Stride Right for the Perfect Jumping Line on Your Horse

How to find your distance and ride the perfect jump line.

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Perfect Jumping Line
Cantering over poles on the ground set at jump distances will help you gauge whether to lengthen or collect your horse’s stride for an actual course. Photo by Leslie Potter

Getting the right counts in a line can often seem like the ultimate test on a jumping course. Lines are two or more jumps set apart by a measured distance, and are meant to be ridden in a specific number of consistent, even strides. Any deviation is usually considered a fault in hunter and equitation competition. If you and your horse struggle with lines, here are some tips to help solve the problem for the perfect jumping line, courtesy of hunter and equitation trainer Susan Smith of Norco, Calif.

Meet the Trainer

Susan Smith has been training horses and riders for hunters and equitation since 1990. Based at her Cornerstone Equestrian Center in the horse-friendly town of Norco, Calif., her junior and amateur adult riders have won numerous medals and hunter championships. She also serves as the on-site trainer and classroom instructor for the equine studies unit at Mount San Antonio College.

Know Your Horse’s Canter

First, you need to analyze your horse’s canter stride.

“Most people canter around their arena on a 10- to 11-foot stride without realizing it,” says Smith. At shows, the measured distance in a line is based on a standard 12-foot stride.

“If you’re used to cantering on a 10-foot stride, and setting lines at home according to your comfort zone, you’ll get to a show and be suddenly surprised,” she says.

Perfect Jumping Line Using Cavaletti Poles
It’s always good to practice lines at home before going to a show so that you can learn to adjust your horse’s stride between jumps. Photo by Leslie Potter

Smith suggests cantering over poles on the ground that are set at a distance mimicking a simple line. Then you can gauge whether you need to lengthen or collect your horse’s stride for an actual course.

“I set two ground poles about 66 feet apart, which should ride in five strides,” says Smith, who notes that the distance is about 6 feet shorter than the traditional measurement because they aren’t actual jumps.

“They’re just poles, so the horse’s arc won’t be much more than just a canter stride. But this will still give you a clear idea of your horse’s normal canter stride.”

If you discover that your horse runs out of room between the poles, daring to leave out an entire stride, use your aids to collect him. Open your hip angle, settle a little deeper into the saddle and steady slightly with your hands.

Yet if you’re like most riders and realize your horse wants to add an extra stride (or two) between the poles, you’ll need to lengthen his stride. Close your hip angle and soften your contact with his mouth. With every stride, press your horse forward with your leg.

“But be careful,” says Smith. “You want to encourage your horse to open up his stride, not merely go faster. There’s a definite difference.”

Vertical Jump with Guide Poles
To practice riding a straight track, use ground poles to create an alley or lane between the jumps. Photo by Leslie Potter

Ride the Exercise

Smith has a favorite exercise for riders who seem to lose their way inside a line of jumps.

“As an example, let’s take a typical six-stride line,” she says. “Most riders jump in, get to the third or fourth stride, and then suddenly realize they’re never going to make it out in six strides. They do one of two things. They either grab with their leg and chase their horse through the line, which usually results in an ugly chip [short, awkward stride] at the end. Or they grab onto their horse’s mouth out of fear, holding their horse back, which ultimately adds extra strides in the line.”

To help riders learn to judge where they are in a line, Smith sets two jumps (about 2’9″ to 3′ high) 80 feet apart. This means the line will ride six strides from the first jump to the second jump.

Midway through the line (at 40 feet), she places a pair of cones about 10 feet apart as visual markers. The goal is to get your horse’s front end between the cones on the third stride, which is the halfway point as you ride through the line. Then you know you have another three strides before your horse leaves the ground to jump out of the line.

“If your horse is several feet behind the cones on the third stride, then you have to move up for the last few strides to make the correct count,” says Smith. “If you’re several feet past the cones, then you must collect your horse and steady. Ultimately, it’s a way for you to develop an eye or a feel for when you’re spot-on to get six even strides in a six-stride line.”

Tips for a Straight Track

Using Cones in Jumping
Put a pair of cones 40 feet after the first jump as visual markers for the halfway point in a line. Photo by Leslie Potter

Smith warns against any zigging or zagging within a line.

“If you deviate from a straight track in a line, you’re adding footage. You’ve made the distance between the jumps even longer, and you’ll be forced to add a stride.”

To practice riding a straight track, use ground poles to create an alley or lane between the jumps. Lay pairs of poles perpendicular to the jumps, about 6 feet apart. Include them before the first jump of a line, through the middle and just after the last jump, too. They’ll help you focus on staying straight.

This article on the perfect jumping line appeared in the March 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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Cindy Hale
Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.

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