Setting show jump distances

Has Britain's Olympic gold medal inspired you to do some show jumping? Or are you just interested in what is meant by the number of strides between jumps? Here's an outline of how the distances between show jumps are set.

Show jumping related distances and strides

Jumping an ascending spread fenceThe distance between two jumps is considered to be 'related' if there is room for a horse to take less than 6 strides between landing after the first fence and taking off for the second. When talking about the distance between jumps, show jumpers talk in terms of these non-jumping strides (i.e. landing and take off is ignored).

If two jumps are only 1 or 2 strides apart they are considered to be part of the same fence (a double) and are numbered A and B.  Three fences, with 1 or 2 strides between each jump, is a treble and numbered A, B and C. (Very occasionally you will see a 4 fence quadruple - this is a speciality of London Olympic course designer Bob Ellis.) A series of jumps with only 1 or 2 strides between each element is also called a combination.

With a 1 or 2 stride distance, the horse must take that exact number of strides - trying to fit in an extra stride or take one less stride (taking a stride out) will almost certainly result in a refusal or a fence down.

With a longer related distance, adding or taking out a stride is possible. Part of the art of walking a course is deciding the best way to ride a related distance on the horse you are competing on.

Often course designers will make a distance slightly longer or shorter than the standard - forcing the riders to adjust their horses' normal stride. For example, if a distance is slightly longer then a normal 4 stride distance a rider on a forward-going, long-striding horse might ride the horse to take 4 long strides, whereas a rider on a short-striding, bouncy horse might decide to take 5 short strides. The aim is to take even length strides e.g. 5 slightly longer strides rather than 4 normal strides and one very long one. Being able to adjust the length of the stride a horse takes is an essential part of show jumping.

Practising jumping a doubleWhen courses are designed, a standard distance of 12ft (3.7m) is normally used as the length of a horse's stride. This distance may be reduced to 10ft if the course is designed for ponies. At local shows, where a course is to be jumped by both horses and ponies, an in-between distance might be used.  

A distance used for cross country is a bounce. This is where there is no room for a non-jumping stride so the horse has to land and take off in the same place. Although not used in show jumping courses, show jumpers often train their horses using a bounce distance as a gymnastic exercise.

Types of jump

Some brief terminology:
1) vertical fence - all poles that make up the jump are vertically above each other
2) spread fence - a fence which has width as well as height (also called an oxer). There are 2 main variations of the spread fence:

  • ascending - the front pole of the fence is lower than the back pole
  • parallel - the front and back poles of the fence are the same height (also called square)

Distances between fences are measured from the back pole of the first jump to the front pole of the second jump.

Typical distances

Obviously a small pony has a shorter stride than a large horse, but each horse has a slightly different stride length - so the distances given here are guidelines rather than exact measurements. When you start to train your horse, you should adjust the distance to what is comfortable for your horse. As your horse gains experience the distances can be lengthened and shortened to teach him to adjust his stride and to make him comfortable with the distances you are likely to meet when competing. 

If you are unsure, it is usually best to start with the distances slightly shorter (by 1-2ft in a one stride distance and 2-3ft in a two stride distance).

Distance for Feet Metres
Trotting poles 4 1.2
Canter poles 8 2.4
Placing pole 18 5.5
Bounce 12 3.7
One stride double 24 7.3
Two stride double 36 11
One stride double (small pony) 20 6.1
Two stride double (small pony) 30 9.1

Distances for doubles are based on jumping two vertical jumps (of about 3ft 3in height) and should be shortened if jumping spreads or small verticals. Distances should be lengthened if the jumps are more than 3ft 9in high. An explanation of this (and other reasons for changing distances) is given later but, as this can be quite confusing, here are some basic rules to remember.

Shorten distance if: Lengthen distance if:
second fence is uphill second fence is downhill
first fence under 2ft 9in (0.85m) first fence over 3ft 9in (1.15m)
second fence is a spread  
ground is very heavy  
jumping in a small area  

Take off and landing

It is generally considered that when a horse jumps a vertical fence he takes off half a stride bfore the fence and lands half a stride after the fence, so the measurement for a one stride double (using a  12 ft horse stride) would be:
  6ft (landing) + 12ft (one non-jumping stride) + 6ft (take off) = 24ft

Jumping a parallel spread fence (square oxer)When a horse jumps a parallel, the highest point of his arc is at the centre of the spread. This means that he takes off closer to the front pole and lands closer to the back pole than he does for a vertical. So when jumping vertical-to-parallel or parallel-to-vertical the above distances would need to be shortened slightly. If jumping parallel-to-parallel the distance would be need to be further shortened.

With an ascending spread the highest point is the back pole so the horse takes off closer to the front pole than he does for a vertical or parallel and lands the same distance from the back pole as for a vertical. So when jumping vertical to ascending spread the distance needs to be shortened more than for vertical to parallel.

The main point to remember is to shorten the distance if the second part of a double is a spread. For a novice horse and/or rider it is advisable to only use a spread as the first element of a combination.

Other factors affecting distances

1) Ground conditions - if the ground is very heavy, horses tend to take shorter strides so the distance between jumps should be made shorter.
2) Slope - when jumping uphill horses tend to land closer to the fence and when jumping downhill they tend to land further from the fence.
3) Height of jump - the higher the jump, the further from the jump is the take off and landing point.
4) Size of jumping area - when jumping indoors or in a small area horses tend to take shorter strides.
5) Jumping at speed - when jumping at speed horses jump in a longer, flatter arc so both take off and landing are further from the jump. This is why, in a jump off, riders normally slow down for a double.


Jumping an upright fenceIf this all sounds rather complicated, with precise measuring needed, DON'T PANIC. All the distances are approximate and you don't need a tape measure every time you build a double. You just need to know how to relate your stride to these distances.

If you watch professional showjumpers walking a course you will see them pacing all of the distances. It is noticeable that the shorter riders take long strides compared to the way they normally walk. This is because they train themselves to stride an exact distance of 3ft which means that 4 of their strides is equivalent to one horse stride. Easy!

Using your own stride

You can train yourself to stride a 3ft distance, but it takes quite a lot of practise (the professionals are doing it every day). It is usually easier to measure your stride, work out how that relates to a horse stride, then walk distances at your normal walk.

To measure your stride, walk 10 strides at your normal pace and measure the distance from your heel on the first stride to your toe on the last stride. Divide this distance by 10 to find your normal stride length. Next divide 12ft by your stride length to find how many of your strides equal a horse stride, round it to the nearest half stride for simpicity. For example if your stride is 2ft 9in:
  2ft 9in  =  33in
  12ft     =  144in
  144 / 33 = 4.4
so, rounding to the nearest half stride, 4.5 of your strides equals 1 horse stride.

To measure a one stride double in your strides:
  1 horse stride + take off and landing = 2 horse strides
  2 horse strides x 4.5 = 9 of your strides

To measure a two stride double in your strides:
  2 horse strides + take off and landing = 3 horse strides
  3 horse strides x 4.5 = 13.5 of your strides

Your horse's stride

Of course, as well as your stride being less than the standard 3ft, your horse's stride is likely to be less than the standard 12ft. Measuring a horse stride is a bit more difficult than measuring your own, although you could count the canter strides between two markers. You can get a rough idea from the size of your horse.

Size of horse Feet Metres
Small pony 10ft 3.05
Medium pony 10ft 6in 3.20
Large pony 11ft 3in 3.42
Horse 12ft 3.66
Large horse 12ft 6in 3.81

You can substitute your horse's stride length in the calculation above to relate your stride to your horse's. For example if your horse's stride is 11ft 3in:
  2ft 9in  =  33in
  11ft 3in     =  135in
  135 / 33 = 4.1
so, rounding to the nearest half stride, 4 of your strides equals 1 of your horse's strides.

To measure a one stride double in your strides for your horse:
  1 horse stride + take off and landing = 2 horse strides
  2 horse strides x 4 = 8 of your strides

To measure a two stride double in your strides for your horse:
  2 horse strides + take off and landing = 3 horse strides
  3 horse strides x 4 = 12 of your strides

Take home message

The distances given here guidelines to help you set up show jumps. You should adjust them for your horse's stride and for the type of fences you are jumping. If uncertain of your horse's stride length, shorten the distance given in the table above for a double by 1-2 ft.

More information

Download our FREE Android app

Our free Android app is now available on the Android Market.

The app is a quick reference to the information above.

  • Table of guide distances between trotting poles and one or two stride doubles.
  • Customise for your own stride.
  • Customise for different horse or pony stride lengths.
  • Customise to show distances in feet or metres.

Download the app from Google Play now.

Screenshot 1 of show jump distances app Screenshot 2 of show jump distances app Screenshot 3 of show jump distances app

(If you cannot access Google Play email for a direct link to download the app.)

Posted on 06 September, 2012

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