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.Advertisement
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.