I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are people out there who don’t know all the details of what goes on at a horse show. These people might even be close family members. With that in mind, this is the first in a series of articles called Horse Show 101. Show them this guide, then maybe they’ll stop asking you why you need three different horses. In my second post, I cover Equitation 101.
The hunter class is different from jumper and equitation in that winning is based solely on a subjective judging of the horse’s performance. So if you mess up, you might still be okay.
There are three basic divisions of hunter classes: children’s, junior, and amateur. Children’s and junior are both for riders under 18, with junior having the higher jump of the two. Amateur is the same jump height as junior, just with riders 18 and older. Junior classes are also further divided in to small and large by the size of the horse.
Additionally, there are hunter classes for ponies, hunter classes for “green” horses who are in their first years of showing, conformation classes based on the quality of the horse, and performance classes with some having the highest jumps of all hunter classes. There are not hunter classes based on horse color, though I would definitely petition for an all dappled grey class.
Hunters are generally well-mannered and take commands easily, much like the ideal boyfriend. A great hunter should appear effortless in his rhythm, stride, jump, and demeanor while on course. If the judge starts thinking the horse looks so easy to ride that they could do it themselves, then you are likely in for a high score.
Hunters should have a happy expression and jump with rounded form and their knees as even and high as possible toward their chin. When you see hunter fangirls commenting on a horse’s knees, they are extolling his great form. Photographers already offer ears photoshopped forward, so it’s only a matter of time before they start raising hunter’s knees.
The distinguishing characteristic of a hunter course is its lack of jumps featuring loud colors or advertising. Hunter jumps are designed to simulate natural materials, as if the rider and horse are traveling through an actual hunt field. Sometimes, this results in visually pleasing jumps featuring beautiful and creative foliage, and other times it results in 3 foot tall painted-on birch trees.
The course design is purposefully simple, consisting of multiple jumps along the outside of the ring on both sides, as well as jumps set diagonally across the inside of the ring. Hunter courses allow the rider to show off the horse’s form and manners through proper rhythm, striding and landing, and to eliminate any potential excitement for unknowledgeable spectators.
Hunter attire is purposefully conservative. You will not see loud colors on show coats or saddle pads, and horses will be without their precious bonnets, or “horse hats” as the unknowing layperson may call them. The horse will also have his mane and tail braided for a neat, clean appearance. In the hunt field, traditional braids were a practical measure for keeping a horse’s tail out of the mud and brush and ensuring a rider’s hands did not get tangled in the mane.
The traditional outfit also discourages extra bling, such as bedazzled helmets, Swarovski crystal browbands, or platinum grillz.
The rider and horse will go through the course twice, the second time going a slightly different path. The rounds are usually staggered so you ride your first round, another rider does theirs, then you do your second. This is ideal for when you inevitably miss most of your friend’s first round because you were browsing Instagram. Each round is judged separately with its own winner.
Hunter rounds are judged on smoothness, proper striding, the horse’s form and expression, and landing on the correct leads, which you likely have very little chance of understanding if you are new to watching the class. Judges often do not announce a score after the round, leading to many conversations initiated by non-horse people that go “Great round!” “No, it was terrible, I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done worse had I insulted the judge’s mother after jump 4.”
The division also has a class called the under saddle, in which all of the horses enter the ring at the same time and walk, trot, and canter until the judge lets them stop. Here they are again judged on their movement and manners. Upon completion they will line up and the winning order of the under saddle class will be announced. If your horse has been sloppy going over the jumps, this is his chance to impress the judges.
An amateur hunter under saddle class becomes more interesting in slow motion with rap music.
Once all classes are complete, the horses with the top scores in the class remain on standby for what is called “the jog.” With riders on foot and their horses’ tack removed except for the bridle, horses are jogged in to the ring and in front of the judge in the order of their potential placing, then ribbons are distributed. The jog is for the judge to ensure the horses are sound and to secretly judge the riders’ running form.
The hunter class is all about tradition, pageantry, beautiful horses, and pretending to be on a fox hunt. Success is determined not only by the skill of the rider but the quality and talent of the horse and if the judge got up on the right side of the bed that morning.
You might enjoy the hunter class if you want your horse to be the prettiest at the show. Hunter riders also may enjoy the great outdoors, even if they are wooden and 3 feet tall. Or, perhaps your parents or loved ones are too scared of watching you ride jumpers.