USEF’s Premier Hunter Judges Are Answering Questions About Equitation and Hunter Rounds

Hunter and equitation horse show judges are talking. Before your next horse show, get inside the minds of the nation’s most respected hunter judges.

Have you always wanted to know why you did not win or get a ribbon? There are rules that allow only limited interaction with the horse show judges at most horse shows, but you can now tap into the knowledge base of these judges and benefit from their experience. Many of the United States Equestrian Federation’s top rated judges have been interviewed and filmed. These judges have all presided over the highest level of hunter shows from the east to the west coast, such as Indoors, Palm Beach, Capitol Challenge, Harrisburg, HITS, Toronto Royal Winter Fair, Devon and many others. In addition, they are also trainers, clinicians, riders, and instructors. Now you as an exhibitor, trainer, owner or rider can learn from their knowledge and benefit from their experience and feedback. They have intentionally been asked specific detailed questions in order to get precise answers. The result is a virtual clinic of show hunter and equitation expertise.

Following is a few of the thoughts that come up regarding showing hunters and hunt seat equitation, and some of the questions that were asked of the judges:

Form follows function is the theme of good equitation. Many of our top Olympians excelled as Medal equitation winners. While most riders  and trainers understand the basic equitation position, judging equitation is much more than placing in a beauty pageant. It’s rating that indefinable connection between horse and rider and assessing good horsemanship. The judges were asked to describe the optimum attributes of a good riding position, and the most important aids that contribute to a solid equitation performance. The question asked was “What do you especially look for in an equitation ride? What are your top 3 priorities in the rider’s form in terms of importance in an equitation rider, and why? (heels, hands, seat, etc.)”

A horse show is just that, a SHOW, and judges expect to see horses and riders at their best performance. Savvy raiders will go the extra distance and push the envelope to show off their best qualities and their horse’s best qualities. Would a stylish sitting trot, a counter canter into the arena, or a turn on the forehand make an inpact? The question asked was “In an equitation class, what “extra credit” moves do you like to see, on the flat and over fences?”

Hunter and equitation courses consist of 8 or more jumps in 2 or more lines. For example, the course designer might set 2 jumps in a line measuring 72 feet, allowing five strides between jumps. Sometimes a short-strided horse may canter the line and fit in six strides, while a big-strided horse may easily take four strides. The question asked was “Do you penalize a short strided horse that adds a stride in a line, resulting in six even strides in a five stride line? Do you have the same answer in an equitation class?”

Given that judging hunters and equitation is a subjective profession, often trainers and riders want to know the reason their performance was or was not pinned in the judge’s final order. USEF requires that a steward be present during a discussion with a judge. Most judges have a definite feeling about sharing their scoring and reasoning. The question asked was “Do you welcome a Junior or Amateur coming up and asking you a question about their score after a class?”

Although standards exist for high level judges, judging hunters is largely subjective, based on style, jumping form, even strides, technique and overall impression. The question asked was “What do you look for in a hunter? What is your idea of a “classic hunter”?”

In an equitation class, a rider can perform smoothly with an exemplary position, but sometimes a horse’s sloppiness or laziness contributes to a rail down or fault, despite a proper ride. It is the judge’s responsibility to assess this. The question asked was “If an equitation rider puts in a good ride but his horse makes some minor error like rapping a pole or a spook, how does this affect his score?”

Trainers and riders use various bits, aids and tack in order to maximize their horse’s way of going, jumping style and rideability. Given the range of equipment allowed, judges may penalize for non-conventional types of tack. The questions asked “Do you consider tack on a hunter? Do you weigh the fact that a horse goes with or without a martingale? Do you credit/penalize a horse showing in a snaffle bit versus a pelham?”

In hunter under saddle classes, the horse’s movement and manners are judged, with quality of movement paramount. Generally the horses are shown at a walk, trot, and canter both directions. Good trainers and riders can accentuate their horse’s movement by creating a more extended, fluid and balanced gait. This gait is established through various means: establishing a certain amount of collection, moving at a faster pace, sometimes a looser rein, and/or various equipment to achieve the desired “frame” or way of going. The question was asked “In a hunter under saddle class, comment on the “frame” of the horse you are looking for.”

Judges will notice an experienced professional rider or trainer versus a less experienced young rider or amateur adult as soon as he/she enters the show ring. Some class divisions are designed to separate non-professsional (amateurs and juniors) from professional riders (trainers). But some hunter classes allow both, and does the judge take into consideration who is riding the horse. The question was asked “If it comes down to two great rounds in a hunter class, one ridden by a professional and one by an amateur or junior, are there differences in the way the two rounds are judged?”

Imagine these questions and many more being answered by 15 to 20 of the top hunter judges in the country. Just learning one or two invaluable nuggets of horsemanship from over 250 answers, opinions and preferences will surely make a difference in your next horse show performance.