Riding Tips

How to Set Up a Show Jump Course for Beginners

Show jumping
Written by Michelle Greene

Plot Your Course to Success

Ready to go to your first show, but want to practice riding a course at home? After all, practice makes perfect. But first, you need to put together multiple jumps in a row at home to be successful in the show ring.

This guide will help you create a safe and fun show jumping course for any size arena. We also will discuss types of jumps and other styles of jumping courses like a hunter course, or an equitation course.

Show Jumps 101

There are many different types of jumps you might find on a jumper course—here is a basic breakdown:

Vertical jump

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  • Vertical jumps have one or more poles (or planks) placed directly above each other. This jump has no spread, or width.
    • The word “oxer” is an umbrella term for two vertical jumps positioned right next to each other to make a wider jump. The width between the two verticals is called the spread.
      • Traditional Oxers have the back bar slightly higher than the front. This is also called an ascending oxer.
      • Box/Square Oxers have both bars at equal height
      • Descending Oxers have the second bar lower than the first.
      • Swedish Oxers form an X in the air—think of it as a very wide, elevated, cross-rail.
      • Hogsback jumps have three bars, the highest in the middle.
      • Triple Bars have a spread of three bars instead of the oxer’s traditional two.
  • A liverpool is a jump with water under it.
  • Wall jumps look like a giant brick (or stone!) wall. But don’t worry–it isn’t solid. The bricks are made of soft materials like foam that are easy to knock and will safely come apart if hit. This jump is most popular with the Puissance competition.
Ascending Oxer

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How many jumps are in a jumper course?

Though a jumper course will vary at every show, it typically has a minimum of 8 jumps and a maximum of 16 jumps. Olympic courses usually have 12 to 14 jumps with a maximum of 17 jumps.


Photo Cred: Canva

How do you count strides between fences?

My trainer once said to me that the most important part of jumping is everything before and after the jump. Learning how to effectively ride ground poles (set in the distance of jumps) or cross-rails is very important before you start moving up in height.

So, that being said—how do you effectively ride between the jumps? Well, to start, you count the strides!

The average stride of a horse is 12 feet, and when figuring in landing and take off you add another 12 feet. So, a 3 stride combination would be a total of 48 feet from beginning (takeoff) to end (landing).

If you are counting strides on the ground, try and take three large steps forward to equal one stride. Here is a great youtube tutorial for visual learners:

This is a more in-depth video about walking a full course:

If you are counting strides during your course, you can count on the ‘downbeat’ of the stride (so when the inside leg reaches forward). I always count ‘1,2’ on course to match the rhythm of my horse and then I can count strides between jumps easily.

For example, if I have a five stride, I would say “land, 1,2– 2,2– 3,2– 4,2– 5,2– take off!”

Once you learn how to count strides and adjust the distance between your jumps, you can create fun combinations, such as a bounce! A bounce jump does not have any strides between the landing of the last jump and the take off of the next. Make sure to check your distance multiple times—I even recommend using a tape measure to ensure you have the proper distance (12 feet).

What kind of jumps should you build at home?

Before you can build a course, you have to build the jumps! There are many different ways to build jumps safely that will last you a long time.

DIY Jumps

If you are crafty and have the proper power tools, you can always build your own jump standards out of a 4×4” and either 2×4”s or 2×6”s for the base. You will need a skill saw, chop saw, and a drill with a bit big enough to drill holes through the 4×4 to create a place for your jump cups to go.

I would also recommend a sander to eliminate any rough edges.

For the rails, you can use lightweight PVC pipes cut to size, or go the more traditional route by using landscaping timbers from Lowe’s or your local home & garden store. If you use timber, you can paint the poles fun colors as well.

PRO-TIP: When painting your new home-made jumps, use oil based paint instead of latex for a longer lasting finish. Also, we suggest splurging for exterior finish paint– it holds up better to wear and tear and won’t bleach as quickly in the sun.


Photo Cred: Canva

Course Design

Once you have your jumps and knowledge of how to measure and count your distances, it is time to put a course together! There are a lot of amazing books and programs out there to help you create your first course.

Common Show Jumping Course Layouts

The majority of hunter courses will follow this formula:

  • Single vertical
  • Outside line
  • Diagonal Line
  • Diagonal Line (or single long approach oxer)
  • Outside line

Equitation courses will have more unique courses that could include trot jumps, rollbacks, or even adding a halt in the middle of your course.

A Jumpers course (which is timed) will have both outside lines (i.e. set of jumps that sits close to the rail of the long side of the arena), diagonal lines (i.e. set of jumps arranged on the diagonal of the ring), rollbacks (i.e. jump followed by a turn to another jump), and the super fun triple combination jumps.

A triple combination is pretty much what it sounds like–three jumps in a line. One jump wil have a shorter distance than the other. For example, a triple combination could be a vertical with five strides to the next vertical and then a three stride to the oxer.

These combination lines are fun to both watch and ride!

Triple combination

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Is there a good jump course design app?

There are a few options for course design apps and tools designed to help you build your course:

  1. Course Tool is a unique course design app that can be used on both your smartphone and your computer. The official app name is Course Design – Premium ($5.99). There is also a free version.
  2. The New Zealand based Strides program has multiple subscription options from one day to a full year. They also have a free distance calculator tool you can find on their website!
  3. Jump Off Pro App offers multiple tools for your course design, the ability to share your course with others, and a unique option to visualize the course. It is also the highest rated option on the App Store.

What is a good 4 jump course?

If you are utilizing a small arena, a four jump course can be a great solution. I would recommend a single jump on the outside line, a long approach oxer on the diagonal and an outside line with two jumps.

Make sure you have filler or ground poles on each side of the fences. This allows you to jump the fences both ways.

Where can you find show jump course ideas?

Susan Tinder’s book Jump Course Design manual is a treasure trove of ideas for creating courses–everything from inviting to challenging! You can also find the courses from previous Medal/Maclay finals online.

My favorite way to find course ideas is to attend horse shows, watch, and take notes.

I learn so much from watching the different disciplines, from Hunter Derbies to Power and Speed showjumping rounds, you will find many unique course ideas that you can try at home.

Arena Consideration

Good footing is a MUST for any jump course. If footing is too deep or too hard you can injure your horse. Always make sure you have solid footing with no holes before you set up a jump course.

How do you set up jumps in a small arena?

If you have a smaller arena, make sure you are setting up your course/track to make effective use of the entire space. You can place jumps directly on the rail of the arena and work on your flatwork by going up the quarter-line (halfway between the rail and center of the ring).

When working in a small space, start with the goal you want to achieve and work backwards.

Are you working on effective lead changes? Make sure you include a track that works on that. If you set up four jumps in a square, you can even create a “clover” exercise where you practice your turns and change of lead and create a four leaf clover with your track!

Horse jump course

Photo Cred: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Remember—the most important thing about jumping is safety—for you and your horse! Always check your footing and your jumps. Check and double check your distances. Use safe jump cups so rails can easily fall. Remember to always wear a helmet, and have fun!

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About the author


Michelle began riding through Pony Club at age 5 and continued training through high school. After a hiatus for school and family, she's now back in the saddle with her hunter/jumper.