Pole Distances

A lot of people say to me that they can’t practice grids or related distances because they don’t know the striding. So let me break it down for you.

Firstly, it’s important to realise that there are two types of distances with regard to jumping; training distances and competition distances. Competition distances are standard and work on a set stride pattern. However, training distances should be bespoke to individual horses in order to enhance their strength, gymnastic ability, technique and confidence. After all, there’s no point drilling a  green horse through a grid at competition distances which are long for him, having him refuse or chip in a stride. Build him up with a grid set to his stride length and when he’s stronger, more experienced and confident you can progress to competition distances so he learns how to adjust his canter in order to go and compete successfully.

Starting with poles, it is usual to work with an odd number of poles – three or five is common – to reduce the chance of the horse trying to jump the poles. As a  guide, the distance for trotting poles is 4’6″. However each horse varies in their stride length, so you need to adjust this distance to suit your horse. As an instructor, I also don’t want to unbalance the rider. If, for example, I am introducing poles and jumping, I err on the side of caution and have the poles slightly closer together so that the horse or pony doesn’t make an exaggerated step and upset the rider’s balance. You can tell if your poles are too close or too far away for your horse’s stride by watching  where his feet are placed through the poles. With too close poles, your horse’s foot will land closer to the upcoming pole, and with poles that are too far apart the foot with land closer to previous pole.

It is at this point that it’s useful to have someone on the ground, to adjust poles and watch where the hooves fall.

Canter poles should have 9-12′ between them. Again, this depends on the length of your horse’s canter stride, so have a play around with the distances until your horse is comfortable.

Before we move any further, it’s time to get mathematical. I work, to my father’s pride, in imperial units as one of my strides is approximately one yard, or three feet. At a stretch, I can pace in metres, but I’m far more comfortable with yards and I think this length of stride suits the average adult. Practice striding out until you can stride a yard easily and confidently.

Now we will return to competition distances. A non-jumping canter stride is four yards for a horse. Three strides for a pony. So by using your four (or three) times table you can calculate how many yards are needed for an number of canter strides. I will continue talking in yards so that we don’t get confused between horse strides and human strides.

However, when you are jumping, the distance between two jumps is not 12 yards for three strides because a horse also needs room to  take off and land after a jump. Again, we keep this nice and simple, and say that two yards is required either side of a fence to allow a horse enough room to jump well. Of course, once we get to the big boys level of Newcomers, Foxhunter and beyond the horse needs more space than this, but let’s keep things simple.

Are you following this?

Let’s put the theory into practice. To put a one stride double up to competition standard for a horse, you need to have two yards after the first element to land, four yards for your non jumping canter stride, and two strides to take off over the second element. Equalling a total of eight yards, or human strides.

For a two stride double, you need two yards to land, eight for the canter strides, and two to take off – totalling twelve yards or Human strides. 

From here you should know be able to stride a related distance at a competition and know how many strides they expect you to get between fences.

Now let’s return to our training distances, and knowing our horse’s particular stride length. Lay out two canter poles and canter over them a few times, counting the number of strides you get between. Adjust the poles so that it’s a comfortable distance, with no half strides. Now, measure the distance. It may be that by taking slightly longer or shorter paces, you can adjust your strides to match that of your horse.

I mean; that you can still walk eight  human strides between your double, but instead of it being 24 feet, it’s closer to 22 feet. This means that the same formula of 2-4-2 applies, but the distance is shorter to suit your horse.

Hopefully by having this guide in your head you will feel more confident building your own grids or courses. Don’t be afraid to remeasure, or to adjust it after riding through it, so that you learn to improve your eye, and feel for when a distance is right.


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