Timing, finding your spot, seeing your distance, using your “eye”—these are all terms for the same thing: guiding your horse to an ideal takeoff spot. It’s the single-most challenging element of riding a course in any jumping discipline. There’s a common misconception that some people are born with a great eye and others are not. In reality, all riders have the same ability to see a distance. The only difference is the degree of confidence we each have in our ability.
If you worry about whether or not you’re going to “find” the right distance to a fence, you’re already setting yourself up for failure. This anxiety causes you to change your pace or line (or both), to pump your body, throw yourself ahead of the motion or clutch at your horse’s mouth. All of these things disrupt your timing. So your fear ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The opposite is true when you have confidence. It would never occur to great, bold riders like Leslie Burr Howard, Louise Serio and Laura Kraut that they won’t get to the right distance—so they never pull back on the reins or make any other common mistakes in their approaches to fences. As a result, they never get the wrong distances.
The good news: Even if you’re an anxious rider with little faith in your eye, you can improve it significantly. I’m living proof! I’m by nature a timid, nervous rider who had no confidence early in my riding career and a terrible eye. But I trained myself to overcome those issues and develop a great eye.
The most important lesson I learned during that process and subsequent years teaching students is that focusing on your distance doesn’t work. What does work is systematically cultivating a discipline for riding the right line and pace for every situation. As that discipline develops, the distances simply appear. In this article, I’ll share the system that I’ve used successfully with many students.
The first building block of this system is learning to believe in yourself. You can develop a great eye! In the meantime, understand that even if you don’t see a distance, it will not be the end of the world. If you can keep your pace and track—whether that’s on a straight line or a curve—exactly the same in an approach to a jump, the worst distance you can arrive at will be a half-stride off. The vast majority of horses can make up for that half-stride and still jump the fence safely.
To take your timing to the next level, you need to convince yourself that it’s possible. Here’s a great exercise for doing that: Ask yourself, “Who do I know who is most clearly an example of a confident rider?” The next time you ride, try to imitate that person. You’ll be surprised by what a difference this makes. Do it in the show ring, too. Especially if you tend to be really nervous, pretend that you’re that extremely confident person. I’ve tried this method with countless students—and it works alarmingly well!
As you focus your mind on this essential building block, gradually start to develop your sense of line and pace, as well, with the following exercises:
Exercise 1: Invisible Jumps
Build a normal course with only jump standards—no jump cups, poles or other materials (flower boxes, etc.). Then pick a pace and ride the entire “course,” cantering through the middle of each pair of standards and making straight lines and smooth turns just as if the jumps were there. Use your eyes to plan your track; as you approach the end of each line, look ahead to the next one. Meanwhile, try not to let the pace slow down or speed up even for a moment. This is harder than it sounds. If you struggle to keep the same pace throughout the ride, don’t worry. Just keep practicing riding invisible courses (over many sessions) until your pace control feels perfect.
I learned this exercise from George Morris. It removes the issue of timing completely, so you can zero in on your track and pace. It’s also a great opportunity for checking in on your position, making sure that you’re keeping your body still in between the jumps. As you practice it, remember that we can do only one thing at a time. So pay attention to each skill—track, pace or position—individually until it feels right. Eventually, these fundamental skills will feel like second nature, so you can clear your mind for other challenges.
This exercise also benefits quick or nervous horses who anticipate the jumps (often because they’re worried about what their riders might do in the approaches). As your horse learns to trust that you won’t interfere with him—by pulling on the reins or changing your position dramatically in the saddle—he’ll begin to relax.
I don’t advise using poles on the ground for this particular exercise because they add back in the element of timing. You’ll worry about your distances to them, so you won’t be able to focus 100 percent on your track, pace and position.
When you feel confident riding these invisible courses, gradually add the jumps back in. Mix single jumps with invisible lines—and even within lines. For example, make the jump into a line over a normal fence, then make the jump out invisible or vice versa.
Periodically revisit this exercise, even as your confidence over real fences improves. You’ll find that refreshing your discipline for pace and track will help to keep you from slipping back into bad habits. It’s also a great way to cope with nerves at shows. I often have students practice over a “missing” jump in the warm-up, pretending that it’s set up right next to one of the actual warm-up fences. They organize their pace and line and then ride forward to it, just as if it’s a real jump.
Exercise 2: Five-Stride Invisible Line
Next, we’re going to get you in the habit of riding forward to be straight. Most people who think they’re doing this already are actually riding backward—pulling on the reins—to get straight. Like the first exercise, this one eliminates the issue of timing, so you can focus exclusively on your track and pace.
Set up two pairs of standards five strides (72 feet) apart. Exactly in the middle of the first pair, build a chute by placing two ground poles parallel to one another and to your track. Space them about 9 feet apart initially. Do the same for the second set of standards.
Canter to this “line” just as you would to a real line on course. Come forward off the turn, ride forward and straight through both chutes, then plan a smooth turn afterward. When this feels easy, roll each pair of poles slightly closer together (though never closer than about 6 feet). This will require you to increase your accuracy—without, of course, making any changes to your pace.
Exercise 3: Jump on a Circle
Now it’s time to transfer your track and pace skills to a single fence. We’ll start on a circle to keep the track very straightforward. Build a small (2- to 3-foot) vertical in an area large enough to incorporate it into a circle 36 to 40 feet in diameter. Place ground lines on either side of the jump.
Unlike cantering over a ground pole—which many horses won’t jump over with care—this vertical should be big enough to get your horse’s attention, which means he’ll make an effort to help you arrive at the correct distance. However, don’t make it so tall that you’ll be overly concerned about jumping it.
Practice cantering your 36- to 40-foot circle next to the jump, working to stay “straight” on the track—not drifting off your line to the right or left—by correcting your horse every time he tries to bulge out or cut in. Use your eyes by looking across the circle as you approach the area of the jump. When you feel as if you can do that at a consistent pace, widen the circle just big enough to incorporate the jump into it. Again, use your eyes. As you come around to the jump, think, “no bulge, no cut, no bulge, no cut,” while also correcting the pace every time it changes. Don’t try to “find” the distance. Just keep focusing on your line and pace all the way to the center of the jump, trying not to change anything at all.
As you approach the jump, there may come a moment when you feel something in the pit of your stomach telling you to move up to it, settle back or simply maintain the same pace. This is your unconscious sense of timing. It’s most likely to reveal itself if you’re consciously controlling your line and pace. When those elements are truly consistent, the jump will say, “Here I am! Jump me!”
As soon as you get just a glimmer of that feeling, make any necessary minor adjustment forward or back, then lift your eyes up and across the inside of the circle, planning the line you want to ride after the jump.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a sense of the distance in the beginning. Just focus on your line and pace and trust that you will arrive at a safe enough distance—and that your horse will figure out the rest. On takeoff, lift your eyes up and across the circle.
When you land from the fence, balance your horse, organize your reins and then adjust your line and pace as necessary to get back on the circular track. Then look across the circle toward the jump again. Resist the urge to do anything else. Just wait to see if that feeling emerges.
Practice this several times in both directions. Stop when it feels good. If it doesn’t feel good after multiple attempts both ways, don’t drive yourself crazy. Let it go for now and try it another day.
As your eye develops, you’ll still find this exercise useful, especially in stressful situations, like a championship. If you’re really nervous and feel like a deer in the headlights, practicing it over a small jump in the corner of the warm-up arena will help you regroup and relax. You’re far better off going into the ring after jumping several low fences confidently than you would be potentially mucking up a 3-foot-9 oxer just before hearing you’re on deck.
Exercise 4: Five-Stride Line With Jumps
When you begin to get a feeling for distances in the circle exercise, the next step is to develop a sense for what pace works in different situations. This exercise will help you do this while also teaching your horse to balance and come back to you on landing.
Set up a five-stride (72-foot) line again, this time with two small verticals with ground lines on both sides of each one. Pick up the canter and make a circle at the end of the arena to establish the pace you’d use in the show ring—what I call your “home-base pace.” Then canter forward around the turn and through the line. Afterward, bring your horse to a halt on a straight line before entering the next turn. Then process how the ride went. Do you think you could have used more or less pace? Repeat the exercise making that slight adjustment. Then turn around and ride the line in the opposite direction.
Continue doing this, alternating directions frequently until you can reliably produce a nice jump in and nice jump out without having to change your pace midway through the line.
Exercise 5: Triple Combination
This exercise is only for advanced riders. It will give you a more nuanced sense for how different paces work in different situations.
Set up a line of three verticals or square oxers at distances of 36 feet (two strides) from one another, all with ground lines on both sides. Ride it just as you did in the previous exercise, finding your home-base pace in the intro circle, then riding through the combination and stopping on a straight line afterward. Again, process how the jumps rode. Did you have to hit the gas midway through? If so, approach the combination with more pace next time. If the distances felt tight, approach it with a little less pace. Then repeat the exercise in the other direction.
Practice this a few times—again, alternating direction frequently—until you get a sense of what pace works best.
As you methodically assemble these building blocks, your eye will gradually improve. All the while, remember to believe in yourself!
About Geoff Teall
One of the country’s leading hunt-seat trainers, Geoff Teall builds the success of his horses and riders on a foundation of confidence and careful preparation. Based in Wellington, Florida, he travels extensively to teach, judge and compete. An R-rated USEF judge, he has officiated at many top shows, including the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals, the USEF Pony Finals and the Washington International and National Horse Shows. He is a co-founder of the American Hunter-Jumper Foundation and a former member of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association board of directors.
This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.