Written by: Jessica Lefroy

A good distance is different for every horse, whether a hunter or jumper.

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A rider should be aware – with the help of a good eye on the ground – of what distance works best for their horse. It is true that some produce better form from a closer distance, and some from a longer distance.

The elusive “eye for a distance” is one of the most valuable skills a rider can possess, and yet if broken down comprises the most basic elements of riding: rhythm, balance, and track. It is those elements that Ryan Roy believes can be learned and incorporated to develop a rider who can make subtle adjustments and arrive at every fence in the optimal zone for a good jumping effort.

All about rhythm

“The first thing I tell my students is that it’s not about finding a distance, it’s about finding the rhythm,” Roy explains. “I really believe that distances don’t totally exist. If you have the right rhythm, I believe you’re going to get to where you want to be. What this means is that if you’re behind the rhythm or too slow, you’re most likely going to end up with a deep distance. Conversely, if you have too much pace you’re going to get long and weak. The key then becomes finding the right rhythm, and I strongly believe that the distance is created through the turn.”

Roy believes that finding a distance is not something you can teach, but what you can teach is how to find the rhythm. “Every time you approach a jump the distance is there, but it is the rider who will interfere with the horse’s rhythm and create what becomes a bad distance,” she explains. “My biggest philosophy is “less is more”.” Roy describes a common affliction of most riders, who get the incredible urge to just do something when they come out of the corner and face a jump; she believes what they need to do is nothing, which is, of course, more difficult than it sounds. “Riders who focus on the canter and the rhythm will find that the distance will more often than not present itself without any kind of adjustment necessary. It’s when you start kicking and pulling and over-thinking that the distance disappears, because the rhythm disappears.”

A balancing act

The rider’s balance when coming out of a corner to the jump will directly affect the distance, because it in turn affects the balance and rhythm of the horse. Ryan likes to teach that whether riding in a two-point or a full seat, the rider’s balance needs to be in the centre of the saddle. “If you are positioned too far forward, the horse will in turn travel on the forehand and the distance you are left with will end up being long,” she cautions. “As we all know, 80 per cent of the time long, weak distances will become a chip. If you want to come forward, you need to be sure to have the momentum coming from the horse’s hind end and have your balance a bit behind the motion, if anything. On the other hand, if you’re sitting bolt upright in the tack, you’re probably going to end up with a deep distance. It’s all about staying in the centre of the horse and keeping your leg on.”

She also explains that a rider can sometimes make an undesirable distance a good distance by changing their body angle at the jump. “If you’re able to tell that the distance presenting itself is coming up a bit deep, then you can adjust and bring your balance back so the horse can sit on its hind end.”

A rider’s eye level also plays a part in allowing a good distance. “I tell my riders to look at the jump as a whole. You’re not jumping the top rail, the ground, the box, or the standards; you’re jumping the whole jump and that’s what you should look at.”

Not a numbers game

It is encouraging for those who are not blessed with the coveted “eye for a distance” that Roy believes it may hold less weight than you’d expect. “There are riders who are able to see when they are ten strides out, riders who have what we call a natural eye, but the numbers game just doesn’t work for me,” she admits. “I come out of the turn and I don’t know how many strides away I am. I think when you involve counting it really messes people up. The rhythm of the horse is “ba-da-dump” and you can’t put number on that; you have to feel it.”

Those who possess the natural ability to judge distance have the opportunity to package that talent into educated course interpretations. “Someone with a natural ability knows the right rhythm, so you just fine-tune it,” explains Ryan. “You can start to find distances that work for the questions posed to you by the course designer. If you have a long line, you want to come forward through the turn and find a distance coming forward; with a tight bending line off the turn you need to learn to ride the quiet distance. “

Roy believes that an honest horse will forgive distance mistakes without getting nervous or developing a nasty stopping habit. “A good horse will take a mistake in any situation and allow riders to learn; good horses will teach and not punish mistakes. If you have a horse that will punish you with a stop when you make a distance mistake, it leads to riders getting nervous and defensive – a difficult challenge to overcome.”

She points out that even a seasoned professional flat-out misses sometimes. “Sometimes it doesn’t work and that’s just part of the sport. Riding is really a thinking game. You have to know what you want to accomplish and what ride is going to give you the best result. You have to look at the course and know where you need to come forward, where you need to wait, and how you are going to create the best jump and get the best round; then you need to manage that all while keeping the same rhythm and fluidly adjusting your horse’s stride to suit your plan.”

Roy likes to use a simple exercise utilizing patience, track, eye control, and rhythm en route to a good distance. “I use a jump, and a turn, and a straight line. I put four cavalettis around the ring – two on the end and two on the long side – and I will work on rhythm. Simple. From there it can be made more challenging depending on your skill level by adding or leaving out strides, but always keeping the same rhythm.”

For this article, Ryan set up a simple four-fence configuration that allows for varying distances and can be worked from both directions. “This exercise teaches you to ride through the turn by creating rhythm and it becomes less about the jumps being there and more about pace, track, and rhythm. You want to learn to land and come forward, land and come forward.”

“I like to set up the jump with the rail as well, because a common thing that people do when they’re trying to look for a distance is worry so much about the jump that they end up going really slowly to find it. By putting the rail 12′ out from the fence, you basically canter the rail and the jump just comes up. You’re learning about the rhythm. You look for the rail, come forward to the rail, and the jump takes care of itself.”

“From the jump placed on the end of the ring, which helps develop balance, you can walk the line to the next fence to determine a set number of strides – in this case it was seven. You can then jump the end jump, come forward and do the seven strides without worrying so much about the distance as you are about getting the set number of strides.”

“If you want to work above the pace, you can do it in six; if you want to collect, you do it in eight. It’s not about finding a distance; it’s about finding the pace by coming forward, waiting, or staying the same. It’s working on a rhythm.”