14 Tips for a Better Under-Saddle Class

A top hunter/equitation judge shares insights to help your horse shine in a hunter flat class.

From the moment you step into the hunter ring for an under-saddle class, you want to show yourself and your horse in the best light possible. A key to that is making sure the judge sees your horse as often as possible as you ride around the arena. In addition, after the judge notices you in the class, your horse needs to be working at his best. According to the U.S. Equestrian Rule Book’s Hunter Division section, that means “horses should be obedient, alert, responsive and move freely.”

There are a lot of skills you can practice to increase your chances of impressing the judge. In this article, I’ll show you how to approach hunter under-saddle classes and share some common mistakes that I see when I’m judging. 

under saddle
In my “mock” under-saddle class, I’m about to pass the judge—my eyes are looking in her direction. I make sure I have a light feel of River Walk’s mouth, and he is in a forward trot that will show him off in the best light. 
© Sandra Oliynyk

1. Adjust Your Number

As the announcer calls the under-saddle class to order, pull the competition number on your back a little to the outside toward your hip. This way, the judge, who often judges from outside the arena, can read it. (If the judge is in the center of the arena, pull the number to the inside.) Be careful not to pull it so far over that your arm covers it. And if you’re a kid with pigtails, please don’t let those cover your number.

When you reverse direction, slide the number toward your other hip. I judge a lot, and it makes a huge difference if I’m not searching for your number. There often are a lot of horses and riders in an under-saddle class. This can make it a challenge to keep track of everyone to determine the various placings. Help me keep track of you.

As the announcer calls the under-saddle class to order, I pull the competition number a little to the outside toward my hip.
© Sandra Oliynyk

2. Know Where the Traffic Is

Do your best work directly in front of the judge where she can see you and your horse clearly. For example, if I’m trotting on the opposite side of the arena from where the judge is standing, and I look over and see that there aren’t any horses passing in front of her, I’ll circle through the middle of the arena to get an extra pass by the judge and get even closer to the judge if possible (see Track A in the diagram at the right). 

Another move that I see a lot of professional riders do in the higher divisions—the High Performance Hunters or the 3-foot-6 Green Hunters—is to ride down the centerline of the arena (see Track B in the diagram). They do this if they notice that no other horses will be passing close to the judge at that moment so the judge most likely will see them. Be careful if you try this. If you turn too tightly onto the centerline, especially with a young horse, your horse could appear lame. The point to all of this is to always know where traffic is by looking around. 

If I’m trotting on the opposite side of the arena from the judge and there aren’t any horses in front of her, I’ll circle through the middle of the arena and pass closely by her (A). If some professional riders notice no horses passing close to the judge, they’ll ride down the centerline of the arena (B). Track C will force you to weave through the jumps, which could affect your horse’s balance and cause a lead swap. Track D is smarter to take.

3. Prepare at the Walk

When the announcer first calls the class to order, establish a nice walk. You want to have your horse in front of your leg and a light feel of his mouth because you know you’re about to pick up the rising trot. You don’t want to be slouching or letting your horse dink along. If you don’t care, why should I care as a judge. 

4. Establish a Forward Trot

As the announcer tells you to trot, pick up the rising trot. Make sure your horse is in front of your leg, keep his head straight and let him go forward with a light feel of his mouth. This is especially true on either of the long sides of the arena, where the judge is most likely looking at the horses as they pass. Try to space yourself so you are the only horse and rider passing in front of the judge on the long side. That might mean circling at the short end of the arena to get out of a group of horses going down the long side at the same time. 

5. Be Savvy When Fixing Mistakes

The short end and corners of the arena are the best places to fix any issues with your horse because the judge can’t see those areas as well as the long sides. So if your horse’s head is getting low, wait until you get to the short side of the arena, add your leg and raise your hands a little to bring up his head. If your horse does something on the long side of the arena away from the judge that you can’t wait to fix—say he’s fussy with his head—move to the outside of the arena where you can hide a little bit. In the next corner, try to refocus his attention by bending him to the inside.

6. Avoid Good Movers

As you trot around the arena, notice which horses are the best movers and place yourself away from them. You don’t want a judge to even subconsciously have the chance to see your horse in a less-than-positive light. Similarly, look to see who the worst mover in the class is and place your horse closer to that horse to help your horse really shine.

7. Ride a Prompt Canter Depart

After the trot, when the announcer asks you to return to the walk, immediately establish a medium walk. Most likely you are about to canter, and you want to be ready for it. A common mistake riders make is picking up the wrong lead, which is a major fault. So as you are walking, think about where you are in the ring and position yourself to give your horse the best chance of picking up the correct lead. The short ends of the arena or the quarter lines are always good because you can position your horse better for the canter as opposed to when you are along the arena fence.

8. Show Off the Canter

At the canter, you want a forward (though not fast) pace. Let your horse travel with his nose poked out a notch with a three-beat rhythm. You can even let him lengthen his stride a little down the long side to show off his movement. I like to be in my two point when cantering, but there are some famous riders who like to stay seated. It’s really whatever works for you and what shows off your horse the best. As I return to the walk from the canter when instructed, I like to trot a few steps to show off that gait a little more, and it’s a smoother transition.

As I pass by the judge in canter, River Walk has his nose poked out a notch and a nice forward pace to show off his movement. I like to be in a two-point when cantering, but some riders prefer to stay seated.
© Sandra Oliynyk

9. Navigate Jumps Carefully

If you have to navigate around jumps in the arena during an under-saddle class, try to pick a path where you are traveling down the long side on a straight line (see diagram, Track D). That way your horse can focus on his balance, and you can show him off by lengthening his stride to show what a good mover he is. But if you have to weave through the jumps even a little (Track C), at best your horse can’t flow as easily because he has to think about his balance. At worst, he could become unbalanced or confused, resulting in a lead swap, also a major fault. 

10. Reverse With Care

As the announcer asks you to return to the walk, most likely you will reverse your direction next, so again, establish a medium walk so your horse is prepared. A great place to reverse is always to the inside of the arena. This is more typical, and you usually have more room than if you turned to the outside of the arena to change direction. As you reverse, ride forward and keep your horse’s attention on you. If he loses focus, play with the bit, lightly squeezing then releasing on the rein, what I call “sponging the rein.”

11. Be Ready for Anything After You Reverse

As a judge and depending on the class, I sometimes like to ask riders to canter after they reverse. If your reins are too long, your horse is dinking along and you don’t have a straight track ahead of you, you have no control, so your horse could pick up the wrong lead. Instead, keep him marching in a medium walk and have a light feel of his mouth so you are ready to do whatever is next.

12. Ride Good Canter–Trot Transitions

If you cantered right after you reversed, often the next gait you’ll be asked to show is the trot. For this transition, think about just melting into the trot by relaxing your leg a little and coming back with your upper body. Then immediately add a little more leg to establish a forward trot without losing impulsion and slowing down. 

13. Try to Get Your Horse’s Ears Forward

In a hunter class, your horse is judged on his alertness. One sign of this is if his ears are pricked forward. To get his ears up, try pointing him (slightly) at something a little interesting—a jump in the arena, a horse ahead of him, a bush outside the ring. You don’t want to do anything to throw him off balance. Instead, bend him almost imperceptibly toward the object. You can also sponge the rein here, too.

14. Line Up Like a Pro

At the end of the class, you will be asked to walk and line up in the center of the arena, facing away from the judge. First ride a nice transition to medium walk. If you’re far from where you have to line up, it’s fine with me from a judging perspective to pick up the trot again and trot to where you can get into the line. This is another chance to show off your horse on the way into the lineup. Try to enter the lineup as close to the middle as possible, so the judge can locate you easily as she’s determining the final placings. When you get into the lineup, adjust your number so it’s in the center of your back and easily visible to the judge. If your horse stands nicely, give him his head and let him relax, but don’t just fall apart. Sit tall and be proud. Remember, if you don’t appear interested in what you’re doing, then why should I be? 

By practicing these skills at home and then in the under-saddle class, you’ll be giving the judge the best opportunity to see what a good mover your horse is and place him in the ribbons. Good luck!

More Tips from the Judge

Take pride in your appearance: As riders, we’re all working toward something. Maybe it’s to do better at your level in order to move up to the next division. Or maybe it’s to become a better rider at home. Whatever your goal, take pride in what you do. If you didn’t care enough to take the five minutes to polish your boots, then why should I be caring about you. You don’t have to have the most expensive horse or the most expensive clothes, just present yourself in a nice, traditional way in the hunter and equitation rings. Also, I don’t love seeing a lot of bling. To me, the rider is supposed to disappear. In hunter classes, I want to judge the horse and not be distracted by the rider’s outfit. These are all things that are within your control.

The bottom line is show yourself in a way that makes you the winner, even if it’s just in presentation alone. This is a presentation-based sport, both in the equitation and the hunter rings. You really need to show me that you cared enough to put that effort in first and foremost, then your performance comes into play. If you come in the ring and you’re not really taking an interest, it just shows that the level of commitment is not there to put in a good round.

You’re always being judged: As a rider, remember that you are judged from the minute you enter the ring until the moment you leave, and sometimes even after you leave the ring. Say you made a crazy chip mistake on course or your horse dropped a leg and tapped a jump, and you’re annoyed or even angry. That is not something you want to bring to the show ring or to your animal when I’m judging. I don’t like to see someone come out of the ring and yank on the horse’s mouth and/or kick the horse and yank him into circles. The horse isn’t learning anything from that. He doesn’t know that you’re mad because five jumps ago you chipped or he wasn’t with you or he made a jumping mistake.

That behavior leaves a huge distaste in my mouth. If you’re that aggressive about it in the in-gate, I will call a steward and have him talk to you with me. That behavior is not training, and it’s not going to serve your purpose in the long run. The “punishment” might give you instant gratification, but your horse didn’t learn anything. 

This is all about becoming a teammate with your horse, and that is a work in progress. You just want to learn something every day. I’m still learning something new every day both when I’m in the judge’s box and when I’m riding
and competing.

About Keri Kampsen

Keri Kampsen

U.S. Equestrian “R” judge in hunters and equitation, Keri Kampsen is the owner and founder of Two Goals Farm, LLC, in Wellington, Florida. She has judged prestigious competitions such as the Devon Horse Show, The Capital Challenge Horse Show and the 2021 ASPCA Maclay National Championship, which she won in 1997 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. As a junior, she also rode Monticello to the 1996 Large Junior Hunter and Overall Junior Hunter Horse of the Year titles. Since then, she has won multiple championships and horse of the year titles in the hunter divisions as well as ribbons in the grand prix ring. Kampsen and her business partner, Lexy Reed, specialize in the training and sales of hunters, jumpers and equitation horses and also teach riders of all levels.

WATCH A FREE TRAINING VIDEO of Keri Kampsen at  practicalhorsemanondemand.com. Sign up for a 10-day free trial with a subscription to watch Kampsen’s full video series.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Practical Horseman.

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