Never Miss Another Distance! from Practical Horseman | EquiSearch

Forward and Back in a Line
The idea:
By rhythmically alternating five and six strides in a line (see photos below), you’ll start to figure out what you need to do to adjust rhythmically on course for your horse’s natural stride (smoothly moving up if he’s short-strided and coming back if he’s huge-strided).

The setup: Lay two groundrails 69 feet apart (five strides—the distance would be closer to 72 feet if these were jumps) along the long side of your arena.

The how-to: Pick up a right-lead canter in the same light seat you used on the flat, just softly up out of the saddle. Canter around the arena, turn toward the line, and-without trying to adjust your horse or see a distance (look off to the side, or even close your eyes if you’re sure he won’t stop or run out)—canter the line and absorb the feel of riding it in five easy, even strides. Come again, and this time collect him and ride the line in six: Softly feel the saddle with your seat bones, open your upper-body angle, and take back smoothly with as much hand as you need but as little hand as possible. After the “out” rail, close your angle, return to your soft two-point, canter forward in a more lengthened, stretchy stride, and do the line in five.

Repeat this exercise until your horse responds as if he’s listening and feeling your very thoughts. “Jump” in, sit up a little to bring him back (you’d like to feel you can dispense with some of your hand at this point and still het the effect you’re after with your deeper seat and the change of your upper-body angle), and he should do six even strides. Jump in and change very little-perhaps add a touch of leg to come forward-and he should do five even strides. Five strides even, six strides even, never quick or hurried or sluggish, aids absolutely invisible, with you merely thinking it and your horse responding because you’ve done it enough.


When that happens, move on to …

A Simple Course
The idea:
To start to feel, and to experiment with, how things work out when you sit still and let your horse-with his consistent pace-show you the way.

The setup: Build a straightforward little hunter course using groundrails and following the diagram. (I’ve given you footages, but don’t get hung up on them. What you’re really interested in is exploring the feel of how things work out when you keep  rhythm.)

The how-to: Pick up a left-lead canter in your soft two-point, establish your “five-stride” rhythm, come around the top of your arena, and start things off right by getting straight out of the turn toward…

Groundrail 1: The Single
Find the middle of the rail, look at it, and just hang out. Don’t start kicking or pulling back on the reins and interrupting your horse. Keep looking and he will pick up on the rail, study it, and be right on the distance you’ve seen. Even if all of a sudden you don’t see anything, keep the rhythm, don’t try to make something happen, and (of he’s a nice-enough horse) he’ll show you the way. If he doesn’t and you make a mistake? Trust yourself to know what it was (“Oops, I went too fast”) and to know how to fix it (“Better keep the rhythm next time”). Once you’ve jumped around enough times-and you can do this to your heart’s content without pounding your horse’s legs-you’ll start to realize, “When I’m not sure about a distance to the jump, I just stay the same and it will turn up.”

Land, ride straight to the end of the arena, turn left, look at the first rail in the line, but don’t turn until you see the second rail lined up behind it. (Turn earlier and your horse won’t be straight.)

Groundrails 2 and 3: The Five-Stride Line
Ride this line as you did in the separate exercise. And remember: You’re not home free once you’re out of the line, so don’t drop your reins and allow your horse to cut in to the left. Do what I tell my students to do at home: Land, go exaggeratedly straight-almost as if you’re going to ride to the end of the ring and pull up-and then make your turn. You’re going to ride this course a lot of times. Every time you let your horse cut to the left, he’s going to cut in shorter and shorter, and each succeeding turn to the next rail is going to be on a worse and worse angle. And any time he comes to a jump on an angle, he’s not going to jump his best jump-perfectly straight with his body and legs high-and he’s not going to find a good distance.

Groundrail 4: The Single Oxer
Look straight ahead over these two groundrails (laid about 6 inches apart to give the illusion of an oxer), jump, land looking straight ahead, and ask yourself how your rhythm feels. You’re in the middle of the course, and your horse has probably built a little, so take a little extra time to slow him to the pace you started with. Softly bring your upper body back a bit and touch the saddle with your seat bones. If he barrels on and ignores you, take a little feel of his mouth. And do not turn and look for the in-and-out until he’s back under control and maintaining the pace you originally set. Then, and only then, turn your head to look at…

Groundrail 5 and 6: The In-and-Out
Think of the in-and-out as a single element: just worry about the rail coming in and the “out” will take care of itself. If you keep your rhythm and find the middle of the rails, you’ll make it out OK. Done in just a nice regular canter, the 20-foot distance will ride easily, just as a 24-foot distance rides easily when you’re using actual jumps.

After the in-and-out, land and regroup to your beginning canter. It’s near the end of the course, when many horses get stronger. You want to pull yours together on the end of the ring so he doesn’t get running to…

Groundrail 7: The Single
Here’s another long approach, testing your ability to keep the rhythm the same. Nothing about your pace should change.

As you finish the “course,” ask yourself, “Do I have the same pace I started with? Where did I feel a difference? What can I do differently next time to make a smoother trip?” Walk to regroup; then have another try. Repetition will help you get the rhythm.

This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.


Never Miss Another Distance! from Practical Horseman | EquiSearch

Scott Stewart on Garfield at the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals

Scott Stewart on Garfield at the 2011 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals ©Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Quick: What’s the key ingredient of most winning hunter rounds? Seeing every jumping distance? Wrong! It’s rhythm—an even rhythm, consistent pace. In fact, a rhythmic round on a horse with a very average kind of jump is more likely to win a class than a round on a horse who has an outrageously fabulous jump but an erratic pace, slowing down to some fences and making big moves to others.

The dilemma if you’re a typical amateur, especially a nervous or inexperienced one? Erratic is what you seem to do. You see a jumping distance? You put too much leg on and gallop to it. You don’t see a jumping distance? You use too much hand to steady, steady, steady—and come back.  You get so wrapped up in “seeing a distance” that you create too much, you try to force things to happen and there goes your round.

Forget the Distance—Just Canter!
I learned this lesson the hard way as a Junior. I mostly did the equitation, but every once in a while I’d get a catch-ride on a hunter, and I’d invariably miss the in-and-out. Oh, I’d see the distance far back—like 10 strides away—or I’d commit to it, giver ’er the gas, and charge. It didn’t present a good picture or create a good jump. And I didn’t start doing better until I stopped looking for the distance (for a while I even forced myself to close my eyes or look away from the jumps) and started hanging tight, trusting my horses, feeling a good canter rhythm and letting it all work out. Result? My horses just naturally started to carry the rhythm right to the base.


To help you create and maintain that kind of rhythm, the one that will allow you and your horse to “let it all work out,” we’re going to do three little canter exercises.

  1. Lengthening and shortening on the flat will get you focused on a consistent, rhythmic pace.
  2. An alternating five-and six-stride line will get you thinking about what you need to do to adjust within the rhythm for your horse’s natural stride.
  3. A simple little hunter course will give you the feel of sitting still and keeping a steady pace all the way around.

Do the line and the course over groundrails—so you can …

  • ride them at home on your own, where you can think and feel for yourself and not worry about or second-guess what an instructor’s going to say.
  • confidently and safely get the feel of jumping (and getting around), without the distraction of getting over obstacles or the fear that your horse will stop or you’ll fall off.
  • get all the “over-fences” practice you need without pounding your horse and making him jump a thousand times.

And here’s the best part: With repetition, you’ll start to do the very thing I told you not to worry about-see a distance out of different strides. When that happens, it’ll raise your overall comfort level with rhythmically taking back to add, loosening up and coming forward to leave one out, and making it all look the same.

Forward and Back on the Flat
The idea: To start thinking about the rhythm of your canter, and about what you need to do to tune your horse’s response to leg and hand so he smoothly maintains that rhythm.

The how-to: Pick up a right-lead canter in a light seat (just softly up out of the saddle in two-point, your weight resting in your legs), and focus on the evenness of your horse’s step: one, two, three; one, two three; one, two, three. When he’s as steady as clockwork, turn onto a long side and ask him to lengthen and come more forward off your leg without getting faster: Squeeze, and if he doesn’t respond by stretching out and galloping, touch him with your spur. If he continues to feel sulky, lazy, or dead to your aid, add a tickle with a dressage whip until he does come forward. If he tries to take off, you’ve used too much leg.

Approaching the corner, collect the canter. Touch the saddle with your seat bones (sitting softly without driving with your seat), bring your shoulders up a little, stop asking with your leg, and feel the mouth to smoothly, rhythmically bring your horse back. Next long side, lighten your seat and lengthen stride again.

After several times around, mix up the pattern so your horse actually has to listen and respond to your leg and hand aids, not just automatically say “CHARGE” and gallop every time he turns onto the long side. Gallop a long side, gallop through the turn and the short side, but then collect the canter on the next long side. Stay collected through the short side, and so on. Just remember to keep the rhythm the same as you go forward, and keep it the same when you drop back.

When that all starts to feel predictable, smooth, and effortless, move on to …

Occy 2nd place at Donvale horsetrials


On Saturday we were coming 3rd after dressage and stayed there with a clear in showjumping over a tight course with some slippery sections. On Sunday morning for the Crosscountry the warm up was a bit awkward with cars and floats moving through the warm up area. So the first jump was a bit awkward and Occy struggled a bit with some of the turns in the first section. But the middle section of the course had some nice galloping sections to make up time. Apart from slowing to a trot everything went well especially as many jumps were below maximum. We would have come in just on time to finish second with a double clear 3.6 penalties from the leader.
Helmetcam video to come
Regards Walter
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How to develop the extended trot in the dressage horse

Arlene “Tuny” Page rides a correct extended trot on Alina. Her 13-year-old Danish mare displays a “controlled explosion with maximum confidence.”
© Susan J. Stickle

I love riding the extended trot on my dressage horses. When I ask my Grand Prix dressage horse Alina to move into an extended trot as she straightens onto the diagonal, it feels like it is her idea—a controlled explosion with maximum confidence. An extreme combination of fully loaded carrying and thrusting power, the extended trot is absolutely fantastic to ride.

While Alina’s rectangular shape makes her well-suited for the movement, her extended trot is the result of a training framework that builds flexibility and impulsion in any dressage horse. When I first met Alina four years ago, she was a Young Rider’s dressage horse with plenty of fire and a great work ethic. I bet that as she developed better looseness and carrying power, I could channel her desire to go while we developed her ability to collect and extend. It was a gamble that’s now paying off in the extended trot.

In schooling for the extended trot then and now, we focus on exercises that require a lot of thrust from the hindquarters and collecting exercises that require her to carry more weight on her hindquarters, hence playing the two ends of the spectrum. As a result, her range has widened to achieve an extended trot that takes your breath away.


Here are some training techniques that will help you safely expand your horse’s range and teach him to perform the extended trot as if he’s thrilled to show off his ability to do what the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) refers to as a lengthening of his steps to the utmost of his capability.

Working Gaits with Integrity
As the cornerstone of dressage training, the working gaits create the basis for developing the qualities and reactions needed for collection and extension. I focus on creating and maintaining my horse’s flexibility, rhythm and impulsion as I warm up in working gaits. I want to feel and reward natural enthusiasm for work, and spending time in the working gaits really helps.

One of the integral ingredients in producing extension is impulsion. The following simple daily warm-up will help set up any horse—from Training Level to Grand Prix—with the all-important desire to go forward and stay relaxed while doing it. It includes schooling simple upward and downward transitions on circles to teach the horse that every transition should have a basic level of carrying and thrusting power. Try transitions by following these steps:

1. Establish your 20-meter circle in a steady, active, rhythmic working trot. Make sure the shape of your circle is correct. This forces you to control the horse’s lateral balance. If you make a wishy-washy circle, you give him permission to fall in or off the track. Anytime impulsion goes left or right instead of straight through the horse’s body, you lose forward power, like a garden hose full of holes. Control and channel all of your horse’s power in a specific direction. Also make sure you have the correct bend, which starts with correct flexion. Crest muscles should be positioned so that they fall to the inside and you can see the horse’s inside eye. His jaw should be loose and accepting of the bit.

2. As you prepare for an upward transition to canter, think about riding with the lightest-possible aids. I know that my horse is truly in front of my seat when it takes next to nothing to change gears.

3. Switch from rising to sitting trot by putting weight on your inside seat bone and whispering “canter” with your inside leg.

4. As you canter, gently increase the swing of your seat, backed up by your leg, voice and whip (if needed), to achieve a prompt increase in the volume of your horse’s gait.

5. Transition back into working trot with the use of your outside rein. Half halt while maintaining flexion and bend to the inside. Continue to encourage and reward enthusiastic forward motion without loss of rhythm.

Continue with these transitions while adding changes of direction until your horse is loose, warm and happy in both his desire to go forward and in his willingness to wait on your downward transitions. There is some magic in this simple exercise to freshen the lazy horse, relax the hot horse and loosen the back and neck structure of all horses.

Coil the Spring
Once your horse can make seamless transitions on the circle in a good rhythm and maintain a relaxed posture, the rest of your session should include any of a limitless number of exercises that build both thrusting and carrying power. Any exercise that you choose based on your horse’s current level of training should incorporate a sense of “coiling the spring.” Here is one way that I do it:

1. Frequently check that the horse has the desire to go forward in an instant. I do this by deliberately swinging my seat while imagining that my horse is increasing the volume of his movement. As I think “forward,” I let my fingers “breathe” and allow for slight lengthening of his frame. I follow through on my original driving aids with an invisible aid, using my upper calf, lower leg, spur, voice and whip in that order. When your horse understands this aid sequence, his sensitivity to the more subtle aids increases, and he helps you by being self-propelled.

2. Check the collecting aids. The basic collecting aid is the half halt. For me, that’s closing my knee and thigh, stabilizing my back and seat, vibrating my fingers and thinking that I want my horse to coil back toward his hind legs. The important point here is that my horse reacts by shifting his weight over his back into his croup and closing the joints of his hind legs. Just as with the driving aids, I must follow through on the collecting aids. If my horse doesn’t react clearly and efficiently to this initial aid, I do three things: Repeat the original aid and, if need be, promptly make a stronger aid. Second, make a downward transition. Third, transition to halt.

By reinforcing my horse’s willingness to promptly expand and contract (like a rubber band), I increase his sensitivity to both aids and I expand his range of motion between collection and extension, coiling the spring.

Extended Trot Transitions
This is one of my favorite exercises for developing great collected–extended–collected trot transitions. The idea is to use your horse’s natural desire to please and his ability to anticipate. I learned it from dressage icon Conrad Schumacher about 15 years ago. It’s a very simple exercise that rewards a horse for beginning to explore the outer boundaries of his range.

1. Start out in working trot, tracking on the long side of the arena.

2. Walk at the letter before the corner, maintaining a good bend.

3. Promptly make half a walk pirouette to the left, which turns you back to the same wall, facing the other way.

4. Using the lightest-possible aids, straighten your horse and transition back to the working trot.

5. Before you get to the corner, transition to walk and make half a walk pirouette to the right. Stay on the long side, heading in the other direction.