Debate of the Century: To Count or Not to Count Strides?
This is a popular debate when it comes to jumping. In some worlds, we hear coaches preaching “seeing”your spot for takeoff. In others, it’s preached to let the jump come to you and let the horse figure it out. Both of these opinions are right and really, at the end of the day, the best of riders will combine both and change it up depending on horse and objective.
As crazy as you may think I am for saying this, it goes back to the German Training Scale. Depending on what it is you need to focus on, you may “count your strides,” “wait for the jump to come to you,” or a combination of both. I’ll show you how.
The base of the German Training Scale is “Relaxation.” Horses that are green, off the track, maybe too experienced and are getting frantic between fences are the ones that need to focus on this aspect of the scale with jumping. At this phase, it is imperative to “let the jump come to you.” The horse needs to learn to move forward and recognize that you will not introduce tension by obsessively half-halting for the spot or even worse, squeezing them like a tube of toothpaste to get a spot. Let them chip in, take the long spot, and figure their bodies out over fences until they are relaxed and listening.
Ever watch a jaw-dropping hunter round where the horse maintains the same rhythm all the way through? That doesn’t come over night. I believe this part of the scale starts with letting the jump come to you and transitions into counting your strides. It is important to find your horse’s comfortable jumping cadence first, then monitor and alter it. This is where I start to introduce gymnastics with canter poles before and after fences to give the horse an opportunity to “count strides” for itself before the rider begins to influence. Once the horse feels confidently relaxed over its canter poles and jumps, you can remove the poles and start “counting” without them.
When focusing on relaxation and rhythm, contact is not a high priority. But, when you begin to pick up your reins and establish a consistent feel, some horses brace against, throw their heads, find ways to evade, or dive down into the bridle when jumping. If you face this issue, I find it most useful to let the jump come to you. Sometimes when we struggle with contact, we overcompensate by micromanaging, yanking, pulling, see-sawing, and bracing against the horse. In order to get past this while jumping, revisit similar aspects of “Relaxation,” letting the jump come to you and maintaining a quiet, unchanging, connection. It can be helpful to use a canter strap/grab mane to keep your hands in a solid place with a clear connection.
If you are working on “impulsion” and have a horse that is a bit behind your leg, I recommend counting your strides. Even though impulsion NEVER equals speed, sometimes with an under-impulsed horse, it is best to think “quicken the feet.” The metronome speed you usually jump at needs to be turned up a little and in order to take larger influence in the impulsion of a horse’s stride, you must be proactive in designing the canter you want, not allowing the horse to go at the canter it pleases. Practice impulsion by counting your strides by placing 2 poles in a random distance from each other (over 3 strides apart). Canter through and let the horse take however many strides it wants. Then, practice adding strides and taking away strides from that original stride count. This will encourage your horse to be more attentive to the type of canter you want. An adjustable canter is a correctly impulsed canter.
The biggest problems I have come across with horses that have difficulty remaining straight to a jump stems from an issue of the rider, once again, trying to micromanage. When I was cantering my young OTTB out on cross-country a few weeks ago, the second I tried to ruin his rhythm by unnecessarily half-halting, he would throw a haunch out or roll a shoulder in. The minute I just rode him forward and straight, he corrected himself. So, in these situations, I always recommend letting the jump come to you. Allow your horse to move forward and try not to influence the “spot” too greatly. You can do more harm than help.
If you’re an eventer, you understand what it is to lack “collection” on cross-country. If you’ve ever retrained an OTTB, you understand it, too. Horses that are bred and trained to gallop along, stretch out, and pull with their shoulders find collection very hard. Sometimes bitting helps with this, other times it just masks a deeper issue. So, when jumping a horse that needs work on collection over fences, use a mix of “waiting for the jump to come to you” and “counting.” Usually, these horses know their job and don’t take their rider’s opinion very seriously. Exercises that really require the horse to slow down their thought and focus on a task are best for these horses. Consider exercises with roll backs, bounces, and angles. Look for the tighter spot but don’t get too upset if you don’t get it immediately. These sorts of exercises will encourage the horse to distribute more weight across its hind end and truly push from behind. (Also, transitions.)
So, when it all boils down, both counting your strides and waiting for your fence to come to you are useful, effective, and overall correct. It just depends (as with everything in the horse world) your objective, your riding level, your horse’s needs, and your horse’s experience.