‘Seeing a stride’.
Never has another phrase struck fear into the hearts of equestrians quite like that one. We look on at the professionals making distances look easy, and we wonder HOW?? Our own experiences are often a weird combination of sheer blind luck, and one long rendition of ‘Jesus Take The Wheel’. It seems impossible to bridge the gap from needing a white stick and a guide dog, to being a polished Olympic prospect-but it can be done! I’m here to debunk some of the myths.......
The subject of distances is close to my heart. I spent my formative years with my mother telling me how crap most event riders are at Showjumping. Her solution to this was to send me to work for a succession of professional showjumpers. Her plan backfired horribly, when I eventually gave up bog snorkelling on feral lunatic horses around fields in Ireland in the rain, for a non-refundable mortgage equivalent every weekend. Instead, I embraced Showjumping. I became OBSESSED with seeing a stride. I fell HOPELESSLY IN LOVE with smaller entry fees, beautiful surfaces, no pre-entry and a choice of shows six days a week to fit in around the schizophrenic Irish weather. I found myself admiring matchy-matchy anything, and scatter-patter diamanté encrusted EVERYTHING. Showjumping is glorious. All the challenges of technical jumping and skillful riding, with none of the death potential. I’m telling ya, you lot are missing a trick.
Anyway, it’s all very well looking the part. However, ‘all the kit but still shit’ is NOT an attractive picture. The downside of Showjumping is that you kinda need to get said shit together in the distance department. When I started teaching more this year, I was surprised and saddened by how many riders feel that they just CAN’T see a stride. They are afraid of crashing their horses, and fearful of progressing past a lower level than they are capable of in case they make a mistake.
I have to tell you, this is a load of complete bollocks. Most of you reading this have managed to master basic life skills, such as walking and talking. Therefore, you can master the skill of seeing a stride.
So what does it really mean? To see a distance to a pole or a fence, means training your eye to recognise how many of your horse’s steps will fit into the space on the approach to the obstacle-and in time, learning to adjust the length of the horse’s steps to make them ‘fit’ the space.
Great! So now how do we achieve this?
Canter quality is key. If you think of a jumping effort as a big canter stride, you can understand more clearly the need to train your horse to have as regular a canter as possible. This will make your ability to upskill MUCH easier. If your horse is constantly changing tempo and stride length, you can’t possibly expect to develop your eye-regularity is key when you are learning. As a start point, set out two poles or cavaletti approximately eighteen and a half yards apart (four canter strides) Seeing how many strides you get will help you to see if you have too much canter, or not enough canter.
The next important part of the puzzle is to maintain your lovely, regular canter on the turn to a fence or a pole. I tend to both ride and teach riders to ride around a turn to an obstacle on the outside aids. If you keep the stride regular and take care of that outside shoulder so that it doesn’t drift, you can maintain balance and rhythm more effectively on the turn. The knock on effect of this is that nothing changes through the turn, making it far easier for the rider to identify a distance. Another useful trick is to count when you are cantering. I do this always when jumping, as it helps with maintaining rhythm. I was pretty chuffed to find that Jock Paget does this too-he’s cool like me, obviously........! Working on adjustability without loss of rhythm and regularity is also important. Practicing adding in a fifth stride to your four stride line will help you to develop a more flexible canter. As you become more skilled with your eye, you will begin to be able to adjust accordingly on your approach which will help to eliminate ‘hospital strides’.
All this theory is very nice, but what are you actually meant to be looking for? How can you see a thing, if you don’t know what it looks like? All I can suggest here is that you allow yourself practice time. Be prepared and willing to make a lot of mistakes. You know how it feels when you meet a fence spot on? Well that’s what you are looking for. The only way to firmly, regularly recognise the sweet spot, is practice. Millions of hours of practice. Canter poles are life in my arena. They are the single most useful tool in any jumping rider’s arsenal. They allow a rider to practice developing their eye, without undue physical or mental stress to the horse. Using canter poles can also help to relax a more excitable horse-after the first fifty thousand poles, even the most eager beaver will get bored.
To finish, here are a few of the more ridiculous things I have heard about seeing a stride-
“You can either do it, or you can’t.”
Clearly, this is nonsense. Even Ludgar Beerbaum had to learn how to. We’d like to fondly imagine he came from the womb knowing his eine, zwei, drei- but he didn’t.
“You need to either kick, or hold like mad.”
Applicable to horse racing and MMA. Not Eventing or Showjumping.
“You need to fix your eye on a point in the horizon”.
I’m not sure how staring at a tree half a mile away will assist the approach to the fence immediately in front of you. Call me defeatist, but.....
“If you keep a rhythm, you can’t miss”.
All that this means, is that you have a two out of three chance of missing, whilst in a rhythm. Rhythm is vital, especially when developing the skill-but sadly it’s not a fail safe.
“Don’t look for a distance!”
Erm......how are you meant to see one then? Hope? Luck? Act of god? That’s like saying ‘drive with your eyes closed’.
“I can see a stride from ten strides out”-Cian O’Connor, during a lesson with me many years ago. Oh fuck off......
There is such a lot of nonsense talked about this topic. Ultimately though, reducing things down to their simplest form does a lot to dispel the myths, and to reduce the associated anxiety felt about it by so many.