It’s most hunter riders’ nightmare: the long approach to a single fence. This question can be found at the beginning, middle or, most often, at the end of hunter courses at every level. For the horse, the long approach can be tricky if it’s going into or away from the in-gate, encouraging him to rush toward home or be sluggish going away. But this course element is mostly a rider challenge. With so much time to think about how things are going, what you should be doing or not doing and how you will find the distance to the fence, it’s hard to resist the temptation to do something.
Most often, riders interfere with the horse too much. They change the rhythm, move forward or come back because they have a doubt about the distance. Or they over- or under-steer. All of these tendencies circulate back to the mental aspect of the game: It’s hard to sit tight when you have so much time to think. In most cases, giving in to such temptations backfires on you. An example is seeing a distance on approach, then changing your mind and moving up unnecessarily. This causes your horse to take that fast, extra step—a chip—which likely wouldn’t have happened if you had maintained the same canter even if the distance was a little bit off.
What you should do when faced with a long approach to a single fence is absolutely nothing. If you’ve prepared properly by establishing a consistent rhythm and pace and riding a good corner to a straight track to the fence, all you need to do is maintain that rhythm, pace and track to the takeoff. This is hard, but it works! I’ll explain why and will offer some tips for how to master this valuable technique.
Rhythm and Pace
Having and maintaining a consistent rhythm and pace is the first prerequisite for my ideal “do-nothing” long approach. If you can master these elements, the distance will usually find itself. Even if that distance is a little long or a little snug, if you maintain the same rhythm and pace you had through the rest of the course, it should work out OK. Most horses can jump comfortably from less-than-perfect takeoff spots—and the less you interfere with them, the better they can do it. Last-minute attempts to adjust the stride can put them off balance and lead to a more awkward effort. That’s why the judges want to see you stay on the smoothest and most consistent pace even when the distance isn’t perfect.
The best trick I teach my clients is to feel your horse’s rhythm underneath you at home. Use striding exercises with poles, cavalletti or small jumps to establish the right amount of pace he needs to jump typical lines comfortably, along with the aids you need to maintain that. For example, some horses like a looser rein and some like to poke their noses out a little. Some horses require more rein contact to stay straight on a long approach and others are OK with a bit of a softer rein. It’s all about developing a relationship with your horse and knowing what you need to do to help him go at his best. That is extremely important when you get into the show ring.
Maintaining your pace and rhythm not only helps you find a good distance, it also improves your chance at a ribbon. In front of most judges, the key to a winning round is to show a consistent rhythm over the whole course, including the long approach. It’s the rider’s job to maintain that.
Shorter Related Distances
Learning to maintain your rhythm and pace takes lots of practice at home. Before attempting it on long approaches, practice doing it on shorter related distances. Set a line of two small jumps, cavalletti or poles on the ground 69 or 70 feet apart, a little shorter than a normal five-stride distance (because the fences are so small). Pick up your regular show-ring canter and ride this line in five strides. Feel how much connection of leg, rein and seat you need to maintain the stride length and pace necessary to make the strides even. Repeat this several times in both directions.
To strengthen this feeling of connection and sense of rhythm and pace even further, try slowing down your canter to ride the line in six even strides. When that’s going well, lengthen the stride and ride the line in four strides.
Note: For more tips on how to add and subtract strides in a line, go to practicalhorsemanmag.com/training/right-canter-for-every-situation.
Longer Related Distances
The next step is to practice maintaining your rhythm and pace on long related distances: two jumps separated by eight, nine or 10 strides. (In competition courses set on open fields or grass arenas, we often see 10-stride bending lines between fences.) To ride these well, you need to regulate your pace by staying on a consistent canter stride and rhythm.
If you have enough space at home in a large arena or open field, set up two fences on an eight-, nine- or 10-stride straight line (108, 120 or 132 feet, respectively). Practice riding this in both directions, using your leg, rein and seat to maintain an even stride length and pace all the way from the first fence to the second. Mastering these skills over related distances like this will prepare you for using them on a long approach to a single fence.
The third critical element to focus on is your track. To produce a winning long approach, you must ride a straight track to the center of the fence. Well-ridden corners help you arrive on the correct track. Cutting the corner or riding too far through the turn creates an awkward angle to the fence. Adjustments required to get back on a straight track after overshooting or undershooting the turn make it harder to keep your steady rhythm and pace—and thus harder for the takeoff point to arise naturally out of stride.
To practice making good turns to a long approach, place a cone or pole at the point where you need to initiate the turn. It’s very important to keep your few strides before you reach the turning marker will help you avoid the mistakes of riders whose heads are stuck in one position. Because they’re not looking ahead through their turns, they wind up getting lost, turning too late, etc., which makes it hard to get the best distance. At the same time, maintain whatever leg, rein and seat aids you have determined your horse needs to preserve his steady rhythm.
When you walk your courses at competitions, imagine there’s a cone or pole set up at that point where you need to start your turn to the long approach. As you mentally rehearse your course before going in the ring, visualize this object, too, to make it crystal clear where you will turn. During your round, remember to look for your jump before initiating your turn. This shows the judge you have a plan and know where you are going.
Making a good turn onto the correct track to the fence is half the battle. Now you have to maintain that straight line all the way to the jump. Be careful not to overthink this. If you’ve established a good rhythm and pace, you can trust your horse and trust that the distance will come up on its own. Once you’ve established your track to the fence, don’t fixate on the fence. Concentrate on something else. Glance off into the distance, look further through the jump or blink—anything you need to do to be less focused on the jump.
Most horses favor one lead or tend to drift in one direction. Knowing your horse’s tendencies will help you anticipate and prevent a lead swap or drift. Both are common contributors to an otherwise nice distance going “poof” on a long approach.
For example, one of my riders had a weak left leg following surgery and all of a sudden her horse started going to the left because she couldn’t block that side. She needed to get her strength back on that side and reinforce her horse’s response to her lateral aids at home so they would be there in competition. Leg-yields—asking your horse to move sideways away from your lateral leg aids—on and off the rail or quarterline are good for this.
This is a really important flat exercise for making your horse completely responsive to your aids. My technique is to sort of overdo it with the aids at home or in the warm-up ring at a competition so I can be very light with my aids in the show ring.
The leg-yield comes mostly from applying leg pressure on the opposite side of the direction you want to go (for example, the left leg if you want to go right). I’m also a big advocate of an opening rein: moving your hand on the side you want to go a few inches toward that direction of travel (e.g., moving the right hand to the right to leg-yield right) so your horse is more invited to move over instead of feeling forced to move over. This can be very useful on course, especially in a handy round where you have a tight turn. It helps balance the horse and gives him a reason to want to step over.
Once your horse is leg-yielding correctly in both directions, you can use those same lateral aids to prevent him from drifting off the straight track of your long approach. For example, if he tends to drift right, close your right leg against his side to block him from veering off in that direction.
If your horse sometimes drifts right or left in the final strides before takeoff, practice using a guide rail on the ground right in front of the jump, on the side he tends to drift toward. I prefer to angle the pole as you see in the top left photo because this makes for a more welcoming approach for horses. (I find that placing the pole perpendicular to the jump can seem claustrophobic for them.) So if your horse drifts to the left, that’s the side the guide rail goes on with the end nearest the jump placed about a third of the way in from the left side of the fence.
Slant jumps are another at-home schooling tool for straightness. If your horse tends to drift right on approach or jump right at takeoff, lower the left side of the jump to make that side more inviting. The goal is still to jump the center of the fence, but by thinking and aiming slightly left on a horse who likes to go right, you’ll end up in the center. I think of this as “overdoing the opposite.”
Practicing slant jumps has an added bonus because they’re often used in equitation courses. So if you cross over from the hunters and encounter them in the equitation, you’ll already be familiar with them.
I also often put two slant jumps together, with the low ends on opposite sides, to build a Swedish oxer. This, too, reinforces straightness even with horses and riders who don’t have a particular issue with drifting.
All of these tools will enable you to perform the “do-nothing” long approach successfully. As you prepare yourself mentally for your round, remember to imagine cones as references for your turns and guide rails and slant fences leading you and your horse to the center of every jump. With these powerful visuals and a steady, consistent rhythm and pace, you’ll nail the long approaches to single fences every time—without having to do anything!
Gallop to the Long Approach
You’ll see a lot of professionals showing off a good gallop on the long approach, especially when it’s the final fence on course. If you do it well, you can be nicely rewarded by the judges. It’s tricky, though, so make sure you’ve mastered opening that stride smoothly at home before showing it to the judges. The gallop must match the rhythm of the canter used throughout the rest of the course. You don’t want to have a slow rhythm the whole way around, then all of a sudden shoot off like a rocket.
It’s not a free-for-all gallop. Your horse’s frame and your leg, seat and rein contact should stay the same even as he’s opening up his stride to cover more ground. You still want a consistent rhythm that generates a good takeoff and landing, creating a beautiful picture over the jump. Again, to do this successfully, you must have a feel for your horse’s ideal rhythm and know the ride he needs to maintain that.
Get Fit in Body And Brain!
Rider stamina and fitness play a role in the execution of a long approach to a single fence, especially when it is placed at the end of the course. Sometimes a rider gets tired at that point and can’t keep her leg on to maintain the stride or a straight track. Especially if you can’t ride every day, do some form of fitness work that increases your stamina and builds core strength. Core strength helps you be totally in balance with the stride you’ve set for the course.
Often it’s a brain fitness issue. Even though you don’t want to fixate on the fence, the long approach demands that you focus on what you’re doing and keep your nerves under control. Ours is a mental sport and game. Working with a sport psychologist can be a big help.
Keeping your cool is especially important on a young, frisky or tense horse who might buck, play or bolt a little on the long approach to a jump, often involving a lead swap or sideways shift. The tendency when this happens is to get quick in your aids, but you need to stay calm and smooth and keep thinking and riding forward and straight. If your horse has one of these predispositions, be prepared to counter his antics with calm corrections, bringing him back to your original canter pace and rhythm. If you make a big deal out if it, that’s what it will become.
About Nick Haness
Thirty-year-old Nick Haness has a varied and impressive résumé. A southern California native, he made his mark as a talented catch rider and mostly self-funded equitation star as a Junior. Proceeds from developing young horses and investment prospects enabled him to go pro at 18. He has since established himself as one of the national A-Circuit’s top hunter trainers and riders and a coach to several winners in the Junior and Amateur divisions. His Hunterbrook Farms is based in Temecula, California.
To learn more about Nick’s story, go to practicalhorsemanmag.com/lifestyle/nick-haness-triple-threat.