What’s the ideal way to ride a turn to a fence? With your hands light, your eyes—and your horse’s—on the jump, and the two of you just flowing with impulsion into, through and out of the turn to a good distance. If that’s not the kind of turn you and your horse ride regularly, most likely you’re late with your eyes—because you’re:
• looking down in the air so your horse doesn’t know where he’s going next,
• staring at a jump you’ll be turning around so he thinks he’s supposed to go to that jump instead of to the side, or
• landing in a heap so he lands in a heap, too.
Being late with your eyes throws you off balance and that starts a domino effect: You land pitched forward, your hands down on your horse’s neck. Your lower legs fly back. Your position is so weak you can’t steer. And everything just sort of stops while you recover and regroup.
Your horse can usually find the distance. All you have to do is show him the line with your eyes and reins, set the right pace, come forward through the turn and say, “Here, boy. I’ll stay out of your way because I trust you.” And you can learn to believe and trust this by using my favorite turning-and-counting exercise.
Canter a figure eight with a jump set across the middle (see diagram, above). To make the exercise encouraging and doable, begin with a rail on the ground or flowerbox. As you ride toward the rail or flowerbox on a slight angle, count the strides out loud. The first time through, say “one” on takeoff, the last time his feet hit the ground before jumping—and look where you are when you say it. The next time, start counting one stride earlier—so you look and say “one, two” before going over the rail. The time after that, say “one, two, three,” starting when you think you’re three strides out, and so on. It’s important to count out loud, not just in your head. The louder you say it, the more definite it will be. Counting loudly also helps to improve your cardio fitness.
Instead of worrying about seeing a distance (which you will see eventually), the idea is to look and count early so you can follow your horse to the jump, flowing up to it in rhythm. Some riders start counting without looking at the jump, then choke the horse to fit in the number they’re working on. That defeats the purpose, which is to learn to recognize how many strides out you are so you can count accurately.
• Makes you relax and focus on the very simple, straightforward, almost hypnotic pattern,
• gives you something to do instead of obsessing about the distance,
• forces you to look ahead and use your eyes to start measuring, calculating and developing a sense of where you are and where you’re going (and when your eyes are up and looking ahead, your balance automatically improves),
• helps you feel and maintain your horse’s rhythm and the steadiness and evenness of his strides through the progressive counting, which will in turn help your timing and
• teaches you, by repetition, to see the distance farther and farther away while improving your concentration, focus and discipline.
Who Can Do It
Anyone can try this exercise, as long as his or her base of support—legs, seat and core (abdomen and lower-back muscles)—is strong. Your base keeps you centered on your horse, your upper body still and not bobbling around. It also keeps you from getting jumped loose and having no leg and seat available to activate the engine in his hind end. (To improve your base of support, read “All About That Base!”)
How to Ride the Exercise
1. Pick up a left-lead canter and prepare for the left half-circle (the “ice cream” on the cone) by turning your head left, looking at the cone and shifting both hands slightly left. Keep your inside leg at the girth to keep him from falling in, your outside leg a bit behind the girth to keep his haunches from falling out and your eyes on the cone.
2. As you reach the cone, communicate the upcoming turn to the rail by turning your head and focusing your eyes like laser beams on the center of the rail or flowerbox. That’s where you want to cross it.
3. Ride the long, diagonal approach on a slight right-to-left angle. Count “one” out loud as your horse touches the ground just before takeoff. Land and—keeping the same rhythm—“test your brakes,” which is the expression I use for a momentary rebalancing and subtle check that he’s paying attention and ready to flow smoothly through the upcoming change of direction to the right. Drive your heels down, bring your seat a little closer to the saddle, keep your legs on and take a little more feel of the reins, searching for a slowing-down or coming-back, waiting response. You’ve got a response when he lightens his forehand as if to say, “Yes, I will shorten or slow down and get softer on the bit without losing my engine.”
4. Immediately get light with your hands again and simply follow him as he flows around the right turn. From here the focus is keeping the same pattern and rhythm. Ride this second half of the exercise exactly the same way as the first. Make sure your horse has a reasonably long, straight approach to the center of the rail. Bring both hands slightly right so you’ll jump the rail on a slight left-to-right angle. Keep your laser-beam eyes on the center of the rail and don’t forget to count: Again, say “one” as he hits the ground just before taking off.
5. Continue on, next time starting your count a stride sooner so you’re saying “one” two strides away and “two” as your horse’s feet hit the ground just at takeoff.
6. Gradually start your count sooner and sooner, saying “one” three strides out, then four and so on, up to eight or 10. When you’re completely comfortable and confident counting from that many strides out, ramp up your eye and your aids by trying the exercise without the cones.
7. Finish up the exercise by replacing the pole or flowerbox with a small jump.
I’ve seen this exercise help so many riders and horses—including those who work in groups, watching and assisting each other. As the riders’ sense of rhythm improves, their horses—even hot horses, who typically get hotter if asked to repeat an exercise—become smoother and usually a little slower.