“Ambition. It’s either in people or it isn’t. That’s the first quality of a good rider” – George Morris
In the world of equestrian sports, the hunter discipline gets a lot of flack for being “unfair,” “political,” or “too subjective.” I know many people who have said they started competing in the jumpers because of “how screwed up hunter judging is.” I have been a hunter rider and competitor for my entire riding career: fourteen years. I have won many rounds, and lost many. I have always loved competing as a hunter, and I have never really thought of it as unfair – even though I sometimes did not understand the results. When I was eighteen, I spent eight months doing nothing but horse show. In those months, I competed in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Kentucky, and Colorado. Being completely immersed in the horse show world through constantly competing and watching great riders, I began to understand what it takes to have success in hunter land.
Hunter judging is subjective. There is no denying that. It is based on one person’s opinion (in derbies there are often a few judges). However, at ‘A’ and ‘AA’ rated shows these people are experienced equestrians. Some may find certain aspects of a ride more important than others, but for the most part they are looking for the same things – which is everything. That is biggest thing hunter riders must understand: EVERYTHING is being judged. The horse is being judged on jumping style, movement, pace, overall look, demeanor. The rider is not heavily judged on equitation, but look and style are factors. For example, the rider should look relaxed and not be too reactive. Hunter judges do not care if the rider has a hunter slouch or loose leg, but if he or she is frequently pulling, kicking, smacking the horse with a crop, getting left behind at the jumps; points will be docked. In fact, the rider should be somewhat invisible. The judge should not be paying attention to what the rider is doing, but rather watching the horse. Thus, the rider should make everything appear to be effortless and allow the horse to shine. Also, the horse and rider should be neat, clean, and well turned out. Overall appearance of the pair is important. Maintaining a consistent pace throughout the entire course is key, as well as consistent distances at the jumps. If the horse noticeably speeds up and slows down in places, is deep or long in places, points will be docked. A good hunter round is very fluid with the horse keeping nearly the same pace throughout while effortlessly clearing the jumps, and is absolutely memorizing to watch.
There are many (often seemingly minor) things that can lose points in a hunter round. As stated already inconsistent pace, poor distances, an overly reactive rider, sloppy appearance, can all lose points. Other mishaps include: rail rubs, knocking rails, head tossing, bucking (and other behavioral issues), the horse pinning his or her ears, lead swaps in the middle of a line or right before a jump, late lead changes, being off center over the jumps. Judges often differ on some issues like rail rubs or head tossing; some will overlook the horse being a little excitable, for example. However, these are all things that can keep the pair from getting a ribbon. The rider’s job is to minimize mishaps and impress the judge.
The rider must show off the horse. It is a horse show, after all. The rider must be aware of the horse’s strengths and weaknesses to convince the judge that they are deserving of a ribbon. For example, my horse Espresso that I competed a lot with several years ago was a nice mover and very striking horse. So when the course started off of a long approach coming home, my trainer would tell me to “take a tour of the ring” before heading to the jump. Instead of just trotting up the long rail like everyone else, I would trot right across the middle of the ring and weave around the jumps. My pretty, black horse with a floaty trot would capture the judge’s attention. He or she would have already decided that Espresso was a nice horse before we went over a single jump. While being a good mover will not win a jumping class, it is something that can set one horse apart from another. Oftentimes, there will be a few horses with equally good rounds, so judges have to look for something that sets one horse apart. I always want to make sure that the judge notices what sets my horse apart. On the other hand, the rider must do his or her best to hide the horse’s weaknesses. If the horse I am on is a not so great mover, for example, I do not want the judge to notice. The best thing to do is to pick up the canter fairly quickly and get to the first jump. The judge can get the impression that the horse is mediocre, as he or she can get the impression that the horse is nice, all before the first jump. Now I have seen tons of very competitive horses that are not great movers, and it really doesn’t matter, it is all in how they are presented. No horse is perfect, and very very very few hunter rounds our perfect, so all riders can do is their best to show off their horses and convince the judge that theirs is the best out there that day.
I barely touched on what it takes to succeed in hunter land. I could probably fill an entire book on this topic! I just hope that I can convince at least a few of you to try the hunters. Competing in the hunter ring is very rewarding, and provides a very good foundation for other jumping disciplines. Not to mention, it is tons of fun!