When “catch riding” a horse at a horse show, here are a few suggestions that may help you have a positive experience, as well as assisting you in finding a good distance. One of the first suggestions that I would recommend is to ask questions of the owner, trainer or someone who has ridden the horse. Because time is usually of the essence in this scenario, you want to find out as much about the horse as possible.
For example: Does the horse have a peek (at the jumps)? Does the horse tend to land left or right? Does it have a hard drift at the jump? Does it have a good lead change? A big stride or little stride? Does he have any quirks?
Any of this information that you can establish before stepping into the ring will be helpful.
Next, hopefully you have the luxury of doing some warm-up on the horse. You may not if you are competing in an inter-collegiate show–in which case you get on, adjust your stirrups, and step into the ring without even an opportunity to get a feel for the horse on the flat, no less at a jump!
If you have the advantage of schooling in a warm-up, you will want to get a feel for the horse’s canter. In the warm-up, it will be important that the rider gets a sense of the horse’s reaction to the aids. How does that horse react to the leg? Does the horse have good brakes? Is the horse good with the lead change? How adjustable is the horse?
Because you may not have much time, focus on the canter, since this is the gait the horse will jump out of. Seeing a “good distance” can only happen as a result of establishing a good canter (being balanced and consistent) and having a good track. Start with cantering low obstacles that are inviting. Being patient to the jump and not overreacting to the horse’s effort, the rider wants to get an idea of what to expect on both the takeoff and landing sides of the jump.
If the schooling area permits, set a line–say an easy 4 (measure it at 58′ so it is a bit soft for the unfamiliar horse). If you feel that the horse is either inexperienced or maybe a bit short of step, add up the first time in 5 and then go back and do the four. Having a feel for the horses stride length will be critical in having a successful trip, especially for a rider with less experience. This way the rider will know whether or not they will have to ride up in the lines or steady (if the horse has a bigger step).
Depending on the height/class that you will be showing in, raise the jumps accordingly; as long as the horse feels comfortable. Work on maintaining a consistent canter. I suggest counting, to keep a steady rhythm (i.e. One- two- one- two- etc.) on the way to the jump, which helps the rider focus on keeping a consistent pace, and in turn, will help the rider’s eye and feel for a good distance.
When catch riding, just as in any other daily riding and training, remember that our job is always to do the best thing for the horse. If the horse is a bit tentative and backed off, the objective should be to give the horses a confident ride. “Every time we get on a horse we are either training or un-training it,” said by one of the foremost Hunt Seat trainers, George Morris. This is a wonderful principle to keep in mind when you put your foot in the stirrup of an unfamiliar horse.
Good luck catch riding!