I love this straightforward exercise as it teaches riders an awareness of the different types of canter, the different bascules a horse can make, and a certain degree of determination.
When warming up for the jumping exercise it is important to get the horse responsive to the aids, lengthening and shortening the strides in both trot and canter. Doing this also ensures the rider is aware of the variations between the gaits; and you can check that they are asking correctly for the extension and collection.
The exercise itself is two fences on the three quarter line with 40ft between them. For a horse, this is three non jumping canter strides and for a pony it is four canter strides. Initially, it is important to ride the combination on both reins ensuring that the working canter is rhythmical and the same number of strides occurs each time. Sometimes the height of the fences need adjusting slightly to ensure that the horse manages the set number of strides comfortably.
Last night, when I used this exercise with a teenager and her pony, I used cross poles because the mare drifts right and I wanted the centre of the cross to focus my rider on a straight line. This means that the distance between the fences doesn`t increase as it would do if they drifted.
The pair managed to get four canter strides between the fences easily, so the next stage in the exercise was to try to fit five canter strides between the fences. It is easier to learn to shorten the canter before lengthening the strides because the horse is usually more compliant.
My rider managed to shorten the canter on the approach very well and they negotiated the first fence with a neat, steep bascule. Landing quite close to the fence gave them an extra couple of feet between the jumps which can really help squeeze in the extra stride. They got four bouncy canter strides between the fences, but instead of adding a fifth stride, the mare took a flying leap over the second jump.
This is where determination comes into it. The mare thought she knew best, and until now she has been allowed to find her own stride. So my rider had to hold the mare together and be quite firm in waiting for the fifth stride. After a few tries, they succeeded! We practiced on both reins, with the right rein being the trickier one to collect.
After fitting in five strides between the jumps they had one go at putting in four strides again, which required slight lengthening, and then came the fun part! They easily managed to remove the fourth stride, taking three long canter strides and long, lower bascules over the fence. We only did it once on each rein because the mare found it so easy. I also felt that she was developing a bad habit of not picking up her forefeet over the jumps.
Unfortunately we then had difficulty taming the canter back into the working canter, which required my rider to just sit tall, close the rein whilst lifting the hand and having the leg maintaining the canter. I think there was a slight lightbulb moment for my rider when she realised how she needed to wait for the fence to come to her. Once of course, the mare realised she couldn`t control the speed she came back to her rider nicely so that they fitted four strides between the jumps. Finally, we collected the canter again to squeeze five strides between the jumps.
Being able to create a canter that is adjustable is incredibly helpful when jumping courses because you can collect the canter for some sharp turns, and lengthen the strides to efficiently cover the ground on long distances between fences. These saved seconds make the difference between winning, and being a close second. This mare found it easier to lengthen her strides, and could lengthen the canter within two strides. However, when collecting the canter it took five or six strides to bring it back. As she gets more flexible and supple, they should begin to be able to collect the canter quicker, and to a greater extent.
I find this exercise good fun with groups of children, and you can chop and change, shortening and lengthening, and trying to squeeze six strides in, instead of five. It`s possibly asking a bit much to lengthen it so that only two strides are between the fences, but getting kids to think on their feet really helps keep the ponies obedient to their riders.