My horse keeps adding strides when he jumps. When I try pushing him, he only goes faster and rushes the jumps. What can I do to get the right strides?
Two things will cause a horse to rush with short quick strides on approaching a jump. He has lost his balance and is scrambling to find it, or he doesn’t understand what you asking for when you want him to extend and simply speeds up his rhythm.
As with most problems over fences, this can only be fixed with greater attention to flat work. This will take some time, but to truly correct this problem, there are no shortcuts.
Several things will need to be addressed. Before a horse can change the distance of a stride, he must first know how to be rhythmic. If your horse understands that he is to maintain an established rhythm, he will be less likely to speed up in response to the lengthening aids. You will need to spend some time working the horse in circles and figure 8’s to as well as the outside track of the arena to establish a relaxed rhythm at the trot. Once you know the horse can maintain a cadenced beat at the trot you can begin to work on changing the length of the stride. At this point, it must be understood by the rider that the majority of the pace control comes from the rider’s back. Not the reins. Trying to control the length of stride by pulling on the reins will only cause tension in the horse. For instance, if your horse is rushing along with quick, little steps, then you must slow the rhythm of your posting, and ask the horse to relax by a soft, gentle squeezing and releasing of the inside rein. As the horse begins to relax, his head will lower. Make sure you allow that by softening your hands and following the head. Be sure to maintain the established rhythm of trot.
Both horse and rider need to understand the aids for shortening and lengthening the strides. A horse cannot learn how to lengthen a stride while maintaining it’s balance without first knowing how to shorten and balance and respond to a half-halt, so lets look at those first. The aids for shortening a stride are to close the fingers and hold (the rider must refrain from pulling back on the reins). The rider’s spine establishes the new rhythm, and the legs close around the horse, to maintain the desired gait. This means one needs to consider if the horse understands the aids for a half-halt. Lengthening and shortening a stride requires a great deal of balance from the horse. A half-halt is an invaluable tool for helping the horse to balance properly as well as being a cue to make the horse aware of any upcoming changes. The rider’s aids for a half-halt are to push the horse forward with seat and legs into a fixed hand, never pulling back on the reins, simply creating a wall, for a brief moment, in front of the horse while the seat and legs drive the horse “up” the wall, resulting in a lightening of the shoulders and withers with the hindquarters and hocks more underneath the body. Your horse must understands that the difference you want should be in the length of his stride, not the speed of the stride.
Now lets set up some exercises to teach the horse to lengthen and shorten on cue. To begin with, I will establish a steady, relaxed trot. When the horse is going nicely, I will ask for a shortening of his stride every step, until he lowers his croup and drops to a walk. After walking three to four steps, I send him back into a trot, this time asking for a longer stride every other step until his stride is as long as it can be without him losing rhythm and balance, asking for no more than 2-3 strides at this length. The aids to lengthen the stride are to give slightly with the reins without losing contact so that the horse may extend his body and stretch, allowing his stride to lengthen, while sitting balanced and lightly, using the legs to create a greater degree of engagement from the horse’s hindquarters. Asking every other stride allows the horse time to think of what you want, and time to give you the thrust you are looking for. I have found that asking for length every stride may cause the horse to tense up and hurry, resulting in shorter, quicker steps. At this stage it is important to move continuously between the walk and the longest trot stride. Moving back and forth between these two gives the horse a definite goal that he can understand. It will also develop the strength in his topline that he needs to hold his balance. Asking the horse to get to a particular “shortness” or “length” of stride and hold it there is, at this point, too demanding, and will cause anxiety. Moving from one point to the other should take about 6-8 strides in the beginning. When the horse has become proficient at this exercise and will move smoothly and quickly from trot to walk to a large swinging trot stride and back, it is time to ask the horse to maintain a specific length of stride. I usually ask the horse to increase the number of long strides by one or two at a time because a horse that is moving forward energetically with a long, free, swinging stride will stay relaxed. Then I will ask the horse to shorten as usual, until I get to a short stride just before the walk. I will ask the horse to hold this for 3-4 steps by maintaining a somewhat more active leg than usual with firmly established posting motion and a holding hand on the reins. I will then let him drop to the walk and praise and pet him. Gradually you can add strides at the shorter step and at the longer step. When he is comfortable doing this at the trot, and can hold the shorter or longer strides for as long as you need, you can ask him to shorten and lengthen the canter strides easily.
If a student or horse has never learned to half-halt, I teach the half-halt using the same idea and exercise as above. When the horse is listening and very relaxed, I will ask for the shortening of strides as usual, but this time, about half-way to the walk, as the horse begins to lower the quarters, I will send him right back up to his previous stride and level of energy. This is an elementary form of a half-halt. It is also done over several strides, but, from this, the movement simply needs refinement. As the horse gets physically stronger and mentally quicker, it will eventually be executed within half of a stride.
Now that your horse understands these cues and can consistently perform them, you can now use them to fix the jumping problem.
First, practice changing the number of canter strides between two points. Use two cones or letters on the rail, or even two posts. For instance, if it usually takes eight strides between those points, try to get six strides. Then try for ten. Next, place a pole on the ground and canter over it, maintaining a relaxed rhythm. Place another pole about three strides away and canter over both. If the horse is maintaining his rhythm and is staying relaxed, it is now time to set up a small crossrail. Establish a rhythmic canter both before and after the jump, gradually raising the jump to the horse’s normal working height. Now is where the flatwork training will be used. If at any time, the horse begins to drop the forehand and rush toward the jump, ask for him to rebalance by using a half-halt. When the horse works well over a single jump, it is time to add a second jump. I will usually set this second jump about 8 strides away. This gives a rider plenty of time to determine the horse’s balance and way of going upon landing from the first jump, give a half-halt if needed, and for the horse to respond. When the horse will consistently jump with a relaxed 8 strides in between, I will ask for 7 strides in between. I advise asking for a lengthening of strides and eliminating one for the first change of striding, so as not to confuse the horse and possibly lose impulsion. It’s important to count the strides to make sure the horse has actually lengthened and not just sped up the tempo. The final step is to ask the horse to shorten his strides and add a ninth stride in the line.
Many people find cavelleti work and gymnastic lines helpful now to increase the horse’s strength and agility and to encourage it to maintain rhythm and balance. These are very useful, and now that the horse understands shortening and lengthening, these exercises will be helpful in further developing and maintaining that skill.