Walk This Way—Understanding Show Jumping Courses with Peter Leone

By Jane Carlton

Top riders make a ritual of walking the course before a big competition. But what’s going through their minds as they count out the strides and circle the jumps? To get an insider’s perspective (and what an insider! Connecticut based Peter Leone was a team silver medalist at the 1996 Olympic Games), we tagged along as Leone inspected and analyzed the course at the Ox Ridge Charity Horse Show in Darien, CT.

So, why is walking the course so important? In a word: winning. “The better we understand the questions and challenges that the course designer set for us, the better chance we have at going clear and winning,” says Leone.

It helps to put yourself in the course designer’s shoes, or boots. In a typical upper level show jumping course, a course designer’s goal is to set 12-13 obstacles in such a way that only 20 percent of contenders go clear, Leone says. “Our riders and horses have evolved so much over the last 50 years that course designers have to be incredibly clever and intricate with the questions that they ask with their courses, jump design, and distances in between the jumps,” he adds.

Who says that school ends when you graduate? “We’re allowed to do our homework,” Leone says. Not only are riders given the opportunity to walk the course before a big class, but they can also study up on the course designer’s previous courses to get a feel for the type of jumping questions he or she is likely to ask. This allows you to rehearse the likely course challenges at home before you go to the show. If you think of each course as a kind of test— what is the designer testing of you and the horse—it’s easy to look for the patterns and preferences of a specific designer. Bring out the calculators, too, because this is math homework. “Show jumping courses and riding them involve geometry, vectors, certain length strides, and riding through turns,” Leone adds. Deciding whether to slice a jump to save time? Hello, geometry. Can’t decide what number of strides to take in a line? Multiplication tables to the rescue.

“When we walk courses, we walk based on the average horse stride length of 12 feet,” Leone says. In addition to the number of strides, Leone adds six feet from the back of the jump for the landing point and six feet from the next jump for the takeoff. “In the case of a four-strided line, if you have two obstacles 60 feet apart, that’s six feet to land, four 12-foot cantering steps, and six feet to take off.”

Lines aren’t always set on a true 12-foot stride, however. What if the course designer gives you a 56-foot line? “There’s a lot of math,” leone says, pointedly. “The reality is it boils down to numbers. Sixty feet is what we call a “hunter four,” 56 feet a very short four, and 64 feet is going to be a very long four or maybe a really short five.”

A horse’s stride should be at the top of the rider’s brain through a course walk, as evidenced when Leone walked our writer through a seven-stride line on a grass field.

“[This line is] coming toward home; maybe the horses are tired, [but] hopefully we’re going clear,” he says. “This walks seven-and-three-quarter strides. What do you do if you’re going first?” Leone explains that how a line walks and how a line rides are oftentimes two very different things. “Many, many riders would correctly anticipate that this would be a slow eight [strides]. If you  had a giant mover, you could ride up and do a seven,” he adds. As it turns out, the majority of horses in the first round of this course rode the line in an easy seven strides. “Even with the best of plans with course walking, you have to be able to anticipate and make adjustments based on how the ground is riding and how your horse is doing the distances earlier in the course,” Leone notes.

Part of being prepared is knowing your own stride, as well. A foolproof way to practice your walking stride is to measure yourself taking three-foot steps along a 12-foot pole. Four of those steps should equal 12 feet, which is the length of the average horse’s stride. Riders with long legs typically have to adjust their walk to a shorter step, while height-challenged riders need to take larger steps.

If the only factor in a show jumping course were the distance between the jumps, the spectator stands would be consistently empty because the rides would be a snooze. A host of other factors come into play when contesting a twisty course of jumps.

Be sure to check the topography of the course when walking. Certain jumps can be set either uphill or downhill, which can change the course of action. Also keep in mind whether you’re jumping toward or away from the in-gate. “The gate is a magnet,” Leone says. “Anything toward the gate rides a little less long, and anything [away from the gate] rides a little more long.”

Where in the course a certain line or jump is set needs to be taken into account as well. “The last line always rides shorter than it walks; the first line in a course always rides a little longer than it walks,” Leone adds.

With the right course walking tools, riders can easily set themselves up for success—and Leone did just that. After walking the course with us, Leone rode Capito Z in the Ox Ridge Charity Horse Show Grand Prix, riding the lines with precision and finesse.