Introduction to Related Distances and Combinations

An excerpt from "Arena Tracks" by Christian Baier.

These jumping exercises have their foundation in dressage. Having an understanding of dressage tracks and how dressage training serves to shape a strong and healthy horse well into an old age, cannot help but make better riders, and therefore, happier, more highly performing horses. Most solutions to common problems that occur in jumping can be found within the basic dressage work.

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Before you and your horse begin practice over fences, you should both have a solid foundation in basic dressage work.
Courtesy, Trafalgar Square Books

Jumping exercises often highlight both strengths and weaknesses in the overall training of horse and rider, and the true understanding of dressage allows the rider to go back and improve the training where improvement is needed.

These are two core jumping exercises that are meant to help horse and rider through a structured development—together. The knowledge contained within these building-block basics help both rider and trainer know not only which step to take next when sufficient skills are achieved, but also to which previous step to return if difficulties are encountered.

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The introduction of distances and combinations may highlight both strengths and weaknesses in your training. Don’t hesitate to go back to work on the flat and over poles before returning to these exercises when both you and your horse feel more confident.
Courtesy, Trafalgar Square Books

Exercise: Introduction to Related Distances

Purpose: To develop the rider’s feeling for speed, rhythm, stride length, and how different takeoff spots into the related distance affect the obstacle out of the distance.

This exercise introduces the importance of speed, stride length, rhythm, counting strides, and teaches the rider the correct reaction for the short, long, or normal takeoff spots at the obstacle leading into the related distance.

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In this exercise, the distances between the obstacles on the long sides are set for five strides and measure 20 meters (about 65.6 feet—suitable for cross-rails and obstacles of similar height in sand footing). This design is appropriate for smaller arenas (20 by 45 and 30 by 50 meters). If the course is used in a larger arena, the distances should be lengthened accordingly.
Courtesy, Trafalgar Square Books

Speed is generally correlated with stride length—slower speed usually results in a shorter stride while higher speed generally results in a longer stride. Stride length is also largely affected by the size and type of horse, but within the different sizes and types of horses and ponies there is also a large variety in stride lengths due to the various quality of the gaits.

The rhythm is another important factor in riding related distances—when a horse lands after the obstacle leading into a related distance, in a perfectly suited stride length for the given situation and that rhythm is maintained, the chance of having a good jump over the following obstacle is drastically increased. An irregular rhythm will conversely drastically decrease the chance of having a good jump over the second obstacle.

Counting strides between the obstacles in a related distance is another skill of significant importance, as it provides the rider with immediate feedback about the ridden stride length. Based on this feedback, the rider can then analyze if the stride is suitable, too short, or too long and then make the necessary changes if an adjustment of stride length is needed. Counting the strides is very important for training the rider’s awareness of speed and stride length. (For example, in a related distance measured for five normal strides, on the first attempt, the rider counts six strides, which means the strides need to be longer. The opposite situation occurs if the rider counts four strides, then realizes that the strides need to be shorter). Such a basic explanation of counting strides is a good introduction to the general principles of riding related distances.

The reaction from the rider following the takeoff spot at the obstacle leading into the related distance is another skill of significant importance to the rider, which requires repetition until it becomes automatic. In this example, the arena is sized 30 by 50 meters, the related distances are measured for five normal strides with both of them being identical, and since quality repetitions are the mother of skills development, this setup allows for easy repetitions due to the continuous nature of the exercise.

As a preparation for the longer exercise, Obstacles 1 to 2 can be repeated until the rider has the feel for which stride length is needed and how to react in response to different takeoff spots at Obstacle 1 (normal, short, or long). Once this is repeated on the opposite lead over Obstacles 4 and 5, the short course can be ridden in one piece. Note that after Obstacle 6, the course can easily be started again. Once the rider reaches a more advanced level of skill and feeling, the course can be ridden three times in a row, for example, with the first round having five strides in each related distance, the second round having six strides, then the third round ridden again having five strides.

This exercise tests and educates rider skills such as control and feeling of the canter stride. It is also a great way to evaluate the level of strength the horse has developed through your dressage work. When riding an extra stride in the related distance is very challenging, strengthening exercises in the form of flatwork should be revisited to avoid frustration and tension in the jumping exercises.

Exercise: Introduction to Combinations

Purpose: To introduce combinations in a systematic and pedagogic way that optimizes success and confidence-building in both horse and rider.

This introduction to combinations includes approaches in both trot and canter. The advantage with introducing combinations out of trot first is that a slower speed gives the rider more time to focus on steering and the position on top of the horse. Once the rider feels that steering and position are not problematic, it is usually only a minor progression to advance and approach combinations in canter.

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Courtesy, Trafalgar Square Books

One major difference between combinations and related distances is the number of strides between the obstacles—combinations have only one or two strides between the obstacles, and the fewer strides found between obstacles, the less time the rider has for any necessary stride adjustments.

The vertical on the short side (at top of diagram) can be used as a warm-up obstacle so horse and rider do not have to start jumping with a combination as the first obstacle. After warming up over the vertical on the centerline, Obstacle 1a is jumped out of trot with two canter strides to 1b. Once horse and rider are comfortable with this trot combination, they continue down the long side and change direction across the diagonal over 3a and 3b, which is a two-stride combination approached in canter.

When comfortable with the two-stride combination, it is generally a good time to introduce a one-stride combination, and Obstacle 2a is then approached in trot with one canter stride to 2b. And after becoming familiar and comfortable with the one-stride combination out of trot, combination 4a and 4b are jumped out of canter with one canter stride in between.

Once the different combinations have been introduced separately, the exercise can be ridden in the numbered order as illustrated. Obstacle 1a is approached in trot with two canter strides to 1b, and approaching the corner, the rider checks which canter lead the horse is on, and if correction is needed, a simple or flying lead change is ridden.

Once a good rhythm and balance is established, a transition to trot follows, and a circle can be ridden if the rider needs extra time to get reorganized. Thereafter, the horse and rider continue to 2a and 2b, which is a one-stride combination jumped out of trot. The rest of the exercise is ridden in canter—3a and 3b is a two-stride combination on the diagonal, and 4a and 4b is a one-stride combination on the long side.

This exercise can easily be executed in sections over several sessions with the goal of finally combining them all in succession.

This exercise can also be built in many different arenas. The types of horses, height of the obstacles, and arena size are some factors that carefully need to be considered and adjusted for when setting the measured distances between the obstacles. In this arena with the obstacle height being about 0.5 meters (1.6 feet), the distances are set to the following measurements:

  • Trot poles in front of combinations: 2.2 to 2.4 meters (7.2 to 7.8 feet).
  • Obstacles 1a to 1b: 9 meters (29.5 feet).
  • 2a to 2b: 5.5 meters (18 feet).
  • 3a to 3b: 10.25 meters (33.6 feet).
  • 4a to 4b: 6.75 meters (22.1 feet).

Note: The “b” obstacles are illustrated as oxers but can be replaced with verticals for less experienced horses and riders.

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This excerpt from Arena Tracks by Christian Baier is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).

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