By Tori Bilas / Jump Media
United States show jumper and Nations Cup rider Sloane Coles has jumped some of the most impressive jumper tracks the world has to offer. But she is a believer that, no matter the track, you can learn so much from walking it and breaking it apart piece by piece. Sloane not only shows at the highest level, but also trains clients competing in everything from the 1.0-meter to the 1.40-meter divisions. To walk multiple jumper courses in a day, it is important to have a solid understanding of what needs to be done in the 10 to 15 minutes typically allowed for a course walk. Step by step, Sloane guides us through how to properly walk a jumper course in order to be effective when stepping in the ring with your horse.
Make a Plan
The most important aspect of course-walking is to form your plan. The plan is subject to change depending on the format – whether the class is a jump-off, power-and-speed, or speed – and your goal for the specific class. I often show the client horses to prepare them to compete later on in the week with their owners. The plan I execute for a course early in the week will look different from the plan for the course I walk with a client on Sunday for a classic when they are aiming to ride a fast round and win.
I start by taking a picture on my phone of the course map so I can walk the first round and then refer to the jump-off when I’m ready. A horse’s stride is roughly 12 feet, and one human’s step is roughly three feet, so four steps will be one horse stride. To properly walk a line, I walk out the landing in two steps and then count all of the related distances in horse strides. If your final stride puts you less than two human steps from the takeoff in front of the next jump, that line will ride steady, whereas if your final stride puts you more than two steps away, you will know that it is more of a forward line.
Whether I am walking a course for myself or with a client I am coaching; a very important part of the course walk is to develop a planned entrance. You have 45 seconds before the clock starts, so it is important to use that time wisely. When you walk the course, examine the best path to take as you enter the ring and determine which jumps to show your horse, including the path and direction to jump one. Once you make this plan, it is important to stick to it.
Walk for Your Horse
After I plan my entrance, I get to know the course. If time allows, I like to walk the course twice. I walk it once normally to understand how it was built and the number of strides in each line. Then I walk the course for the particular horse I am showing. For example, if a course is built with a left-bending eight-stride line and I know my horse shifts right, I have to take into account that the horse will be on the right side of my walking track. A steady, bending eight stride line could ride normal going to the left if your horse shifts hard right. If your horse shifts left, you will know this line might ride more steady, and your focus should be on shaping out the left bend to make more room in the line. You have to think about what your horse is going to do before and after every fence, once you know how the course is supposed to ride.
The course walk includes quite a bit of analyzing as course designers make the tracks quite technical. When the lines on course walk slightly steady or more forward, you know you will have to make adjustments between fences in order to make the distances work out nicely. For example, when you walk a line that is a steady five strides (almost a four-and-a-half) you know you have a short amount of time to get the horse back, so you do not want to jump in on an open stride. If there is a long seven strides to a short combination, you have to ride up to the combination and get the seven done early so your horse shortens at the last stride to prepare for the short combination. As you walk, you have to break apart the technical parts of the course and know how your horse is going to react to each of these challenges.
Know Where You Can Be Fast
When speed comes into question, it is important to use your walk to evaluate where you can be quick. I often work backwards for speed rounds; for example, if the speed portion of a power-and-speed starts at fence eight, you’ll backtrack to fence six and jump it a certain way to get to seven to set you up to jump fence eight at an angle to turn quickly and be fast. I recommend studying the position of every fence before a jump-off or speed class so you are on the right track when you are going through the timers and not making it up as you go. For speed classes and jump-offs, I’ll often walk with bigger steps knowing I’ll be on a bigger stride to cover the ground quickly.
It is also important during the course walk to consider time faults and where on the course you can avoid them. It is disappointing when you jump a clear round and just barely tick over the time allowed, so identify the turns where you can be tighter and make up time without sacrificing the quality of your jumps.
Be Efficient and Effective
It depends on how long the walk is open and when you go in the order, but I know I’m done walking when I feel confident in my plan and have no doubts left lingering about any fences. If you go in the top 10 in the order, you want to be prompt about your course walk, but never rush. Make sure you come up with a plan and look at everything you want to while you’re walking. I always try to walk and then watch the first couple horses in the order so that I can visualize how my plan may go.
The initial goal of the course walk is to understand how the various elements of the course ride and how they relate to each other. The next goal is to analyze how your specific horse is going to handle the challenges the course presents and how you can best ride to jump a clear, fast, and effective round. The course walk is where the plan is made, then it is up to the rider to put that plan into action.
Sloane Coles grew up in The Plains, Virginia, immersed in all things equestrian. Her father, John, is a former steeplechase jockey and currently Joint Master of Orange County Hounds while her mother, Julie, is an accomplished hunter and jumper competitor. Sloane enjoyed a successful career as a junior, winning equitation, hunter, and show jumping titles at the country’s top horse shows. She has trained with some of the best in the sport including John and Beezie Madden and Johnny and Kitty Barker, as well as Andre Dignelli’s Heritage Farm, Mark Leone’s Ri-Arm Farm, and Stacia Madden’s Beacon Hill Show Stables.
Now a professional rider and trainer in her own right, Sloane has claimed victories across North America including at the Hampton Classic (New York); HITS Saugerties (New York); HITS Culpeper (Virginia); and the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival (Michigan). In 2019, she made her Nations’ Cup debut at the prestigious CSIO5* Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ tournament in Calgary, Canada.
Sloane graduated from Drew University (New Jersey) in 2011, having majored in sociology and business, and now owns and operates Spring Ledge LLC, a top-class hunter/jumper facility located in the heart of Virginia’s hunt country. In addition to developing horses and riders for the show ring, Sloane and her family also operate a retirement program caring for over 50 horses.