Just like people, horses don’t always land their ideal jobs at the beginnings of their careers. Some muddle along in one or more disciplines, not quite reaching their full potential until they’re switched to the discipline that suits them best. That’s why, even though I’m primarily a hunter rider now, I pay close attention to horses in the jumper rings. I’m always on the lookout for potential hunter stars. Although it takes time and patience to convert a jumper to a hunter, if the horse has what it takes to succeed in his new career, it’s worth it.
My aunt, Tracy Freels, and I have successfully converted several jumpers into hunters, including one of my current International Hunter Derby mounts, Red Ryder (pictured at the bottom of this article). When we spotted him at a show, we were first attracted to his beautiful jumping style. He had a nice, round bascule (the shape the horse’s body makes in the air) over the fences and good technique (folding his legs neatly and evenly), and he was consistent: Every jump looked the same. Even though he was in the jumper ring where riders usually keep their mounts packaged together with shorter reins and more visible rein contact than riders do in the hunters, this horse was carrying his nose out more like a hunter, traveling on a loose rein with great self-balance and a lovely expression on his face. It turned out he’d been imported from Europe, where he’d competed in the 1.40-meter jumpers. He was for sale at the time, and a kid was trying him out in the Training Jumpers.
My aunt bought Red Ryder, and we transitioned him to the hunters using the process I’ll describe in this article. Like many of our other conversion successes, he blossomed in his new job, earning many top ribbons, including several International Hunter Derby wins.
The qualities we saw in Red Ryder that first day are the same ones we look for in any potential hunter: obvious talent (fluid gaits, beautiful jumping style) that catches the judge’s eye the moment the horse walks into the ring; smooth, well-put-together conformation; excellent body condition (shiny coat, healthy weight); and, most importantly, charisma. By that, I mean that the horse has a pleasant, confident expression—ears forward, neck nicely stretched out, nose poking out in front—and a good work ethic that enables him to compete in more than one class per day without losing his enthusiasm. He should be light on the forehand and able to travel in self-carriage without too much work on the rider’s part to keep him in balance. We avoid horses who look extremely heavy in the bridle (leaning their weight onto the rider’s hands) or have a very “hot” (tense) temperament and/or overly quick movement. These habits and traits can be difficult to reverse.
Making the Transformation
It’s rare to find a horse who can go straight from the jumpers to the hunters, even one as naturally suited to the latter as Red Ryder. Before you ask one to make the switch, you have to help him develop the different muscles and attitude required for the new discipline. Physically, the hunters require horses to travel between the jumps in a longer, lower shape, with a more outstretched neck and light rein contact while still powering their bodies forward with active hind ends. This is a very different balance from the compressed, more connected shape you see in the jumpers, and it takes time to develop the muscles to maintain it throughout an entire course.
Another sometimes difficult adjustment is learning to accomplish the “hunter gap”—taking off several inches farther away from the base of the fences than jumpers normally do. This extra space in front of the fence encourages horses to slow down their jumping efforts so that they have more time to rotate their shoulders forward, fold their legs neatly and produce a nice bascule in the air. Because the fences are bigger in the jumpers, the emphasis there is more on creating power to clear the jump—which is easier to do from a deeper (closer) takeoff spot—than on the horse’s shape in the air.
Horses also need to be prepared mentally to switch disciplines. They need to become familiar with the different types, colors and materials of hunter fences—flower boxes, rolltops, etc. They need to adapt to new aids: Because hunters are expected to perform with a much lighter rein contact than jumpers, their riders must rely even more on their body weight and position to influence their mounts. Whereas jumpers aren’t judged on their lead changes, hunters are penalized for making expressive ones (jumping high in the air, changing the rhythm, pinning their ears, etc.). And, even though the atmosphere of a big hunter class may be similar to that of a big jumper class, how we expect horses to respond to that atmosphere is very different. It can take time for a former jumper to learn how to keep his cool and continue in his steady, rhythmic, relaxed balance despite distractions outside the ring, like a cheering audience.
I think of these physical and mental transformations as peeling away the layers of a horse’s former training and starting from scratch. How long this takes varies from horse to horse, but I usually allow about a year from the start of the transition to when I hope to have the horse showing consistently in his new job. It’s very important to do this slowly and methodically. Take baby steps!
The first goal is to accustom your horse to carrying himself in a good balance with lighter rein contact. Start by switching him to a gentle bit, such as a rubber D-ring or Happy Mouth, or even consider riding him in a hackamore for a while. Because most jumpers are ridden in relatively stronger bits, this change might make your horse harder to stop and turn initially. So keep your early rides simple. Do lots of trail riding and easy flatwork. Also start riding him in a loose standing martingale to help encourage him to lower his head if he’s used to carrying it a little high.
In your flatwork, use plenty of figures—turns, diagonals and circles of different sizes—to encourage him to rebalance himself frequently and thus keep his pace in check while he gets used to the lighter bit and rein aids. Focus on maintaining a consistent rhythm at each gait. Stick to a steady medium pace at the trot. At the canter, start with more collected work, which jumpers are used to. Ask for a slower pace and a more compressed frame, connecting your horse between your legs and hands, holding just enough contact to keep the pace in check. Lower your hands slightly more than normal (but no lower than his withers) to encourage him to drop his head and relax his back.
Gradually loosen the feel on the reins for a few strides at a time while using your body weight and balance to help him maintain his balance. Use a soft, centered seat, lightly staying in contact with the saddle, but never with a “driving” motion. Keep your hips, core and shoulders centered over the middle of the saddle. One of the biggest mistakes we see in the hunter ring is riders getting too forward with their upper bodies. This encourages horses to tip their balance on their forehands and lean on the bridle—exactly the opposite of the self-carriage we want.
Another common mistake is to take your legs off your horse’s sides. This is especially tempting in the beginning of the transformation process when it may still be difficult to control the pace without relying on the reins. But maintaining a light but still supportive, constant leg pressure actually works as a sort of security blanket for horses. Knowing that it will always be there tends to help horses find their own balance.
For the first few weeks or even months, keep the canter pace slow. Soften the rein contact for just two strides at a time, then pick it back up again. When that’s going well, try it for four strides, then gradually build on that. Remember to use your figures—circles, turns, etc.—to help him balance during these short spells on lighter contact. Always try to pick up the contact again before your horse has a chance to fall apart, which can happen very easily in this early stage. If you completely throw away the contact, an 8-year-old ex-jumper will suddenly ride like a 3-year-old, losing his balance completely.
Eventually, your horse will learn how to carry himself in a longer frame with less rein contact. At this point, you can begin to open up his stride. Again, do it in baby steps. Try it down just one side of the ring, collecting him again in the corner. Gradually build up to cantering around the whole ring with more pace, still focusing on maintaining a steady rhythm. Be ready, though, to throw in a circle or transition back to collected canter whenever he starts to lose his balance. With each transition and change in pace, instead of asking your horse for an instant—and potentially abrupt—response, give him a little extra time so he can make it as smoothly and subtly as possible. In the hunter ring, it should look like it happens almost magically.
During these early days of flatwork, teach your horse a new approach to lead changes. Jumpers often anticipate the changes, making them before their riders ask for them. Your goal is not only to teach your horse to wait for your cue, but also to make a smoother, less expressive change.
To do this, practice cantering across the diagonal, but then turn in the direction he doesn’t expect. So, for example, if you’re on the right lead and make a right turn across the diagonal, instead of cantering to the end of the diagonal and turning left, make another right turn back to the track. Do this at about three-quarters of the way across the diagonal, so you can initiate the turn smoothly without disrupting the rhythm or forcing your horse to make an extremely tight turn. This will teach him to hold his lead until you ask for the change.
Repeat this exercise until you don’t sense any anticipation for the change building up in your horse. Then move on to making simple changes through the trot toward the end of the diagonal. So, for example, if you’re on the right lead and make a right turn across the diagonal, when you arrive about three-quarters of the way across the diagonal, calmly ask your horse to make a transition to trot. Continue trotting until he feels straight, rhythmic, relaxed and soft in the bridle and in his back. Then quietly ask for a left lead canter. Don’t rush these transitions! This is how your horse is going to learn to stay calm and relaxed throughout his changes. Depending on the horse, this may take as many as 10 trot steps initially.
Over time, as his balance and understanding improve, gradually shorten the number of trot steps you take in the simple changes. Eventually, with patience and repetition, he’ll be ready to progress to making smooth flying changes.
Hold off on jumping your horse until he’s consistently carrying himself in the new, relaxed frame on a soft contact. When he feels ready to maintain that balance in the approach to a jump, begin incorporating single fences into his flatwork. Keep them simple and recognizable—verticals and oxers resembling the types of fences he was familiar with in the jumper ring. High crossrails are also fine for reminding him to jump the middle of his fences. Roll a groundline out about a foot from the base of each jump. This will help him to get used to the “hunter gap.”
Start each ride with the same flatwork you’ve been doing. When your horse feels quiet and balanced, canter him to a single fence at a fairly slow pace. Focus on maintaining your rhythm all the way to the jump. On takeoff:
• Keep your hands low, maintaining a light, gentle feel of his mouth, so his head and neck remain outstretched.
• Support his impulsion with plenty of lower leg pressure. This will help him learn to trust his own balance—without relying on strong rein contact telling him to compress his body and power off the ground—and use the space in front of the jump to show off his best technique.
• Meanwhile, keep your shoulders centered over your hips, being careful not to push your upper body too far forward, which would tip him off balance at the most important moment.
After the jump, go right back to your flatwork, correcting his balance and rhythm as needed. Add in a few more single fences throughout the session, depending on how well he maintains his balance before, during and after them. Over time, slowly build up to riding simple lines and, eventually, small courses. Also begin experimenting with opening up his stride, always insisting that he do so while maintaining a long, relaxed frame and steady rhythm.
When this is going well, gradually introduce the types of fences he’ll see in the hunter ring: rolltops, flower boxes, etc. If he’s a careful horse, he may overjump these fences the first time. To help him overcome this problem, keep the jumps small and approach them at a slower pace than usual. Also add a stride in every line so he doesn’t feel too strung out in front of the “out” jump. For example, if you’re riding a five-stride line, do it in six strides. This will help him stay confident and relaxed.
If he feels a little lost in front of his fences—drifts sideways or hesitates—support him with a solid upper body position. If he’s a brave horse who tends to get too fast, continue jumping these new fences out of a slower-than-normal pace and circle or collect him after each one to correct his balance and pace.
Don’t expect your former jumper to canter around a hunter course in perfect style instantly. Always be ready to compromise. Whenever it feels necessary, go back to things he’ll find familiar, like collected work and simpler-looking jumps.
Preparing for Shows
When your newly converted hunter is jumping courses confidently at home, plan to make his competition debut in a low-key division at a show with a quiet atmosphere. In the weeks leading up to it, desensitize him at home to some of the potential distractions he’ll encounter. For example, braid his mane before a schooling session, so he experiences that different feeling on the crest of his neck while jumping. (This is also a good way to train his mane to lie on the correct side.) Apply a tail wrap, too, to simulate the pressure he’ll feel from a braided tail. Some horses clamp their tails down or bounce their butts up in mini-bucks when they first encounter this sensation. Better to experience these surprises at home than in the show ring!
To accustom him to staying calm despite the sounds of crowds outside the ring, find videos on YouTube to play while you’re schooling at home. Or ask friends to stand outside the ring and clap and cheer while you’re riding a course.
When you finally begin showing, always start the competition with a warm-up class over a smaller height than your regular show height. Ride this at a steady rhythm and slower-than-usual pace, adding a stride in each line. This way, he’ll be less likely to tense up when you come back into the ring and ask him to open up his stride.
Most importantly, keep your expectations reasonable. Instead of aiming for a ribbon, which might place too much pressure on your horse, make your top priority riding the entire course in a consistent, smooth, rhythmic manner. In between fences, use a soothing voice and rub his neck with your pinky finger to encourage him to stretch his neck down, relax and take a deep breath.
Remember, every horse learns at his own pace. If you take your time and break the process down into small, easy-to-achieve steps, your horse will embrace his new job with confidence and enthusiasm.
About Hannah Isop
Third-generation equestrian Hannah Isop teaches and trains at her family’s Harkaway Farm, in North Salem, New York, with her aunt, Tracy Freels, and her mother, Susie Isop, who manages the barn. Her grandparents, Jeri and Bob Freels, were both horse trainers. Hannah has earned top placings in many hunter and jumper divisions, including several wins in national and international hunter derbies, second place in the 2011 Ox Ridge Charity Horse Show’s Grand Prix, second in two consecutive years at the USHJA World Championship Hunter Rider Developing Pro Challenge, first and second at the 2018 Devoucoux Hunter Prix at HITS-on-the-Hudson II, and a top-10 finish in the 2018 Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.
For more from Hannah, check out her interview on the Practical Horseman Podcast.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue.