The equestrian world is full of all sorts of strange behaviour and competitive jumping is no different. If you’re just getting started in the jumping world you may have heard people talking about walking the course and wondered what they were on about. In this article, we’ll look at what it means to walk the course, why it’s so important, and how to do it properly.
Walking the course helps the rider to orientate themselves, giving them a better understanding of the distances between each fence and allowing them to work out the correct number of strides for their horse. This helps them find the perfect take-off point for each fence.
Not every rider will walk the course but I personally think it’s crucial, especially if you’re starting out in the sport. That said though there’s more to walking it than simply having a quick stroll around the jumps. It’s vital to help you understand the course from your horse’s point of view but it’ll also help you to orientate yourself when it comes to your turn.
Why is it important to walk the course?
Walking the course might seem like a waste of time, after all, you’ve seen the course plan and have had a look at the fences, but it’s a crucial part of jumping a course (regardless of the discipline). To start with it can help to calm your nerves, but the main reason for doing it is to learn how many strides your horse needs to make between each fence.
By knowing how many strides your horse will make between fences you’ll know the best route to take and how to approach each jump properly. It also gives you a chance to think about how your horse will react to the fences as well as other distractions such as parked horse boxes.
Even if you’re competing in a hunter class (which tend to tell you the number of strides between fences) you should still walk the course. It’ll give you a chance to memorize it, preview the jumps, and work out a good strategy.
How do you count a horse’s stride?
We know that the main purpose of walking the course is to count the number of strides between fences but how do you count a horse’s stride when our steps are much smaller?
Of course, every horse (and pony for that matter too) is different and will have different stride lengths but the ‘average’ horse (if there is such a thing) has a 12 foot (3.6 meter) stride. This is why the distances of courses are normally set up for a 12 foot horse stride.
As you’d expect though, ponies have a shorter stride with a typical pony stride equalling 9’ 9” (3 meters).
While knowing how big a horse’s stride is, it doesn’t mean anything unless we know how to measure that using our own steps. Knowing that a horse’s stride is 12 foot means that, if we can keep our steps to 3 foot (0.9 meters) we can use four of our steps to measure one horse stride. Not everybody has a 3 foot step but if you use a 12 foot pole with markers every 3 feet you can easily learn how far a 3 foot step is.
Once you know how big your step is it’s easy then to work out how many steps you need to different strides. The table below will help you to know how many steps you need to take for different horse and pony strides.
|Number of strides||Width of horse stride||Width of pony stride||Human steps|
|1||12’ / 3.6m||9’ 9” / 3m||4|
|2||24’ / 7.3m||19’ 8” / 5.7m||8|
|3||36’ / 10.9m||29’ 7” / 9m||12|
|4||48’ / 14.6 is m||39’ 6” / 12m||16|
|5||60’ / 18.2m||49’ 5” / 15m||20|
|6||72’ / 21.9m||59’ 4” / 18.1m||24|
|7||84’ / 25.6m||69’ 3” / 21.1m||28|
|8||96’ / 29.2m||79’ 2” / 24.1m||32|
|9||108’ / 32.9m||89’ 1” / 27.1m||36|
|10||120’ / 36.5m||99’ / 30.1m||40|
How do you count strides between fences?
One thing that often gets forgotten about when counting the number of strides between each fence is the take-off and landing half strides. You should allow 6 feet (1.8 meters / 2 human steps) on either side of the jump for take-off and landing, in other words, a half a stride on either side. For example, if a fence is 60 foot away from the next one it means that there are 20 steps which equals 5 horse strides. This actually means there’s a 4 stride gap with two half strides on either side, one for the landing of the previous fence and the other for the take-off for the next fence.
When it comes to remembering the number of strides everybody has their own way of doing this. Some of the most popular ways are changing a number or using your fingers. While counting the number of strides on your fingers is pretty self-explanatory, changing a number can work one of two ways. You can either count the number of steps and changes the first number or the last to help you remember the number of strides. For example, if you change the last number you’ll count 1 2 3 1, 1 2 3 2, 1 2 3 3, and so on. If you’re changing the first number then it would be 1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, etc.
If you know the distance between two fences you can use the chart below to work out how many complete strides you’ll need as well as the total number of strides. I’ve also included the number of human steps too so that you can easily check it when walking the course.
|Distance between fences||Complete strides||Total strides||Human steps|
How do you walk a course?
It might seem like people are just wandering around the course without any particular aim or direction but there’s actually a very definite purpose to what they’re doing. Not only are they counting the number of strides between fences but they’re also working out a strategy and memorizing the course, but how do they do it?
Count the strides
Counting the number of strides is pretty easy but it’s important that you start from the right place otherwise the distances will be wrong. That said most riders don’t worry about the first fence because there’ll be plenty of time to jump that and you can start when you’re ready.
Instead, start by standing with your heels at the base of the other side of the first jump and take two steps forward for your horse’s landing half stride. Next, walk to the next jump, counting the number of four block steps you take (ie four steps is one block, eight steps is two, etc). When you get to two steps from the next fence you can stop counting. This is the number of strides your horse will need to take.
Some people prefer to count full four blocks of steps between jumps and just remove one for the landing and take-off, but either way works.
Once you’ve got the stride count for one jump you can move on to the next.
Walk the line
It might sound silly to say but you should walk the line you WANT to take rather than the straightest line (unless of course that’s the route you want to take). If you plan to take off in the middle of the jump walk towards that, if you’re planning to take off at an angle or the side of the fence then walk to there instead. You should also turn where you think you should be turning, don’t walk in a dead straight line if you’re not planning on riding that way.
Take your horse’s stride into account
While it’s generally accepted that the average horse has a 12 foot stride this isn’t always the case so you need to take your horse’s stride into account. Are his strides normal (a complete set of four steps), short (three steps), or long (five steps)? If his strides are short or long then you’ll need to adjust his stride accordingly.
If, for example, your horse’s stride means that there are actually three and a half strides between jumps you might find it better to extend his stride so that he makes three big strides. If that’s not possible for your horse then consider shortening his stride so that there are five instead.
Pay attention to the ground
When you’re busy trying to count strides and memorize the course layout it can be difficult to think about the ground as well but it will make a difference to your horse’s stride. If you’re going uphill then his stride will be shortened whereas if you’re going downhill it’ll lengthen. The condition of the ground (whether it’s soft, hard, wet, etc) can also make a difference.
Jumps make a difference
Different fences can also play a role in both the number and type of strides your horse will need to take. For example, if the fence is a water jump then your horse may find it easier to jump it at speed so lengthening his stride (so that it becomes long) will help. Conversely, higher jumps often require more impulsion so shortening your horse’s stride will make it easier for them.
Not sure what the different jumps are? A visual guide to over 30 jumps and fences.
Ask for advice
Every now and then course designers will create lines that are difficult to decide the number of strides for. These are there to test the rider (as well as how well they communicate with their horses) and to make the course more complicated but there’s no shame in asking for advice. If you’re not sure how to take a particular fence ask your trainer for their opinion, you don’t have to do what they say but a different perspective can help.
Look out for anything scary
While your main focus should be on the course and counting strides you should also keep an eye out for anything that might scare your horse. Things such as a funny-looking filler or a row of horse boxes parked at the side can startle your horse so it’s important to be ready for them.
If you know where these ‘scary monsters’ are it can help you to prepare and be ready if your horse does spook.
Notice the timers
It might sound daft but as you’re walking the course look out for the start and finish timers and make a mental note of where they are. When the adrenaline starts to flow it can be easy to forget about them if you don’t know exactly where they are and nobody wants their perfect round to be wiped just because they missed the finish timer.
Let’s go round again
Once you’ve walked the course and know the stride count you should walk it again. This will help you to remember where all of the jumps are (and the order in which they need to be jumped) and will also give you a chance to plan it from your horse’s perspective, taking his stride into account.
It’s only a guide
Remember that when you walk the course you’re only forming a plan that can (and should) change when necessary. You can help with this by having multiple strategies as you’re walking the course but when it’s your turn be prepared to change your plan if you have to.
How do you remember a showjumping course?
You might not think that remembering the course matters but, while it will help you know which route to take, more importantly, it’ll stop you from being eliminated. Something that will happen if you go off course or jump the fences in the wrong order.
Everybody’s different and has their own way of remembering something but there are a number of different techniques you can use to help you remember the course, regardless of whether it’s cross country or show jumping.
Most courses will number the jumps but this doesn’t help you to remember where each fence is and in what order you need to jump them. Naming the fences can help you to identify each one quickly but it can also help you to remember the order as you talk about each fence in turn.
Sometimes making up a little story can help too, for example, if a fence has a tree as part of the decoration and the next one is mainly yellow you can say something like ‘through the trees to the sunshine‘. It doesn’t need to be a detailed story but just enough to help you memorize the order.
It can be difficult to remember every single fence sometimes but if you group them together it can really help because you’ll only need to remember a few groups. Combining this with naming the fences can quickly help you to memorize the entire course.
Remember your turns
If you have trouble remembering the fences themselves then remembering where you turn can help you overcome this. Instead of remembering the fences by name, you plan a route between them, for example, ‘over the first then turn left to the next and straight to the diagonal‘.
I know that may sound harder but it really does work because as you’re remembering the turns you subconsciously riding the course in your mind. This helps you to form a mental map of the course which you’ll end up following without realizing.
Draw the course
Similar to remembering your turns, drawing the course on your phone (or even a piece of paper) helps to reinforce it in your mind. Once you’ve drawn the course you can ‘ride’ it in your mind by going over it with your fingers.
Take photos (and videos)
We all carry our phones everywhere with us and, if you’re anything like me, will take endless pictures of nothing but when it comes to remembering the course taking pictures (or even videos) can really help. Not only will you take them in order which will obviously help but you’ll also be able to learn the course in your own time rather than with a load of other competitors.
Visualize the course
This is something that a lot of top sports people do (not just equestrians) and it really does help them to remember things but it can also help them to win. When you walk the course don’t just count the strides but really imagine your riding it, feel the reins in your hands, listen to your horse breathing, and think about your approach to each and every fence.
Repeat this over and over again in your mind until you’re confident you know exactly where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
Walk the course
Okay so this one might be a bit of a cop out but walking the course will really help you remember where the jumps are, where you need to turn, and in what order you should be jumping them. Even if you don’t use any of the techniques above, simply walking the course will go some way to helping you remember it.
Take home message
Now that you’ve learned how to walk and remember the course it’s time to get out there and do your thing! Of course, you’ll be nervous but close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine you and your horse clearing every jump and you’ll be fine.
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I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉