Understanding Showjumping Courses

Whether you watch showjumping or have started to compete yourself, you can benefit from an understanding of course design.

The aim of the course designer

Rider maintaining rein and leg contact and looking at next fence The course designer has the difficult task of building a course to test the ability of horse and rider, without affecting their confidence. He aims to strike a balance between too many clear rounds and none at all. The good designer does this without relying on trick distances or maximum-height fences to reduce the number of clears.

Unfortunately at many unaffiliated (non-BS) shows, the course designer has little idea of how to build a suitable course. Experienced horses will cope if the fences are small, but any horse can lose confidence if repeatedly asked to jump awkward distances or angles. Even small fences can be dangerous if badly built; riders should always withdraw from a class which is unsuitable in any way.

The aim of the rider

A more acrobatic showjumping style The rider wants to jump a clear round. This is best achieved by maintaining a steady rhythm around the course, with only slight adjustments to the horse's stride to ensure take-off at the optimum point.

To give the horse every opportunity to jump well, the rider's hands should move forward as the horse stretches over the jump, whilst maintaining a steady rein contact (refusals are often caused by dropping the contact just before the jump). The legs should stay against the horse and not swing back.

Watch the Whittakers or Irish riders like Billy Towmey and Shane Breen - their syle is something to aim for. Although some top riders have a more acrobatic style, they are successful because they stay in balance with horse - this style is not recommended for the inexperienced rider.

Types of competition

The most common types of class are:

  • Table A3 - all horses who are clear in the first round (or have equal faults if there are no clears) jump off over a shortened course against the clock.
  • Table C - speed classes consisting of a single round against the clock. There are no faults, but a number of seconds (typically four) are added to the time for each fence down.
  • Two phase - horses who are clear over the 1st phase immediately continue to the 2nd phase which is against the clock. This is particularly common at the lower levels.

Walking the course

Competitors walk the course not just to see where the fences are, but to check distances and to look for awkward turns, poor ground, or anything spooky (not just the fences but flower arrangements, advertising banners, course building materials etc.).

The position of the collecting ring can also be important. Horses regard the collecting ring as 'home' and may be reluctant to turn away from it.

Ground conditions can alter the horse's stride by up to a foot. Going uphill, away from the collecting ring, muddy ground or a confined arena tend to shorten the stride. The opposite conditions tend to lengthen it.

Novices are often too embarrassed (or afraid of tempting fate!) to walk the jump-off course at the same time - especially as professionals usually don't walk it. But it does give you an advantage, as the fences are usually jumped in a different order and an extra fence is sometimes included.

Judging a stride

Problems at a water ditch The experienced rider will correct the horse several strides from the fence, as adjustments in the last two or three strides will distract the horse and make it more difficult for him to clear the fence. The horse should lengthen or shorten stride without losing impulsion (energy) or changing speed.

Novices often think that a big fence should be approached faster. But watch the experts in the practice ring. In this confined space you will see it is impulsion, not speed, that is needed.

Once the horse takes off, the rider can do nothing more, and experienced riders will look towards the next fence whilst still in the air. They will also move their outside leg back slightly so that the horse lands on the correct canter lead. Beginners, however, should look straight ahead and continue in a straight line after the jump. This is particularly important in a group practice session, where the horse may try to turn sharply on landing in order to join the other horses.

Types of jump

Problems at an upright fence Uprights have all parts in a single vertical plane (e.g. wall, gate, poles over a filler) and require accurate jumping. Take off too close and the horse's front legs can hit it; too far away and the back legs might bring it down.

A spread can be ascending - where the front part is lower than the back - or a parallel - where both are the same height (often called a square oxer). The horse uses the lowest part of the fence (the groundline) to judge his take-off point; so a filler should always be directly under the front pole, never set back to give a false groundline. The back rail must be a single pole, since a plank or anything solid might make the horse fall if he hits it. Spreads are easier than uprights as they encourage a horse to bascule, i.e. to jump with a rounded rather than a hollowed back.

A triple bar consists of three parts of increasing height. A pyramid (or hogsback) is similar to a triple bar, but with the middle pole the highest part. The horse only sees the back pole once he is in the air, so the fence should not be too high or wide. No other type of fence should have a lower back pole. Pyramids are mainly used to save space as they can be jumped from either direction.

Water ditches often cause refusals. Most horses dislike both water and ditches. They tend to jump bigger than necessary, which affects the distance to the next fence.

Water jump in a Foxhunter class A water jump can be up to 16 feet wide, usually with a small brush in front. It should be approached on a lengthened stride and not at a mad gallop! Some horses learn that the water is shallow and don't make the effort to clear it. If the horse jumps flat, he is less likely to make the width and, so a pole may be placed over the middle of the water to encourage him to jump higher. However, you won't come across water jumps below Foxhunter level.

Related fences

Fences are 'related' if less than five (non-jumping) horse strides apart. Fences only one or two strides apart are considered elements of the same jump (double or treble). So after a refusal at the second element of a double, say, both parts have to be jumped again.

When walking the course, riders relate their own stride to that of their horse{s), to decide whether a distance is short (requiring collection) or long (requiring extension). A horse's stride is approximately 12 feet, typically about 4 human strides. The horse will land and take off about half a stride from the fence so if two fences were 8 human strides apart this woud be considered a one stride distance. If horses and ponies compete in the same class, there has to be a compromise on distances.


Doubles present different problems depending on the type of fences. Trebles are an extension of the problem. Horses land steeper (and therefore closer to the jump) from an upright than a spread. This affects the distance to the next fence.

Spread to upright: relatively easy as the spread encourages the horse to jump in well and meet the upright correctly. However, the novice may jump in too boldly and hit the upright.

Upright to spread: more difficult as the upright must be jumped accurately if the horse is to clear the spread. Approaching too fast and hitting the upright is a common fault.

Spread to spread: wide spreads with a short stride between are very difficult, demanding power and balance from the horse. This combination is often seen in Grand Prix classes.

Upright to upright: a test of carefulness. It causes particular problems in a jump-off or speed class when the horse may flatten.

Related fences should also be considered together. If the horse has to stretch over the first jump (e.g. a triple bar or water jump) he must be collected quickly if an upright follows. The rider also has to decide whether to take, for example, four long or five short strides.

Against the clock

In a speed class or jump off, time can be saved by tight turns, jumping at an angle, taking longer strides, or galloping.

Making a quick turn in the jump-off A class is usually won or lost on the turns. You often see experienced riders practising a crucial turn as they enter the ring. By jumping across a fence, the next turn can be made much tighter. This is straightforward at an upright, but makes a spread much wider; also the horse may run out if the angle is too sharp.

Galloping can be counter-productive. The horse may jump flat and have difficulty turning quickly. The rider must also decide whether to check the horse before the fence (wasting time) or risk jumping off a long stride. Taking longer strides between fences (e.g. making a related distance four strides instead of five) may also cause the horse to flatten.

Of course, a class can be won with a slow clear round if other competitors have faults. Tactics depend on the type of course and the previous competitors. The first rider usually aims for a reasonable pace without taking too many risks. A clear round may then force others into errors. If several riders have faults after a particular turn, later riders will be more cautious. There is an obvious advantage to going last.


Watch the top riders - you can learn a lot. Once you understand basic course design, you will begin to see why problems occur, and more fully appreciate the skills of both the designer and the riders.

Spectating doesn't have to be expensive. Local shows usually have no charge for entry, nor do the lower level affiliated shows. Look out for affiliated shows with Foxhunter qualifer classes. This is a class for up and coming young horses and you may see some of the top riders bringing on the stars of the future. Sultan V winner in 2009 now appears on the British team. Other past winners include Marius Claudius and Unbelievable Darco

Find out more

  • British Showjumping
    Thinking of affiliating? BS now has a cheaper membership category for the weekend rider with classes starting from 70cm.
    News about British showjumpers
    Affliated show directory
  • Riding Diary - find local shows and events in the UK
  • Eduard Petrovic - professional course designer explains more about course design

Posted on 10 July, 2011

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