Riding to a Single Fence

Riding to a Single Fence

Take these tips from Jerry Erickson to find your path to a single fence on a course.

an illustration of a rider in English attire facing a thorny path toward a jump

Jean Abernethy illustration

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By Katie Navarra for The American Quarter Horse Journal
Illustration by Jean Abernethy

Often one of the most difficult jumps in an over-fences class is a single fence, specifically, a single oxer set out in the middle of the course.

It’s not the height or the angle of the line that make the single fence particularly difficult to negotiate: It’s the distance in the approach.

In a perfect world, the rider guides the horse to a distance about 6 feet in front of an average 3-foot jump. A take-off at this distance creates an aesthetically pleasing departure that allows the horse to effectively use itself over the jump.

Because single oxers typically have a longer approach than other fences, riders tend to overthink it.

“I call the long approach to a single fence ‘no man’s land,’ ” says AQHA Professional Horseman Jerry Erickson of Whitesboro, Texas.

The openness of no man’s land can unsettle riders and tempt them to make unneeded adjustments in the horse’s stride. Most often, riders abandon an established, consistent cadence and rush the horse’s stride, allowing the stride to become too long. Conversely, some riders tend to pull and shorten.

“When riders change the rhythm too drastically in the approach, they can create an ugly departure,” he says.

The good news is that riders can learn to be patient and better manage their approach to a single fence regardless of where they encounter one in the arena and establish and maintain a consistent and comfortable rhythm that judges will reward.

Find a Connection

Maintaining a consistent, smooth stride begins with a good connection between the horse and rider.

“When the connection is not very good, the horse can get out in front of the rider and basically be freewheeling it toward the jump,” Jerry says.

An uncollected approach often sets up the horse for a long, ugly jump. When the rider recognizes that the horse is increasing his pace, the rider attempts to slow down. The jockeying results in a deep, undesirable distance for take-off. Similarly, a rider who clutches the reins causes the horse to shorten its stride, which produces an equally unattractive distance. 

The first step to establishing a good connection with the horse is riding with the proper arm position.

“Ideally, the rider should have a straight line from the bit down the reins to the rider’s wrist to the elbow,” he explains.

In this position, any adjustment that is needed can be minor.

As a judge, Jerry often sees what he calls the limp wrist, a position that allows a horse to be more forward than desired. The limp wrist forms a broken line from the bit to the rider’s knuckles and jogs upward to the wrist and back to the elbow. In this position, adjustments are more significant movement of the hands and arms. Judges can easily see the correction and potentially deduct points.

“Sitting still and quiet is often the best advice,” Jerry says. “A good horse will help you work it out.”

A straight-line arm position is only a piece of the equation. Where the rider grasps the reins also matters. On course, the reins tend to “grow” in the rider’s hands with each fence jumped. As the horse and rider move out and are naturally accelerating through the course, the reins lengthen.

“It’s the rider’s responsibility to go back to the correct spot on the reins,” Jerry says.

Aids can reinforce correct position.

A piece of electrical tape on the reins at the point where the rider’s hands are in the correct straight line subtly reminds the rider where her hands should be.

During schooling rides, rubber, multicolored jumper reins are another helpful aid.

“For me, I ride with my hands on the yellow section,” Jerry says. “One of my clients is in turquoise.”

At the same time, the rider connects with the horse through the reins, it’s imperative to maintain a secure leg. When the rider’s legs are wrapped around the horse’s rib cage, she shouldn’t be pulling up and back on the reins. On the other hand, a draped rein provides too much freedom.

“Riders should add equal amounts of pressure through both cues,” Jerry says. “For example, if you add five pounds of leg pressure, you should have five pounds of pressure through the reins.”

Position is the key to achieving an equal pressure.

“When the rider drops her heels and extends through the calf, there is more surface area against the horse’s sides and ultimately increases the horse’s impulsion,” he says.

Developing a strong, correct leg position takes practice and repetition. Often, Jerry sees hunt seat riders school in a stock saddle rather than an English saddle.

“You don’t really get the feel of the horse’s rib cage that way,” he says.

Riding in a western saddle allows the rider to slide her legs too far back toward the flank. In hunt seat, the girth should just be visible over the top of the toe of the rider’s boot when the rider is in the ideal leg position.

“If I can see the whole girth and part of the horse’s barrel, in my opinion, the rider’s leg is too far back,” he says.

To help a rider develop a feel for the correct position during practice, Jerry recommends tying a thin string from the stirrup iron to the girth. When the leg slips back too far, the pressure on the string alerts the rider as to her position.

“The first time you try this, you will notice an interesting feeling,” he says. “Most of my riders hate this exercise, but it helps them get comfortable with the feeling of where their leg should be.”

Equitation and patience are the keys to carving a path through
"no-man's land" on a fence course. (Journal photo)


Rhythm and timing are as important as maintaining the correct arm and leg position. When the single fence is the first fence on course, it should be easier for the rider to remain connected with her horse and stay in control. However, a single oxer is commonly placed halfway through the course, and at times, it is the last jump in a course.

“By this time in the course, the horse has been asked to move forward through several lines and consequently – without being a bad horse – his stride has lengthened,” Jerry says.

When the horse enters the open long approach to the oxer, the rider might not notice the horse’s long stride or it might be too much for the rider to handle. Riding deep into the corners or ends of the arena encourages a rider to use these sections of the arena to her advantage.

“Don’t allow your horse to cut corners and freewheel it around the end of the arena,” he says.

Choose the path and direct your horse to it.

“As you approach the wall and make a planned, controlled turn, the horse will naturally back off and be less forward,” he says.

Making this adjustment out on the end of the arena demonstrates the rider’s attempt to re-establish the nice consistent and rhythmic steps as she approaches the single oxer.

“Do not make a commitment until you know where your distance is,” he says. “Be patient and quiet.”

Counting each step, such as 1-2-3, 1-2-3, and using this rhythm to feel that each stride is the same helps the rider stay focused on whether the steps are quickening, and then it is the rider’s job to return to the quiet 1-2-3 rhythm.

Back to Basics

Canter rails placed directly on the ground help a rider’s eye find the correct distance.

“I canter lots of rails on the ground myself,” Jerry says.

Instead of thinking of the rails as a jump, think of the cavaletti as part of a regular canter stride and visualize your horse smoothly stepping over each rail. Change the horse’s pace to hone your ability to judge distances and make subtle changes on course.

“Sometimes I’ll ride them at a slow pace, almost a lope,” he says, “then I move the horse up to a normal canter and then into a forward canter.”

It’s important to remember that asking a horse to move faster does not necessarily mean he will lengthen his stride. Sometimes, when a horse is asked to move more quickly, he actually shortens his stride.

As the horse and rider master changing stride length over ground rails, a canter rail set 11 to 13 feet in front of a single fence is another exercise for finding a comfortable, steady cadence and helps a horse and rider become more comfortable performing different length strides.

“I am not concerned about the fence but am focused on the canter rail,” he says. “If the canter rail is met as a stride, then as the horse steps over the rail, he is set up at a good jumpable distance to the actual fence.”

Resist Temptation

The approach to a single first fence or a single oxer in the middle of a course is often a long one. With this much room, resist the temptation to micromanage your horse. Overriding your horse in the approach jeopardizes your take-off.

Establish a comfortable pace and only ask for subtle adjustments. When the pace is comfortable and consistent, riders can feel confident that they have done their job when every one of the horse’s steps feels the same.

“At this point, the rider simply needs to relax and maintain what she has developed,” he says.

Katie Navarra is a special contributor to the Journal. This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of the Journal. To comment, write to aqhajrnl@aqha.org.



AQHA Professional Horseman JERRY ERICKSON of Whitesboro, Texas, is a judge and longtime trainer specializing in English classes. Jerry was part of the team that led Un Forgettable to the 2013 Farnam Superhorse title and has ridden many horses to world championships. He is a member of the AQHA Professional Horsemen’s Council and serves on the AQHA Show, Professional Horsemen and amateur committees. The 20-year breeder has bred four world champions and five reserve world champions.