Use Your Eye to Find a Good Distance to Fences

Winning college coach and "R" judge, Andrea Wells, explains why "keeping your eye on the ball" help you find a good distance to your fences and results in a good jump almost every time.

At the start of each semester when I was the director of the Equine Center at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J., I would ask the new students, “What do you think would improve your riding most?” And 90 percent of them answer that they wish they could see a distance–the logical place for a horse to leave the ground without making a major adjustment to his stride.

A good distance is one of the basic requirements of jumping because it allows a horse to give his very best effort in the air, use his back and legs properly and have a better chance of jumping safely, so that neither he nor his rider gets frightened or hurt. Why is it so hard to see? After years of teaching and judging, I’ve come to the conclusion that many riders–and you may be one of them–have been correctly taught to look for a jump out of a turn, but then, a few strides out, to take their eyes off the jump and move them up into the trees or to something else outside the ring.

The key to seeing a good distance is to stare at the middle of the top rail with a

And POOF! You can’t see where the jump is anymore and you miss the distance in one of three ways:

1. You think you’ve arrived at a good time and place to leave the ground so you lean toward the jump and go. But your horse–who also has eyes and is using them–says, “Wait, I’m not ready!” He ends up getting a deep distance, “chipping” (putting in an additional stride or portion of a stride) or stopping, with you possibly flying over his head.

2. You don’t think you’ve arrived but your horse does. He leaves the ground and you–very surprised–get left in the back seat, where you commit the cardinal sin of jumping: You hit him in the back and the mouth, which punishes him for doing what he was supposed to do.

3. You and your horse actually agree on a takeoff spot, but you try to jump for him. This last “miss” is subtler than the first two, but by leaning up his neck in front of the saddle with your lower leg slipping back, you get ahead of his natural balance. He responds with loose form and ends up “over his front end” or having a rail.

If you like to compete, a missed distance can mean the difference between winning a ribbon and not placing. Even if you have no interest in showing, there is no better fun to be had than to ride a horse who’s jumping in good form because you’re seeing each distance.

The Solution is Simple

Learn to focus on the jump you’re jumping and lift your eyes only when you feel your horse’s front feet leave the ground–but never look up, up, up into the treetops. You’ll be able to see a distance because your eyes will see and “measure” the jump, and almost more importantly, you and your horse will see the same jump. Sound contrary to everything you’ve ever been taught? It probably is, but riding is as much a sport of hand, eye and body coordination as any other sport. At Little League games, what do you hear the coaches yell at their batters? “Keep your eye on the ball!” On the golf course, the pro tells you to keep your head down and look at the ball until you hit it. In tennis, it’s “keep your eye on the ball until you make contact and then follow through.”

That’s why I believe that every jump requires a “sharp” eye-on-the-ball focus. But to successfully navigate a course, you also need a peripheral-vision “soft” eye to take in the big picture and “track” the next jump–look for the place where you want to turn to line up with the jump and commit to it. Then as your horse’s front feet leave the ground, you can look ahead for the turn or the next jump or even take a breather before you have to measure a distance again. I tell my students that jumping a course is like driving to the market. There’s a difference between looking at the road, the other vehicles and the scenery with a “soft” eye, and using a “sharp” eye to accurately steer into a parking space once you arrive.

In general, you use a soft eye until you decide to turn toward a jump. Once you’ve made the decision and committed to the jump, you sharpen your eye so you almost stare at the lowest midpoint of a crossrail, the middle of the top rail of a vertical, and the middle of the front rail of an oxer. If you focus on the back rail of the oxer (or look “up” too early at any jump), you’ll probably arrive too early and miss the distance, not because you don’t see one, but because you see one in the trees, and that’s NOT what your horse sees. Note that you never look at the ground–that’s not looking where you’re going or keeping your eye on the ball!

There’s one more thing. When and how much you use a “sharp” versus a “soft” eye on course depends on your discipline. A hunter is like a figure skater performing compulsory elements with precision, accuracy, smoothness and manners. On a standard hunter course, where the jumps come up in a predictable, consistent way, you can use a “soft” eye a lot of the time, but you will still need to use a “sharp” eye to focus on the jumps. In equitation, the jumps come up faster and the courses are more technical. You have fewer opportunities for a soft eye and more times when you need a sharp eye. And in the jumpers, where you add speed and really tight turns, you have to keep your eye sharp for almost the entire course.

In this article, I’ll use a simple pattern of two jumps to teach you to find a distance with a sharp, focused eye. And by riding from one of the jumps to the other around one of three different cones, you’ll do hunter, equitation and jumper tracks, so you’ll start figuring out when and where to use soft and sharp eyes for each. I’ll also give you variations–some of track and some with more jumps. You still won’t have huge requirements of equipment or space, but you’ll be able to ride almost any question you’re likely to encounter on course.

Here’s the promise I make to my students: Learn these skills and you will find or create a good jump almost every time. You’ll start to relax because the anxiety of not seeing a distance is gone. And while this will be a huge victory for you, it’ll be an enormous relief for your horse. Now he can start to jump better and be happier and more willing to do his job.

Get Set Up and Begin

Following the diagram, build a ramped oxer and a vertical at right angles to each other about two-thirds of the way from the corners on diagonal lines. Depending on your skill level and your horse’s jumping ability, the vertical can be a crossrail, and the oxer can be a vertical or as small and narrow an oxer as you feel comfortable jumping. Set ground lines at the base of the standards in front of both jumps–far enough out that your horse will have a better chance of jumping around the jumps, but not so far out that it’s dangerous. Along the centerline, set three cones, blocks, plants (as we’ve used in the photos), pylons or jump standards–the first, 15 feet from the jumps, then the next two approximately 15 feet from each other. For a nice, fluid hunter turn, you’ll jump the oxer and ride around the third cone to the vertical. For an equitation turn, you’ll ride between the second and third cones. And for a jumper turn, you’ll try to get as close to the first cone as possible.

When and how much you use a

Warm up on the flat and over a few trot fences. Then, tracking right on the long side opposite the oxer, pick up a working canter. Get up in a two-point position with your buns over the twist–the deepest part–of your saddle, weight in your heels and your leg at the back edge of the girth. I don’t want to see the girth, a space and then your leg because you’ll be out of balance with your horse. Close your leg–not to kick him, but to support yourself and to keep your leg from slipping back. Keep your elbow bent at all times, with a straight line from it to your horse’s mouth, even while you’re in the air. As a teacher and a judge, I don’t want to see you reach for your horse’s ears because you’ll follow your hands with your body and jump ahead.

As you come down the long side and turn across the short side toward the oxer, think about rhythm, pace and track and keeping your eyes “soft.” Once you have “tracked” the oxer and made the decision to turn to it, you can look for a distance by sharpening your eye and focusing on the middle of the top of the front rail. Now keep your eye on the ball! Look at the rail…look at the rail…ook at the rail until you feel your horse’s front feet leave the ground. Only then, raise your eyes, but not, as I tell my students, in an exaggerated way, throwing your head back like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

Push your hips back behind the pommel–which automatically keeps you from standing up and getting ahead–and wait for your horse’s natural thrust to close your hip angle so you can land effective and ready for whatever comes next on course. If you let your leg slip back and your seat get in front of the pommel, and especially if you give a huge release, you’ll land slightly in front of your horse’s balance, allowing him to cut the corner or play, and keeping you from being ready for whatever comes next.

The Hunter Track

After landing from the oxer, you’ll ride a long canter up the side and a wide, sweeping, “hunter-y” right turn around the third cone. Then you’ll have a long approach back down to the vertical.

In the air over the oxer, look “out of the windshield” with soft eyes. There is no jump to go to next–there’s just your track toward the end of the ring and around the third cone. Land and keep your soft eye all the way up the long side and as you make a nice, smooth turn around the traffic cone. Begin your turn to the vertical and as soon as you’re straight, perpendicular and committed to it, sharpen your eye and focus on the middle of the top rail. Remember, though, that you always track the jump first and look for a distance second.

A long, hunter approach can be difficult for many riders, usually because they lose their focus. Prevent that by keeping your eye on the ball! I’ll sometimes tell a student, “STARE at the top rail! Your eyes will measure the distance for you.” Again, keep looking until you get there and you feel your horse’s front feet leave the ground.

The Equitation Track

Everything is going to happen a little faster this time, because you’re going to land from the oxer, ride halfway up the long side and turn right between the second and third cones to come back down toward the vertical. Your track will be shorter so you’ll have less time to use a soft eye, but even though you have to sharpen your eye sooner–again, as soon as you commit to the vertical–you still have to maintain a steady pace and rhythm throughout.

The Jumper Track

This could also be a more advanced equitation-type turn. You go as close as possible around the first cone, and because the turn and the vertical come up so fast, you have almost no time for “sightseeing” with soft eyes. Again, keep your eye on the ball. You have to track the jump quickly, and once you’re committed, you must resist the very strong temptation to look away. The tighter the turn, the more likely it is that you’ll lose your track if you look in, look away to check where you are or what’s in the way, then look back.

If you really want to get slick, try riding the equivalent of a jumpoff turn by cutting in front of the first cone. But be ready: This turn requires you to get a sharp eye on the vertical while you are in the air over the oxer. With this turn and track, you can’t afford to look away, even for the blink of an eye.

Variations on a Theme

Here are just a few ways to stretch the possibilities of these exercises, even if you don’t have very many jumps or cones:

  • Begin to raise the jumps gradually, so your eye gets used to following the top rails up as the jumps get higher.
  • Ride the pattern in reverse–turn off the short end of the arena to the vertical, then continue on to the oxer so you’re tracking to the left. (Be sure to reverse the ramp on the oxer first.)
  • Test your eye’s accuracy and adjustability by adding a low trot fence after the vertical. If you’re like most riders, your “mental” eye will stay up at the height of the vertical, making you look past the trot fence so you climb up your horse’s neck in front of the jump! Come back and try it again; make yourself lower your eye to the middle of the top rail (or the center and lowest point of the “vee” if it’s a crossrail) and there’s your distance. Remember that your horse also has to look down a bit to see what’s below him.

Click here for a bonus exercise from Andrea on how to use your eyes on a serpentine track.

Get more tips from Andrea on how to avoid jumping ahead in the August 2009 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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