Ah, the course walk: a phenomenon unique to show jumping that confuses non-equestrians and non-showjumpers alike, as unmounted equestrians (and their coaches) take weirdly long and deliberate steps around a course of jumps, count on their fingers, and mutter to themselves.
Ever wonder what’s going on during a course walk, or how to walk a jumper course yourself? Then this guide is for you!
What Does “Walking a Course” Mean?
Before competing in a jumper round, all riders have the option to view the full course on foot before riding it – called “walking the course”.
Walking the course has several benefits, which we’ll cover in detail. First, seeing it helps you memorize the course, as viewing it in person is a completely different perspective than seeing it on paper. You’ll also get the opportunity to count strides, preview the jumps, and formulate a strategy.
Counting how many strides a horse will need to take between obstacles is a critical component of the course walk- especially when it comes to combination fences and lines.
Riders will also get a chance to contemplate the jumps themselves, and think about how their horse will react. Elaborately decorated jumps can pose a spook hazard, and many horses are anxious of water jumps, for instance. If your horse is seeing a new type of jump for the first time in the ring, be sure to take this into consideration.
Tip: You owe it to your horse to minimize “surprise” jumps on show day (like the first time he’s seen a water jump). If you’re concerned he’ll balk at a certain obstacle, try to ride him by it during your warmup so he has a chance to get acclimatized to it before he’s asked to jump it.
Walking the course gives a competitor the opportunity to formulate a strategy for how they’ll ride the course and tackle each jump based on their own, and their horse’s, ability.
If possible, it’s best to have your coach with you when walking the course. They can help you count strides if you’re unfamiliar with it, as well as offer recommendations (and confidence boosts) where needed.
How to Walk a Jumper Course Part 1: Counting Strides
Counting strides is an essential skill for any hunter or jumper rider and is probably the skill you’ll use most when it comes to walking a course.
As a general rule, the average horse canter stride is about 12 feet. The average human stride is about 3 feet, so 4 human steps equal one canter stride.
You’ll also need to account for the takeoff and landing strides. This is generally about half a stride on either side, so account for an extra 6 feet (or 2 steps) before and after each fence.
Remember this is just a very general guideline. A horse may have a longer or shorter stride depending on its conformation and athletic ability, and your own stride may be a bit more or less than 3 feet. The best thing to do is to measure your stride and your horse’s stride at home, so you’ll be able to make more accurate estimates when walking the course.
Courses get more complex as you progress through the competitive ranks; not just in terms of obstacle height and spread, but in terms of distances, too. Expect more obstacles with quarter, half, or three-quarter strides added, testing how well you know and communicate with your horse.
You’ll need to be able to quickly and easily shorten or lengthen your horse’s stride to ensure a smooth approach.
How to Count Strides During a Course Walk
You’ll typically have a circle and plenty of time to prepare for your first jump, so other than determining your ideal take-off point, most riders really focus on counting strides after the first jump.
To start counting strides, line up with the back of your calves against the fence and take 2 steps (6 feet) to account for the half-stride your horse will need to land after the fence.
Count out 4 long (depending on the length of your legs), even strides. Once you finish stride 4 – that’s one 12 ft. horse stride.
Tip: Most riders will count their steps aloud, then either count one finger or say the name of the stride – like “one, two, three, one stride. One, two, three, two strides. One, two, three, three strides” etc.
Continue this walking and counting until you reach the base of the next obstacle. Subtract the ½ stride (6 feet, or 2 human steps) your horse will need to take off, and decide how many strides your horse will need to reach the distance comfortably.
You may need to make some tough decisions here, especially if the length is not a full stride.
For example, a 4.5 stride line may be taken as 4 strides for a big striding warmblood, whereas a short-legged pony may have an easier time adding half a stride and doing the line in 5 strides.
Or if the line is 4 ¾ strides, you’ll need to decide if you want to encourage your horse to collect, shorten its stride and do the line in 5 strides, or extend and aim for fewer, longer strides.
Seeing the jump that comes next can also help you make a decision here – a higher jump may call for more impulsion, therefore shortening the stride may be a good idea. But a lower, wider jump may benefit from a faster approach, in which case you may want to encourage your horse to extend his canter and build speed instead.
Counting strides is critical when walking a course because it helps you develop your strategy for the course.
How to Walk a Jumper Course Part 2: Strategy
By walking the course and seeing the jumps in person, riders can begin to formulate a strategy for the round.
Unlike hunter obstacles, jumper obstacles need only be taken in the correct order and direction – it’s up to the rider to decide exactly how they want to get from one obstacle to the next, as well as decide when and where you’re going to change leads.
Generally, jumper riders have a lot of freedom in how you decide to handle turns. However, how you take turns can also make or break your round.
For example, you may decide to take a wide, sweeping turn and set your horse up well for a clean jump. It’ll take a bit longer, but a good setup means greater chances of clearing the fence.
Or you may opt to take the turn a little tighter, shave off a stride, and cut another second from your time. The result will be a more competitive time, but there’s a tradeoff – tight turns or jumping on an angle is harder, increasing the risk of knocking a rail and incurring a fault, which will likely put you out of the ribbons.
Knowing you and your mount’s physical capabilities and limitations is important here. A newer horse or rider may benefit from taking more time to set up carefully for jumps, whereas an experienced horse and rider pair may be more comfortable jumping on an angle or with fewer strides to set up, allowing them to lay down a more competitive time.
Considering the Obstacles
A rider’s strategy is also based on the type of obstacle and where it appears in the course.
Generally speaking, higher obstacles require more power and impulsion from the hocks to launch the horse into the air, which is usually achieved by collecting the canter more.
Lower spread jumps, like oxers or water jumps, don’t require the same height effort but may need a longer jump, so asking for speed and extension, instead of impulsion and collection, is a better strategy.
You’ll also want to consider how your horse will react to each obstacle. For example, will the bushy flower pots on that second oxer cause your horse to spook or balk?
Or maybe that thin vertical without a good ground line (a pole on the ground immediately in front of the jump, which helps the horse gauge the height of the obstacle) will require a slower approach to give your horse time to gauge the height.
What about water jumps? Horses have different visual acuity than humans do, meaning that a shadow or dark pool, like a water jump, can look like a never-ending pit instead of a shallow splash pad. Your mount may need some extra confidence over an obstacle like this, so seeing it ahead of time gives you the chance to prepare and be ready with a strong leg to help him over the scary obstacle.
The Rounds Before You
A strategy can change before you even enter the ring, which is another reason why it’s important to walk the course and consider your options. If you want to be competitive, you’ll need to know how the rounds before you go.
For example, if the riders in front of you post faster times than expected, you may decide to take a turn in 5 strides instead of 6 or ask for a faster, extended canter on a long diagonal line with only one obstacle to save time.
Likewise, if other riders are knocking down rails, this may be an indication that “slow and steady wins the race” and it’s better to take your time and focus on jumping clear (meaning you don’t knock down any fences) than to worry about laying down a blistering fast time.
Managing Your Mount
Your strategy should also involve how you’ll manage your horse’s energy during the round, too.
This is especially important if he’s new to jumping or showing, if he’s still being brought back into shape, or even based on the temperature and conditions of the day.
For example, you may choose to ride a wider turn after a triple combination to give your horse an extra stride to catch his breath and collect himself before the next jump, in exchange for cutting a shorter last fence a little tighter to shave some time off your score.
The Final Obstacle: Visualization
This is a tactic that is often overlooked in the excitement of show day but is a useful tool for everyone, especially equestrians: visualization.
As you and your coach are walking the course, imagine yourself taking each jump perfectly. In your mind, “see” the perfect takeoff and landing, “feel” exactly where on the course you’re going to change leads or ask for more collection or extension, and imagine yourself hitting every distance while being calm, cool, and confident.
Then when it’s your turn in the ring, take a deep breath, remember that you’ve been here before, and let the “movie” in your mind of the perfect jumping round roll. You’ve already done the hard part – counting the distances, picking the takeoff spots, and memorizing the course – now it’s time to enjoy the thrill of showjumping!
Walking a course can be intimidating the first time (or two or three!). If you can, invite your coach or a seasoned equestrian to walk the course with you until you’re comfortable.
Remember to stay calm, focused, and consider your course options rather than just obstacles. The perfect round you imagine while walking will soon be your reality when jumping.
Before I forget… Walking the course and visualizing your round are great tools to help you memorize the course. What other tips or tricks do you use to remember the next fence? Let us know in the comments below!