Photograph by Giana Terranova Photography
Have you ever found yourself staring blankly at the hunter ring as horse after horse appears to perform the same flawless, seemingly unexciting course of eight fences stuffed to the brim with flower boxes and roll-tops wondering how-in-the-heck a judge decides who the winner is? Don’t feel dumb if you’ve been in this position as the Hunter divisions are all about subtlety and perfection. Team Equivont is here to translate this subjective division as the Hunter/Jumper world dives into the excitement of the winter circuit!
Before we jump into the nitty gritty of the hunter divisions we’ll give you a quick history lesson on this complex competition!
The Hunter division is originally based on the fox hunting horses that galloped long stretches and jumped natural obstacles while chasing after foxes with their hounds. These horses’ grace and beauty was moved into the show ring to judge which horse could “hunt” with the most beauty and relaxation. The natural brush fences often used in the hunter rings are intended to replicate the various walls, hedges, and any other natural obstacles one might jump while hunting.
Nowadays, the Hunter division might be considered the beauty pageant of the show world, where pristine turnout, quality of movement and jump, and quiet temperament paired with effortless rideability is the ultimate goal of the division. Hunters at rated shows are presented with their mane and upper half of their tail braided in order to accentuate their conformation and muscling.
Although to an outsider looking in the Hunters may appear boring and repetitive, our breakdown of the judging methods and specific division requirements will (hopefully) change your perspective and understanding of this form of competition!
Although there is an overwhelming amount of different Hunter divisions at the major rated shows, they all follow a similar set of judging guidelines and can be grouped in four major categories: Hunter Over Fences, Hunter Under Saddle, Model Classes, and Hunter Derbies.
1. Hunter Over Fences:
This name might be a dead giveaway, but the Hunter Over Fences classes are competitions where a horse is shown over a short and simple course (usually around 8 jumps). These classes are primarily judged on the horse’s jumping form, but also heavily consider the animal’s temperament, overall style of movement, and willingness to perform its job. Ideally, the horse jumps each fence with square knees (in layman’s terms, their legs are even over the jump), the horse appears willing and eager to perform (no grumpy bit chomping, pinned ears, or helicopter tails), and is very rideable (the rider does not have to make any drastic adjustments to maneuver the course).
If all of this sounds foreign to you (or your poor non-horsey husband crying from boredom beside you), we’ll break it down into a few key yeas and neighs (pun intended).
Yea: The horse performs the course so smoothly you don’t even really know what just happened! Pricked ears, an easy-going canter that might just put you to sleep, and no terrified gasps from the trainer at the back-gate are few tell-tale signs of a good hunter round. (Again, if your significant other is banging their head against the fence because they just watched the least exciting jump course of all time, it was probably performed well!)
Nay: If the horse appears anxious, maybe even running away with the rider screaming on its back, it’s not going great. And although your horse-show support group might be impressed by the horse jumping so high the standards won’t even make it in the show pictures, this is another no-no in the hunters as over-jumping can correlate to fear of the fences, inexperience, or lack of rideability. On the contrary, just like the Jumper ring, knocking down rails also does not win blue ribbons.
2. Hunter Under Saddle:
If you thought Hunters Over Fences was confusing (and maybe even boring), just wait until we try to explain the Under Saddle class, also commonly referred to as the “hack”. The Under Saddle is the flat class of every hunter division, where horses are judged on their gates and overall appearance. Probably the most subjective class at the show, the hack is pinned at each judge’s discretion of what makes the fanciest hunter. While each judge might value certain characteristics slightly differently, there is a general type of horse that will win no matter who is watching.
Yea: Flat knees and pointy toes! Contrary to the bold movements of an upper-level dressage horse, a top hunter should glide across the ground with long, even strides paired with little-to-no knee action. Another difference is the hunters are shown on the flat with a long and low type frame rather than elevated and on the vertical. Ideally, the hack winner will trot and canter around the ring in the same even rhythm as if it were born moving like this and will die moving like this.
Nay: Just like the over fences, a horse taking off with its rider, attempting to buck its rider off, possibly even cartwheeling into the horse trotting next to it, will not win the hack. Another key factor is soundness, so the arthritic school horse that trots on three legs but will keep you in the saddle if it’s the last thing it does unfortunately will not pin high in the Under Saddle.
3. Model Class:
The true beauty pageant of the horse show is the Model Class, generally reserved only for Conformation divisions of horses and ponies. The Model Class is exactly what is sounds like, the horse is hand walked into the ring solely outfitted in a bridle and posed in front of the judge for inspection of its conformation. If you are familiar with the cutthroat TLC show “Toddlers and Tiaras”, just imagine the preparation that goes into the Pony Finals Model Class.
Yea: The pony or horse should be beautifully turned out, ready for Paris Fashion week. Hoof oil and Showsheen are preparation essentials for the Model. Correct conformation is rewarded in these classes (i.e. the horse’s body is proportional and well-muscled).
Nay: Again, no one likes a grumpy pony, so ear-pinning and “love bites” do not correlate with a high score. Even worse than the occasional tail swish would be a small child being drug across the ring by their semi-feral, wooly-mammoth-of-a-pony (no matter how exciting this might appear to your poor husband who is once again trapped at the hunter ring).
4. Hunter Derbies:
Hunter Derbies are by-far the most exciting of all the Hunter classes to the average show attendee; with bigger jumps, trickier courses, and a slightly faster pace, these classes are designed to truly pay tribute to the old fox hunting days hunters originated from. Derbies are held in a two-round format, the first round (Classic round) resembling the Hunter Over Fences classes. This round is judged like the Hunter Over Fences, considering jumping style, rideability, and overall presentation of the horse’s ability. Generally, the Classic round is judged with an open-scoring system, meaning the judges rate each horse out of 100. No two horses can have the same score, so often there will only be half-point differentiations; however, ties can occur with the added high-option score (one point is added to the base score for each higher fence option jumped). The top twelve scoring horses will return for the second round (the Handy round). The handy round is judged on brilliance of pace (more of a gallop than a slow canter), handiness (tighter turns), and overall jumping style of the horse. Handy rounds will often include one trot fence. The Handy round also receives a score out of 100 with bonus points awarded for high options jumped, and sometimes a handiness score is also awarded. The combined first and second round score determines the placings in the Hunter Derby Classes.
Yea: A forward, flowing round that shows off the horse’s individual style and rideability is key. The horse should remain calm and even-strided through the tight turns and at the faster pace in the handy round. Although the best derby horse may appear to perform the same as the traditional Over Fences classes, the derbies are generally more exciting because the jumps are bigger and more impressive and coupled with a more technical course. Scores between 70 and 75 are decent, between 75 and 80 is good, above an 80 is pretty darn great, and if you score a 90 or higher your horse probably just won the class.
Nay: Running away with a rider strapped to their back still won’t earn a horse a blue ribbon in the Derbies. Knocking rails is also a big no-no in these classes and will earn a horse an automatic base score of 45 points (this translates to an F- on their report card). Low scores can also be the result of refusals, missed lead changes, and pretty much anything drastic enough to wake up the sideline nappers.
Shockingly, these descriptions barely graze the surface the elaborate world of Hunters, as there are divisions to separate horses by age, experience, and style (Green Hunters, Young Hunters, Working Hunters, Conformation Hunters, etc.), and riders by level or status (Children, Juniors, Amateurs, and Professionals). But hopefully the next time you (or your lost husband) find yourself swept away in a sea of scrims and braids you’ll be able to pause and appreciate the elegance of the hunter round in front of you with more confidence and a better understanding of what-the-actual-%$@# is going on!