The elusive good distance is the bane of many a hunter/jumper rider’s life!
It can be a constant struggle of trial and error in the search for a course containing all good and even distances. This can cause a feeling of stress and anxiety in riders as they worry that they will not find the right distances. An understanding of how all parts of a ride contribute to the results of a good course can help lessen that anxiety and give you the tools to improve your distances. It is important to become a curious, nonjudgmental rider and ask yourself why things happen and analyze how good and bad results occur. This allows you to detach from self-judgment and instead focus on the mechanics of riding and what is needed from both the rider and the horse to create good results. Analyzing turns on a course is a good start to understanding how to get better distances.
A ‘bad’ distance may well have been the result of a not so good turn.
Often riders think their problems with distances stem from something they did in or near the jump. Yes, there are things that riders do near jumps that add to a bad distance. But that jump up the neck, desperate pull on the reins or other last minute changes are not usually the root of the not great distance. Instead they are usually desperate last minute responses by the rider, often in a bit of a panic, to deal with the realization that they aren’t meeting the jump well. The ‘bad’ distance may well have been the result of a not so good turn. If a rider works on improving their turns they can be well on their way to better distances.
So what can happen in the turns to create distance problems?
One of the biggest problems I see is when riders pull on their horse in the turn, either because they feel the horse is going too fast, they think they have to maintain a overly connected frame, they are ahead of the horse’s motion in a perched position and locked on their hands or they are pulling hard on the inside rein to pull the horse through the turn. Any form of pulling on a horse in a turn is going to cause the horse to lose forward motion and stall out. This often results in the horse being crooked as well. When the horse stalls out in a turn the motor (hind end) gets left trailing behind causing the horse to lose power and straightness. This is where a ‘bad’ distance can begin. With no power, the horse and rider may surge to try and regain the energy causing long pulling distances or big chips. The crookedness creates a problem as well because the horse isn’t pushing off evenly behind and that can make a not so good distance even worse. If the rider and horse don’t surge to regain power, the canter stays backwards all the way to the jump often causing a weak, long distance, weak chips or a stop. The crookedness again adds to the problem with uneven loading behind. These scenarios can cause riders to have that last minute panic jump up the neck or frantic pull on the reins.
Another problem that can occur in a turn is when a rider is perched ahead and has a loopy rein, no energy in the canter and no connection at all. This also creates surges or weak rides to the jumps and the riders can’t help balance or direct the horse at all. This lack of connection prevents the rider from helping the horse at all when a ‘bad’ distance comes up. In all these scenarios riders often stare down the jumps when a good distance is not found, further pushing their weight forward and the horse further on the forehand. This makes the situation even worse.
A rider’s hands should be forward and allowing.
To correct this scenario it is important for the rider to be looking well ahead to and past the jump for the best and straightest track. Instead of pulling on both reins or just the inside rein, the rider’s hands should be forward and allowing. This does not mean having a loop in the rein. An allowing hand maintains a connection, but that connection comes from the energy from the horse’s hind end that is captured in allowing, balancing hands while rider is balanced over the horse’s center of gravity. This allows the horse to come out of a turn with the energy needed to be straight and balanced and ready for whatever distance comes up. While riding a turn this way, a rider keeps the horse straight by riding the horse from the legs through their hands. The horse will actually make it through the turn without a lot of rein aids. When the rider looks ahead for a track they will see what is coming well in advance. Then they will be able to use their whole body to guide the horse easily through the turn. There then is no need for hanging on the inside rein, which actually stalls out the horse and results in a bulge through the outside shoulder causing the horse to be harder to get though the turn.
Patience, Connection and Balance
When the horse and rider come through and out of a turn with sufficient energy and a balanced connection, all that is needed then is rebalancing as needed, a good medium canter and patience. When the rider looks for the track well in advance and has a balanced horse they have time to make the necessary adjustments for whatever distances come up. If no distance is seen, a patient rider, with a balanced and straight horse will just wait for the jump to meet them. A balanced straight horse on a medium canter will be able to deal with what distance comes up. A patient, balanced and connected rider will be able to make the subtle last minutes adjustments needed to make no distance look like a good distance.
Become a curious rider.
A great way to understand this better and develop an eye and a feel for a good turn and distance is watch other riders and horses go. Become a curious rider. This is where studying the mechanics comes in. Watch all levels of riders. As they go through their turns analyze the whole turn and decide if you think they are in good shape to get a good distance or manage things when no distance comes up. Try and see the distance way out yourself as you watch. Then, see what the horse and rider combination come up with and how they manage things. Do this while watching in person and on videos. Watch many rides. Make this a regular practice. It will really help you understand the physics of a turn and get a better feel and eye. It’s the curious riders who truly learn and improve. This curiosity and understanding of the mechanics will give you the knowledge and tools that will help lessen your anxiety about finding the right distance. Your understanding and practice will help you develop the feel and technique needed to come through a turn with a balanced horse and a good track and plan. You will then be able to ride the jumps more confidently no matter what distance comes up. So study hard! Here’s to better turns and better distances!