Often when I am working with a new client in the show jumping arena, I notice that they aren't paying enough attention to how they ride between their fences. From their perspective all that counts is whether the the fences are left up or not.
I need to help them to understand and know if their gut why it is important to ride a good line, and have good rhythm and balance. If I can't help them see the importance of it, then I will have little hope of having them consistently ride in rhythm or balanced. My job is to create a picture in their head so they want to improve the in between.
I like to use the analogy that for an approximate 400m show jumping track of 10 fences, there is 40m of jumping and 360m of everything in between. If all we focus on is the 40m, we are wasting what essentially is going to produce the quality jump.
It's the 360m that is truly important, the 40m is only feedback, it's the truth of how well we managed the 360.
There is no doubt that the bascule and quality of the jump can be influenced in the 40m but usually in a more negative way through the riders uneven distribution of weight, sharp sudden aids, or a blockage in the body.
We can influence the jump in a positive way by using placing poles, lead in rails, adding texture to the fence, adjusting the height of the front and back rails etc etc but in the end none of that is beneficial if we aren't paying attention to the 360.
Rhythm is everything!
Rhythm is feedback.
If a horse is having trouble keeping a good rhythm then there is something else going on, either the horse is not staying in front of the riders leg, the horse is bracing his ribcage to one side, the horse is drifting off the line, the horse is on the forehand, or there is tension in either the horse and/or the rider.
Often I have riders say that they have trouble seeing a good distance. It is not that they don't have good hand eye co-ordination, it's simply that the horse is not staying in a good rhythm all the way to the fence.
Think of it this way - in order to see a good distance/stride/take off spot we need to judge how long our horses stride is, in relation to the distance between where you they are currently and where the fence is. If the horse either starts increasing his speed or lengthening his stride as you approach the fence then your 'spot' is now going to get closer to the fence unless they miss a stride and take off from a long way away.
Alternatively if you have judged your 'spot' 5 strides out and your horse drifts out on the turn, then the distance from where you were to the fence is now considerably longer leading to your spot being further away unless you have been quick enough to increase the horses stride to acommodate for the longer distance, but that can then lead to a flatter bascule over the fence, and if it is a tall vertical then a rail will likely fall as a consequence.
The fact is, it wasn't the horse that jumped badly, we simply allowed the horse to drift off the line you had predetermined, so the jump you had wanted couldn't be produced.
In between the fences is where you have the opportunity to make small changes to the canter early, producing the canter necessary to create the best quality jump possible. This will vary in relation to the fence ie: the width, how narrow or spooky it is, the height, the distance and line to the following fence.
Riders who are able to make small, subtle adaptations early, while keeping a rhythm, and staying on their line will rarely have trouble 'seeing their stride'.
This is hugely important on cross country. Riders who tend to gallop flat out in between fences and then make last minute, sudden changes to the canter coming to the fence will often have trouble with their horses chipping in, and are more likely to run out, however those who are able to pick up a quality gallop, and keep a consistent rhythm all the way around the course will rarely have trouble making time, and the fences tend to come up easily and without much fuss.
Obviously, on course there are times where you need to shorten, and engage the canter for skinny, or combination fences but this is still done early, subtly and staying in rhythm.
I truly believe:
"We don't have the right to influence a horse until we are in rhythm with it"
Meaning, when we are schooling, first we need to know WHAT IS HAPPENING underneath us before we start making corrections.
Having a "global feel" means we are aware of the horses body from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, and everything in between... all at once!
Often, once we simply scan our own body for tension, or blockages while following the feel of our horses, and accepting whatever is for the minute without judgement, the horses relax and settle into their own rhythm. Then we can start to notice where their blockages in their body are and start to correct the horse without causing resentment.
I find once the riders know what is happening 'globally' in both themselves and their horses, they can then influence the horse by making small, subtle corrections early, stay in rhythm, and ride accurate approaches and turns, producing consistent good distances and athletic jumping efforts.
All they need to do then is stay present for the horse from the minute they enter the arena, to the minute they leave knowing that it's the 360m that will essentially produce a quality 40m jump!