Improve your horse’s pace, track and balance by practicing parts of this unique course at home, says derby star Liza Boyd. In Exercise 1, learn to pick up and keep a good pace.
Liza Towell Boyd rides Maggie May at the 2016 USHJA International Hunter Derby Final.

Liza Towell Boyd rides Maggie May at the 2016 USHJA International Hunter Derby Final.

Hunter derbies are exploding across the country. Since the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association introduced the derby format in 2008, this “grand prix for hunters” has expanded to more and more B- and C- level competitions for both horses and ponies alike. These exciting classes are now becoming accessible to riders at all levels.

The USHJA created this new competition to reflect the tradition of riding hunters across fields and over natural fences, so derby courses typically include more natural-looking jumps, like gates, rolltops and brush fences. It’s a big course with tighter turns than the typical hunter course, tricky trot fences and other traps that the course designer has installed to separate the field. Frequently these classes are held in large arenas or grass fields, giving the horses and riders an opportunity to really shine.

This has been great for our riders, our horses and our sport. But for those just starting to explore competing in hunter derbies, the thought of riding in their first one can be a bit intimidating because it’s a challenging course.

But the reality is this: A hunter derby is nothing more than a series of tests. And you can isolate those tests into specific exercises and practice them one at a time at home until you—and your horse—can successfully execute the basics of the hunter derby.

Working with my father, trainer Jack Towell, I have our horses and riders practice these exercises regularly. Over time, this develops riders with better balance, greater awareness of their track and faster reactions. It also develops horses who are more responsive and rideable. The result? These riders and their mounts are more competitive in both rounds of a hunter derby: the classic hunter round and the handy round, which both count toward your final score. And even if they never compete in a derby, mastering these exercises makes them successful in regular hunter classes and in their division handy classes.

When you begin to train for a derby, you want your horse to walk away from every session happy, confident and a better horse. You are not going to accomplish this all in one day, so set your goals in stages and be patient. And if you are working with an older horse, you can practice these exercises with simple poles on the ground to reduce the impact on his legs.

As a rider, you want to feel prepared—overprepared actually—so that when you enter the derby ring the challenge seems easier than what you have already accomplished at home. The six exercises in this two-part series will help you practice three fundamental skills: pace, track and balance. Once you have mastered these, go ahead and sign up for that derby class with confidence. You can get the job done on derby day!

Exercise 1: Pick Up—and Keep—A Good Hunter Pace

1. I pick up the canter and lighten my half seat to ask Cassanto, a 10-year-old Holsteiner, to establish a good working canter. This should feel energetic and forward—with enough canter to approach any jump on the derby course.

1. I pick up the canter and lighten my half seat to ask Cassanto, a 10-year-old Holsteiner, to establish a good working canter. This should feel energetic and forward—with enough canter to approach any jump on the derby course.

2. Right at the ribbon marker, I add more pressure with my legs and lighten my seat further to ask Cassanto to lengthen his stride into the gallop. Note that I don’t allow him to fall on the forehand in the gallop—he still has the same balanced stride.

2. Right at the ribbon marker, I add more pressure with my legs and lighten my seat further to ask Cassanto to lengthen his stride into the gallop. Note that I don’t allow him to fall on the forehand in the gallop—he still has the same balanced stride.

3. Using my body weight as a lever, I sink into the saddle and bring my upper body back to vertical. This tells my horse to condense his stride and come back to a collected canter.

3. Using my body weight as a lever, I sink into the saddle and bring my upper body back to vertical. This tells my horse to condense his stride and come back to a collected canter.

4. To recreate the working canter, I lighten my seat again and encourage Cassanto to create more energy and lengthen his stride. We return to a solid and dependable working canter.

4. To recreate the working canter, I lighten my seat again and encourage Cassanto to create more energy and lengthen his stride. We return to a solid and dependable working canter.

To read the full version of this article, check out the original story in the June 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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