1. Focus on the canter first
There is a strong school of thought that if your canter and rhythm is good, the distance will come. With this approach, you don’t really look for a stride; the theory being that if the canter, line, and rhythm is good enough then it shouldn’t matter if you’re slightly too deep or slightly too long because the horse will still be able to jump easily.
For this, your focus always needs to be on maintaining a good, balanced, and rhythmical canter with plenty of engagement. Once the canter is good, the horse can easily make his own minor adjustments in front of the fence.
What’s a good exercise to help find the right canter?
There are lots but here’s easy one which can be done with even very green horses. Set up one small jump on a 20m circle and canter to it. Land, continue cantering on the circle to the jump again, and count your strides. Try to put in the same number of strides each time. It’s harder than it sounds!
Another good option is to lay out poles around 6 strides apart and practice getting the right distance to them. It’s important to note that the right canter isn’t always the same. For example, it could be a more collected one if you were jumping a big double of uprights, or it might be more forward to a triple bar by itself.
The main thing is that the canter has to be decided as soon as you’re on your line to the fence – breaking the rhythm by suddenly deciding to go much slower or faster when you’re three strides out from the jump is where things get messy!
In a jump-off round where you need to go much faster or canter out of your normal rhythm for some reason, you often have to accept that the stride might not be perfect and it’s in these instances where it pays dividends to have produced a responsive, confident horse who is used to making his own adjustments up to (and over!) the fence.
2. Learn to make a decision
It’s usually (except on occasion in a jump off!) better to jump out of a short, bouncy canter than a longer, flatter one. If the horse gets long, they stand more chance of knocking poles.
Even in a very forward canter, you still want to feel that you have a degree of bounce and uphill movement in front of the fence.
If you’re in a good canter, the jump is going to come to you and there’s not always a need to chase on down to it. All this means is that often, riders have to learn to wait to their fences instead of chasing wildly to them.
The idea of waiting to your fence helps you to visualise bouncing the canter, especially on the last few strides which are the ones that really determine whether your jump is good or not so much.
The waiting needs to be soft and with a good connection in order to arrive at the jump in good balance and give your horse the opportunity to use his head and neck.
Having said that, you don’t always want to go on the short distance – it’s important not to let a horse develop the habit and riders sometimes need to commit to the distance they see rather than freezing and not supporting the horse with a bit of extra leg or a slight half halt with the shoulders when they know the distance will be off.
The key to this? Having a canter which is in front of your leg and with enough impulsion that you feel confident to wait or slightly lengthen very easily. If the canter isn’t strong enough, forward enough, balanced enough and so on, the idea of being able to wait quietly but with power and adjustability can feel like a foreign concept!
Think of a well-behaved dog going on a walk. They’re always keen to go and you can feel the positive tension on the end of the lead as they strain slightly, but they’re not hauling your arms out, nor are you having to drag them down the street.