This coming week at the Del Mar National Horse Show will host an exciting and competitive event. Hunter/Jumper week will bring this three week long show to a close, and certainly end things with a bang. Riders from around the Southern California region will all reside at the Del Mar Fairgrounds this week to show. Some of the best horse and rider pairs will be seen in this event. With all the heavy competition some may wonder, “how to judges decide the winner?”. In certain divisions such as the hunters, judges look for much more than meets the naked eye.
To the average spectator, the hunters appear to be elegant and exquisite horses that are groomed and braided to a T. Before this popular modern day discipline stepped into the show ring, hunters were used for exactly what they denote– hunting. Riders used their horses to ride countryside hunting for game. In an article written by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), they state:
“The horses were necessary to carry their riders many miles over the varied terrain of the countryside in pursuit of their game, often negotiating the creeks, ditches, walls, and fences they encountered along the way.”
The roots from this form of equestrian recreation has been refined and polished into a highly competitive and sophisticated sport. Its grown immensely in popularity and competition. So, if hunters aren’t the field hunting horses that they once were, what is a hunter and what makes a winner?
Frame and Movement
Hunters are typically characterized by their calm demeanor, scopey and fluid stride, and precise jumping style. USEF characterizes an ideal hunter:
“[A] show ring hunter must still exhibit the traits desired of a good field hunter— calm disposition, good manners, smooth gaits, steady way of going, and pleasant and efficient jumping ability— but must do so with style, presence and superior technique. Conformation, athleticism, disposition, and jumping form all combine to define a winning show ring hunter.”
The minute a hunter steps in the ring, he should be round in his frame and soft in the bit. However, a hunter frame differs from a dressage frame. Judges don’t want to see the horse’s frame high and round, rather that it is stretching out and light in the rider’s hand. A show hunter should still carry impulsion in order to maintain a flowing step. The desired stride of a hunter is fluid and rhythmic. Most hunters maintain the same tempo and aim to cover maximum ground with minimal effort. Judges also want to see that a horse competing in the hunter class is a good mover. A “good” hunter moves elegantly and appears to almost float above the ground instead of touching it. They don’t have the “knee action” that comes with a powerful jumper. Hunters move much more delicately and quietly.
Probably the most important trait a hunter must have is good, if not exceptional form over fences. The forearm should be parallel or higher with the ground, and the knees and lower legs should be even. This “squareness” of the knees should be tight as the horse clears the fence. Horses must be straight and not have their legs or body angled to one side. He must be round in the frame and show that lovely arc in the neck that judges desire. In order to achieve this form, hunters must leave from the famous “hunter gap”. This just entails that the horse should leave from a longer take off spot where a slight gap is seen between the horse and fence. In addition to impeccable form over fences, judges also enjoy seeing an attentive and soft expression from the horse. His ears should be perked and eyes alert yet conscientious of his rider. Judges find it distasteful if the horse has his ears pinned back and is quarrelsome with his rider.
Hunters maintain a consistent reputation of having immaculate turn out. Horses are expected to have shiny coats, clean tack, braided mane and tail, and– if they have them– gleaming white markings. Whiskers around the muzzle should be clipped, as well as the insides of the ears, hair around the jaw, and bridle path. In the hunters, both horse and rider must be well groomed from head to toe… literally.
Judging a Show Hunter: Faults
While we have seen all the qualities that make a prime show hunter, light must also be shed on the faults that can negatively affect a horse’s overall score. The judge has a score card for each horse and gives it a final tally out of 100. Certain mistakes may cause the judge to lower the score. These faults include rubbing or knocking down rails, freshness or spooking from the horse, bucking, refusals, adding or eliminating strides in a line, jumping with poor form, and many more. According to an article by horsechannel.com:
“There are automatic scores for major faults,” Meredith says. “There may be a discrepancy between judges of a few points, but basically we all score major faults the same. A rail down in a hunter class is an automatic 55. If a horse breaks the canter and trots on course, it’s a 50. A refusal gets you a 30.”
All of these scores are analogous to getting a D or an F on a test in school signifying that you need to study harder because you aren’t making the honor roll. Meredith says that there are “little things” that also keep a hunter out of the ribbons in a large class.
“While a baby green hunter might be forgiven for skipping through a lead change, where they take a step behind at the trot to catch up onto the correct lead, in any other hunter class that would be seen as trotting on course, and be scored as a 50.”
There are many things to look for as a judge and aim for as a hunter rider. At this year’s Del Mar National Horse Show, spectators will be witness to all of the lovely qualities that make up a hunter. All of these traits discussed above will be seen and performed in a short 2-minute round by each horse. Come join us and be apart of this exciting event!