The Heartbeat of a Show-Jumping Course

Olympic course designer Steve Stephens shares insights on how to analyze questions to maximize your performance.

You’ve studied the course diagram posted by the ring and memorized your route in the upcoming jumper class. The arena is now open for the course walk. This is the time to make decisions based on knowing how long and adjustable your horse’s step is, figuring out the striding along the course, and spotting unusual—and potentially problematic—fences. How you evaluate a course before riding it can be crucial for a successful round. Olympic course designer Steve Stephens offers insights on how to analyze the test to maximize your performance.

Steve Stephens | © Nancy Jaffer

Every course has a heartbeat that reflects the designer’s style. As you walk the course on foot, ask yourself, “What is he doing out here? He’s got a question that I’ve got to solve.”

The answer is unique for each competitor who enters the ring because every horse has a different stride and his own challenges. Some might not like walls or liverpools. All likely will favor one direction over the other. Left and right turns change a horse’s balance and test your training skills, with lead changes and rhythm readjustments for the approach to the next jump. The better you know your horse, the better you can analyze the course to suit him.

The Science of Striding
The course designer also is thinking about how his plan will affect different horses as he puts together his route: “What is the short-strided horse going to do here? What is the big-strided horse going to do here?”

Sometimes when a course designer puts two fences in a row, he’s giving you the answer to his question by requiring a particular stride between them. If it’s five strides, that’s the answer. But other times he’s requiring you to make a decision. On one line, you might do five strides, while another rider will do six.

Walking the course, you have to know where your horse is landing to determine how tight a line is going to be. Most horses will touch down about 6 feet on the landing side of the fence. If your horse is scopey you probably will extend that distance to account for his ability to jump higher and wider, which will cause him to land farther from the fence. If your pace is stronger, you also will need to add footage to account for the arc of the jump. This is particularly important in combinations because of the set distance within one or two strides.

In figuring striding, a lot depends on the type of fences being used. For instance, 28 feet from one vertical to another in a one-stride is long, but it’s not dangerous because you’re not dealing with oxers, which require a greater type of effort. On the other hand, a tight distance inside at 24 feet 6 inches is such an easy question to ask. For a mid-level type of course, I am very comfortable making the distance 26 feet. It will feel long during the walk if you’re figuring on the average 12-foot length of a horse’s stride, but in reality, it would be a normal distance for vertical to vertical. You can leave your horse alone and just let him jump it with limited adjustments using your legs and/or seat.

For an oxer-to-vertical combination, 25 feet between the fences is a normal distance. Oxer-to-oxer is a whole different ballgame. For that, a very normal distance would be 24 feet. But by adding a foot and a half inside two oxers, bringing it to 25 feet 6 inches, it becomes a really scopey distance. Then it’s a “Gem Twist, I can do that” sort of thing. You won’t see this question in an ordinary Amateur-Owner class or a Level 3 jumper class (height 3-foot-6, width 3-foot-6 to 4 feet). I’ve probably done it in the American Invitational and the Gold Cup.

A designer also is careful where he uses that type of combination on the course. You can’t do it coming to a corner or out of a corner, for instance, because a horse needs a little bit more galloping, a power approach to it.
Stephens’ Style
What can you expect to find when you first walk into the ring for a look around my course?

Every designer has a signature, and you could say mine is scope. At the highest level, the riders know the oxers are going to be wide, but I always stay within the parameters of the ability of the horses and riders contesting the class. And I tend to have a good number of unrelated distances—fences standing alone where you can’t count strides to get to them. With these types of fences, you have to answer the designer’s question by finding the takeoff spot. You have to keep the cadence and not let your horse get heavy in your hand.

In most cases, the first fence is a “gimmee,” a single fence. I don’t relate one and two a lot. If Fence 1 is an oxer, it’s a very inviting oxer, saying, “Here I am, loosen up over me.”

By Fence 2, I’m starting to get into the course, but usually Fence 3 is the first “real” fence. It might be at the maximum height of the competition. For instance, if it’s a 1.45-meter class, it’s at 1.45. However, if it’s the World Cup Finals with only 10 fences or a Nations Cup with only 12 jumping efforts, the first two fences will be more challenging.

I never put in a triple combination before the third fence, but I have used it as the third fence. If a course designer builds a triple early in the course, you have to be a little more prepared coming from the schooling area, jumping two or three extra fences there, because you won’t have time to loosen up your horse on the course.

If the triple is early in the course, I won’t put it at maximum height. It can be bigger in the middle or at the end of the course because the horse is loosened up. However, he’s probably also getting a little more tired, which means he may be pulling a bit and in attack mode. Your job then is to find a cadence and a balance to counteract those tendencies.

The triple combination is supposed to be a scope test, but in my book, it’s also the agility test about the horse’s ability to adjust his stride within the one or two strides. It shouldn’t be a trap, though. I don’t like to create problems at a triple or water jump. Once a horse gets scared in a triple, it’s hard to train that out of them.

If you see a color change in the triple combination, you should say to yourself, “He’s got something in store for me right here. He’s got a visual and it’s going to be a problem.” So if you have striped rails on the A and C elements of a triple, and solid colors on the middle element, for instance, you have to be on your game to make sure you handle that right. In my opinion, stripes on a rail help give a horse depth perception. Pastels are more difficult for them to see. I used to think horses were colorblind, that they were looking at a black-and-white television, but studies say they can see color.
If your horse gets weak in a combination, you might need to help him over the next fence. Just don’t throw the reins away and say, “Go get it.” You may want to reassure him you’re there with him to figure out the distance problem. When you arrive at the next fence after the combination, build his confidence by giving him the proper leg, a little more pace and a little more encouragement in the approach to it.

After the fourth fence, you want to ask, “Where does he have the plank jump? What is it related to? Is it by itself or on a line? Is it the first part of a line with a forward approach, or is he putting it at the end of a line? Is it going to be short or long?” A plank has to be jumped clear. If you rub this type of fence, you have about an 80 percent chance of having it down because it’s always in flat cups.

You should also look around for the skinny jump. The narrow fence is one of the course designer’s good tools to work with. That pole can be about 8 feet long or as short as 6 feet. A normal 12-foot rail weighs about 24 pounds, that’s two pounds per foot. An 8-foot pole is going to weigh only 16 pounds, so it’s lighter and easier to knock down. When you’re dealing with a skinny jump, it’s all about control and keeping your horse in the middle. Don’t aim for the right-hand corner, or it will be the wing standard that you’re jumping.

Water, Walls and More
The water jump will generally come at some point after Fence 5. At the Olympics in Hong Kong, the riders should have been able to find the takeoff distance at the water, but many didn’t. The ones who rode it correctly didn’t have a problem.

Water can be a mental obstacle for the rider as well as for the horse. In South America, the Children’s Jumpers fly over the water—it’s nothing to them. Here, people tend to make a big deal about it. If you have a problem with water, take the money you would have used for entry fees and build a water jump at home. It’s not a good idea to go to the horse show and have that be the first time you jump the water.

If I’m using water early in the grand prix or it hasn’t been used in a while, I try to introduce it during the show. For instance, I might offer the water in the 1.35-meter class on Wednesday and put a rail over. It wouldn’t be part of a related distance, and I might make it an option with a fence beside it, so you could choose either one. I also wouldn’t put a fence right after it.

When you’re riding the water in a class and there’s a fence after it, you have to think of them together. If you jump the water hard, you have to think about what happens to the fence after it. You have to get your horse back within a few strides to make sure the approach is right for the next fence.

The liverpool offers variety. I can use it with a vertical on the backside or the front or with an oxer in the middle. Many horses handle the liverpool with no trouble. But if your horse looks down at a liverpool and spooks at it, it’s a problem. I make sure that in a young-horse class it is in an approachable, inviting place near the in-gate.

A wall is basically a freebie until it gets quite high, because you can’t see through it. At that point, the horse doesn’t know what’s on the other side. It’s a bold jumping effort, especially the walls designed with funny looks, where I’m testing the horse’s bravery.

Very unusual fences, like the bicycle jump from the 1994 World Equestrian Games—a giant bicycle that looked nothing like anything the horses had seen previously—require special notice to your horse. This includes any jumps that are completely new to your horse, such as sponsor fences (think of the giant Budweiser bottles or the Shamu whales of Sea World). When you enter the ring, use the 45 seconds before the bell rings to ride your horse close to these types of fences so when he heads toward them to jump them, it’s not the first time he’s seen them.

You also want to consider fence location. Is the fence set so you jump it toward the in-gate or away from it? Horses have a magnetic pull toward the in-gate. The normal five strides you figured on when walking the course will get steady if the line is toward the in-gate because your horse will be stronger in that direction. Horses know where the in-gate is they’ve got a homing device.

As a horse goes around a course, he gets harder to ride, lugging on his rider. If there is a combination at the end of the course, you must make sure your horse doesn’t run out of gas before he gets there. Hold it together and don’t lose your concentration.

I always like to create the thrill that you’re not finished until you jump the last fence. Probably 10 years ago, every last fence was an oxer, but I’ve changed my philosophy. Now I mix it up. If there are three classes in a row in a division, I’ll make sure the last fence in each class varies. The last fence most likely will be the biggest fence. Don’t take it for granted. Ride it as a very important obstacle.

While I build challenging courses, I don’t want to see horses struggling. I don’t like “hot spots” on the course—a jump that is causing all the knockdowns. It’s a success if every fence comes down at some point during the competition. Most of all, I want my courses to be a good experience for both horse and rider, so they can go on to the next event.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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