Stay the course!
Congratulations—you’re going to your first competition where you will be jumping a course. This is an exciting and monumental moment in your riding journey. Regardless of whether you are entering the short stirrup hunter ring or the “green as grass” eventing division, a course walk will be an important part of your show day.
When you understand the importance and mechanics of a course walk, you will be able to transfer the knowledge you learned on the ground to a confident ride in the saddle.
Course Walking Basics
Walking a course is different from schooling a course in the saddle. It requires focus and a keen eye in addition to understanding the track of your class’ course.
You will notice things on the ground that you won’t notice in the saddle.
This is important, because it may be something your horse could see that you wouldn’t be aware of otherwise. A spooky banner at the end of the arena? That may be something you miss in the saddle!
What is a course walk?
A course walk generally occurs before any of the jumping classes begin at a show, and after a course is set. Course walks are found in show jumping classes, equitation classes, and hunter derbies.
During a set time, which will be stated in the prize list, riders and their trainers are invited into the arena to walk the track that they will ride in their class and come up with a plan to execute the best ride possible.
Why do riders walk the course?
Walking a course is important to the rider to understand how a course is going to ride.
By understanding the distances between jumps, you will know if the course designer set a jump distance a little short (requiring you to shorten your horse’s canter stride) or a little long. If it is a little long, it would require you to either add a stride or ask your horse for a more forward canter to prevent your horse from leaving long.
It also allows a rider and trainer to discuss the best places to make turns and shave off seconds in a speed round.
In order to walk a course correctly, you must be able to count strides and translate them into human steps. A horse’s stride is twelve feet. Obviously, we as humans cannot take a twelve foot step! But, you can break it down into four big steps.
Before you set foot into the competition ring, practice your “stride steps” so that they consistently reach 3 feet. This will give you the most accurate course walk when you are at the show.
It is also important to note that when a horse lands in a jump line it subtracts 6 feet, and when a horse takes off in a line, it also subtracts another 6 feet. I know I didn’t get into riding horses because I just *really* loved math… but here we are.
Learning to count strides is part of the package.
How do you count your strides when walking a course?
Now that you’ve practiced your big stride steps and got your math memorized, you are ready to start counting strides when on a course. Since four of your big steps equals one horse stride, you need a method of keeping track.
My favorite is “1-2-3-4-, TWO-2-3-4, THREE-2-3-4” etc. This helps me keep track of what stride number I’m on.
How do you walk a jump line?
A jump line is two jumps that are jumped back to back on a straight or bending line.
Counting these strides correctly is imperative for a successful round. When going to walk your line, you start with your heels directly at the base of the jump. Then you start your steps!
There are a few (at least!) schools of thought when walking a line on how to count:
With your heels at the base of the jump, just start walking and counting your big steps all the way to the base of the next jump.
Then subtract an entire stride from your total. Since a landing stride is six feet, and a landing stride is six feet—that equals one full horse stride.
With your heels at the base of the jump, take two big steps. This is your landing stride. Zero out your counts (i.e. start back at ONE-two-three-four) count to the base of the next jump.
If you do it correctly, you would be two strides over a round number. Those extra two strides would account for the take off stride.
Bethany Lee takes a mix of both of the above methods to create a “zero” stride! Her video tutorial is great for visual learners.
Note: All of this is based on a horse’s stride. If you are riding a pony, they have their own specific stride lengths, which will change how you walk a line.
How do you set up a bounce jump?
After you understand the stride length and how that affects the space between jumps, it is relatively easy to set up a bounce jump for training at home.
Though you won’t see a bounce jump in mainstream competitions, bounce jumps are great for teaching a horse to rock back and engage their hind end.
It also builds core and leg strength for the rider. Since a bounce jump has no stride between the two jumps, you only have to factor in landing and take off, i.e. twelve feet.
Now that you know how to count your strides on the ground, it is time to think about the big picture—the full course!
Course layout depends on the discipline, but the key components like combinations, rollbacks, and the need to memorize all of it in a short amount of time is universal.
How do you memorize a showjumping course?
Remember all that pointing I was talking about earlier? I believe that helps in the memorization of a course because it allows you to draw out the course in the air.
Here are a few other ways to ensure you keep those jumps in order in your brain!
Break the course into sections
This helps with longer courses, or if you are jumping the same jump in two different directions. When you break the course into smaller sections, it allows you to memorize chunk by chunk and your brain is able to compartmentalize each section.
Here’s an example: “I’m doing the outside line to diagonal line first” that’s my first chunk, then I’ll turn around the tree to my next section, the bending line to single oxer.
After that, I’ll finish my course with the outside line and single diagonal.” Then you go back and memorize.
Name the Jumps
All the jumps are going to have some kind of identifying feature—pink flowers, blue standards, etc. When you name the jumps, it helps you identify them on course and in your brain!
Speaking it aloud helps, especially with the named jumps. If you have a friend or barn-mate in the same ring with the same course, work on this together.
Draw it Out
Your course will be posted as a birds eye view, take a photo and then go into “edit” on your phone.
You can then draw out the course on your phone. This lets you visualize your course.
How many jumps are in a showjumping course?
A show jumping course will differ from a hunter or equitation course in that it usually has more jumping obstacles. Typically, a showjumping course will have eight to sixteen jumps.
Fun fact: The 2020 Olympic show jumping had a maximum allowed 17 jumping obstacles!
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is a horse stride chart?
A horse stride chart is a handy way to check the average stride length for horses. (Note: Pones have shorter strides than horses, as they are not as tall.) Since I am primarily a hunter rider, the one I most often reference can be found on the USEF website, here.
Q: Where can I find a showjumping distance table?
A quick reference guide for stride length and distance can be found on any show jumping distance table. To be 100% honest, some of these are really confusing—mostly due to poor formatting, but one of the easiest to read can be found here.
Now that you know how to measure your distances and walk your lines, you’re going to be even more prepared for your next show. But, the best way to prepare is to practice at home! If you want to set up a jump course to practice in your own arena, we recommend you check out our article here. Remember—stay on course, and trust your horse!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- 10 Best Stirrups for Jumping Clear (And Staying Safe)
- Jump Jargon: A Simple Guide to Horse Jumping Terms
- Compositi Stirrups Review: I’ve Never Jumped Better
- 100+ Things to Pack for a Jumping Horse Show (Checklist)
- When can (and should) you start jumping a horse?
- 4-Star Favorites: The 4 Best Cross Country Stirrups
- Horse Riding for Older Adults: Why It’s Never Too Late
- How Often to Replace Horseback Riding Helmets
Susan Tinder’s Jump Course Design Manual ← amazon link to this! It is such a gold mine for information!