To be an excellent rider, you must combine an academic and athletic approach to the sport. It is one thing to know the distance between two fences, but it is quite another to feel whether the horse is covering that distance in even strides.
The most beautiful rounds are the ones in which the horse seems to naturally meet each take-off spot, with the strides between the fences appearing to be even. To accomplish this, you must feel whether your horse is covering the ground in normal 12-foot strides, or is covering the ground in shorter or longer strides than the norm. The ability to feel the length of the horse’s stride comes with practice, although some people pick up this concept easily, while others struggle all their lives to attain a “feel for the horse.” (This ability is related to the ability to see the proper take-off spot—that is, to know what adjustment must be made on the approach to the fence to place the horse’s front feet at the correct place for take-off.)
For each horse that you ride, you need to find the pace and frame that results in a 12-foot stride on course, for this is the standard upon which all courses are constructed. A short-strided horse will need greater pace and/or a longer frame to meet the norm, while a long-strided horse will need less pace and/or a shorter frame. You can determine the adjustment you’ll need by negotiating a line of fences set 60 feet apart, which should be ridden in four strides for a horse. (Pony strides vary according to the size of the pony.)
Approach the fences at the pace that you believe puts the horse on a 12-foot stride, then see how the distance works out between the fences. Of course, you’ll need a decent take-off spot to the first fence to be able to gauge the length of the horse’s stride between the fences, for if you’re too deep to the first fence, you’ll have to hustle down the line to make up for the impulsion lost at the beginning of the line. If you concentrate on feeling the length of the horse’s stride and knowing where you are in the line—that is, knowing if you’re going between the fences in the correct four, even strides, or are adding, deleting, or travelling down the line in strides of varying lengths—then you’ll soon know what a 12-foot strides feels like on that particular horse. Knowing this, try to replicate the feel of an even 12-foot stride every time during the beginning circle on course.
From the beginning of the course until the end, the horse’s strides should look even, with the rider making only small adjustments to compensate for any changes in the lengths of the lines (for instance in equitation or jumper courses, where the lines are sometimes set on shorter or longer distances than the 12-foot norm) or for changes in the terrain that affect the horse’s length of stride (for example, sloping terrain that makes it harder for the horse to travel uphill or easier for the horse to travel downhill, deep footing that makes it harder to make the distances, or slippery footing that throws a “wild card” into the mix!)
As with everything you do on a horse, once you get a feel for what is correct, make an effort to memorize that feel. It is the ability to replicate your feel of a particular horse that will enable you to have round after round of beautiful trips on that horse.