half strides. Now, measure the distance. It may be that by taking slightly longer or shorter paces, you can adjust your strides to match that of your horse.

I mean; that you can still walk eight  human strides between your double, but instead of it being 24 feet, it’s closer to 22 feet. This means that the same formula of 2-4-2 applies, but the distance is shorter to suit your horse.

Hopefully by having this guide in your head you will feel more confident building your own grids or courses. Don’t be afraid to remeasure, or to adjust it after riding through it, so that you learn to improve your eye, and feel for when a distance is right.

Jumping Strides

A friend of mine is preparing for her BHS PTT exam soon and has been picking my brain about distances and stride lengths. I feel like I`m sitting my A-Levels again!

I think the first thing with learning about pole distances and strides is to keep it simple. Don`t overcomplicate things as that`s when you forget and get muddled.

I spent ages in college learning to stride properly. Initially we all put in a lot of effort and took about three paces to cross the classroom. I soon learnt to stride a yard, or three feet, consistently.

Next, there are a handful of measurements to remember:

  • 3 feet equals 1 yard
  • 1 yard equals 1 human stride (with practice)
  • 1 foot is approximately 30 centimetres

Then you learn the golden laws about strides:

  • 1 horse canter stride equals 4 yards
  • 1 pony canter stride equals 3 yards
  • 1.5 yards equals trotting poles (this one is open to disagreement though as some horses have larger strides and some ponies need shorter, but this is where practise improves your eye)
  • 3 yards for canter poles (again, this is open to adjustment depending on the horse/pony stride)
  • 2 yards is needed either side of a jump to land and take off (again, this is based on an average jump so would need altering over larger fences)
  • 3 yards between a placing pole and the fence

And finally, you need to practice building grids and combinations. Start with an average sized horse to get your eye in for normal. Then start to link things together to help cement them in your memory. For instance, if you were to begin with three trotting poles 1.5 yards apart, which is commonly used for novice jumpers to improve their light seat, if you are to roll the middle pole towards the last pole, voila, you have created a fence and placing pole.

To build doubles and related distances I keep it really simple, sticking to breaking it down to “landing strides, canter strides, take off strides”. Just to confuse matters, the strides I`m talking about here are human strides, or yards.

So to stride out a one stride double I walk (one of my strides equals one yard, remember) …

2 strides to land, 4 strides for a canter stride, and 2 strides to take off.

For a related distance of five strides I walk …

2 strides to land, 5 x 4 canter strides, and 2 strides to take off.

To remember how many strides I`ve walked I say “1,2,3,4. 2,2,3,4. 3,2,3,4. 4,2,3,4. 5,2,3,4.” That means when a client talks to me I can keep track of where I am!

Ultimately I found that walking strides became much easier when it was simplified, and I had logical building blocks which enabled me to build any combination, and when I practised. So I could see the effect a long distance had on the horse or if the pony has short strides and needs the distance adjusting.

On a side note, I was always taught that if teaching a mixed group you build it to the size of the larger horse as ponies can comfortably adjust his strides to fit in an extra one, but a horse finds it harder to shorten and it could be dangerous with novice jumpers.