I don’t think I have enough hairs on my head for the amount of times I’ve heard the phrase ‘he/she took a stride out’, when in reality it simply wasn’t the case at all. For some time it bemused me but now it makes me realise that there are some widespread misconceptions of the differences between where a horse can and should take off, especially when riding across country. Needless to say taking a ‘long one’ is not recommended as a matter of course, but there can be times it is preferable. The phrase should correctly be used when referring to a related distance and where you had lengthened the horse’s stride so to cover it in, say, 4 instead of 5 strides but I hear it far more often used in relation to the take off point.
Firstly let’s look at the mechanics of the average horse’s canter stride. It is approximately 4 yards in length, which increases or decreases according to size of horse and speed at which it is travelling. The ‘comfortable’ take off point is relative to the size and shape of the fence (i.e. you can safely take off a lot closer to a smaller or sloped/ascending fence), the speed at which the horse is travelling and again its natural stride length etc. But a good guide when looking at 90cm+ fences is 2 yards (1.8m) from the base of the fence and the same for landing hence a standard 1 stride double will be built on a 8 yard distance (2+4+2). I use yards instead of metres for this article, as you can easily train yourself to walk distances so that one of your human strides is equal to 1 yard, so when walking distances you can easily gauge the distance by multiples of 4.
All the following discussions (unless mentioned otherwise) will be based on a horse jumping an upright or standard spread fence which would warrant a 2 yard takeoff distance. Take off points for particularly wide fences such as triple bars and wide tables xc will generally have a closer ideal take off point, BUT the front of the fence will be designed to be ascending to allow the horse to take off safely closer to the fence.
So let’s look at take off points! To ‘leave out a stride’ a horse would need to take off a full stride away from the ‘ideal’ take off point from a fence. If working on a 4 yard stride and 2 yard take off distance you are looking at 6 yards from the fence. At XC pace though this could easily increase to 7 yards due to a longer stride length. A horse may well be able to ‘chip in a short one’ in a distance shorter than 6 yards but it would most likely leave the horse dangerously close to the fence and/or result in losing impulsion creating an uncomfortable jump. Horses that actually do take off a full stride out are few and far between, especially on a regular basis, but some can and do, especially when travelling at high speed, or if there are misleading ground lines. Every horse will have a preference for a longer or closer stride into a fence and the rider should know what the horse prefers. A horse who prefers a closer take off point may well be tight or restricted through its shoulders/back, limiting its ability to stretch out over a fence, so preferring the parabola of the jump to be shorter but more upright. A horse who prefers a further away take off point may well have weak hocks/hindquarters and so struggles to find the power if in a deep spot to clear the fence. They will often jump on the flat side, so a longer lower parabola over the fence, and may be inclined to rush. A 2 yard distance though should be comfortable for all horses, and any horse not able to comfortably take off from this point over a 90cm+ fence should be investigated even if only for safety reasons.
There is though that gap between the 2 yard ideal and the 6 yard point of missing a stride where horses can and will take off. They couldn’t physically have put in an extra stride, but it is a long distance and will most likely require a degree of stretch from the horse which may or may not be felt by the rider. It is in this range that riders will feel they have ‘taken a stride out’ but realistically and safely there was never another stride to be found. The key now for a rider is to clarify why they didn’t meet the ideal take off spot. As a rider it is our responsibility to have the best canter (gallop!) possible so that a horse meets the fence correctly. If a horse is in a good canter and the rider allows the horse to naturally self adjust (this doesn’t include rushing) then the horse should meet the fence on near to or on the ideal take off point. As riders go up the levels there is more responsibility on the rider, not only to provide that canter, but also to seek out that take off spot and make sure the horse gets to that point by giving the horse the best possible line and approach. The jumping effort itself in my opinion is always the horse’s responsibility but as riders we have to give them the best possible chance to clear a fence.
So here we introduce an eye for a stride. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of professional riders have an exceptional eye for a stride: they have spent hours upon hours developing the ability to infinitely and invisibly adjust a horse’s stride to ensure that when they meet a fence the horse is exactly where they want them for take off. Several riders are known to be so accurate that at clinics they have placed a piece of paper on the floor at a given take off point and then have got the horse to stand on it (and take off) 10 times out of 10, be that on a perfect, long or short distance. Some riders do naturally just have a good eye for a stride and again there is no coincidence that these are the riders who find it easier to adjust a horse’s canter, but it is something that can be learnt and improved. However the key focus should be on the canter not on the fence itself. Many riders, in trying to get that stride, start messing, fussing and hooking in front of the fence in the last 4 or 5 strides which may well mean they hit that spot, but in doing so have unbalanced the horse and greatly increased the likelihood of the horse leaving a leg. Those that can see the stride 5+ strides out and can put the horse in the correct canter and then allow the horse uninterrupted to ‘take ownership’ of the last few strides will always be more balanced and jump more cleanly. This principle was expertly explained by Andrew Nicholson at the IEF. He sets the horse up in advance in the right canter and then allows it to come to the fence. If it rushes on the approach it should be allowed to learn from its mistake so he will sit quietly and allow it to make the decision on speed and then cope with its mistake. This lesson should always be taught in training though, not in competition, and most certainly not over solid fences.
Some horses are trickier in maintaining a rhythm on approach to a fence and sometimes things just don’t go to plan especially with related distances on a curving line and when ground conditions are not ideal. In this situation 3 or 4 strides out you will need to make a very quick judgement and choose 1 of four options.
1) Ask the horse to take off on a longer stride feeling confident the horse is moving sufficiently forward and is athletic enough to be able to make the distance and height. (Not recommended if more than a few yards out, on deep going or up a steep slope especially if a solid spread fence as the horse will most likely struggle to make the distance)
2) Hold, sit and wait for an additional short stride (not recommended if an upright fence, square oxer or if travelling at notable speed as unlikely to give the horse sufficient time or room to pick up its front legs and could result in a rotational fall).
3) The hardest of the lot is to realise you are on a no-hoper to safely jump the fence, and with no room/time to correct and so choose to circle the horse away and represent. This is an option that is rarely made as in doing so you are ruining all chance of a placing but on many occasions it is the decision that should have been made. Riders do the mental calculation and decide there is a good enough chance of getting over in one piece and often they do purely thanks to a clever horse!
4) The final option is to sit quietly and let the horse decide, which is a potentially dangerous option. Of course sometimes the horse does the math itself and decides the stride isn’t going to happen and will run out or stop no matter what the rider asks but this should never be relied on as adrenalin and the trust the horse has in the rider may mean it will choose the wrong option and jump off a very wrong stride.
Obviously in the ideal world you wouldn’t ever have to make the decision in the first place, but when it does happen if you have a good canter, know the ground conditions and have a good eye for how far out you are from your ideal take off point, and most importantly you know your horse and its jumping capabilities inside out, you will be best placed to make the appropriate decision. Unfortunately even with all that knowledge and preparation falls will happen but you will be giving yourself the best possible chance of bringing you and your horse home safe and clear.