Holly Hugo-Vidal: Tips for Boosting Your Score in Your Hunter Round

Hunter/jumper trainer and judge Holly Hugo-Vidal offers some ideas to help increase the score of your hunter round.
A well-turned out horse and rider can make a judge anticipate a good round. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Wouldn’t you love to increase your score from the judges with just a few changes? Of course you would. The best part is that you don’t have to ride like an elite rider to do this. You just need to pay attention to some details.

Let’s start with your appearance: I can tell you from a judge’s perspective that when a rider walks into my ring and is well turned out, I automatically feel positive and anticipate a good round. Why? Because I assume she is with a knowledgeable trainer who is not only concerned with turnout but good training as well. By turnout I am referring to the appearance of both the horse as well as the rider. First of all, the horse needs to be in good weight with a shiny coat. Next, he should be very clean. If he has white socks, they need to glisten. If it’s a recognized division, he also should have his feet painted as well as his mane and tail neatly braided. He should be clean under his tail as well—a pet peeve of mine. The tack should be clean and fit properly and the saddle pad should be super white and fit the saddle correctly. 

As for the rider, starting at the top, she should have a properly fitted helmet with hair neatly contained in a hairnet as well as a nicely fitted riding jacket that is flattering and clean, polished boots. Though I am a traditionalist, I do like the high-tech fabrics that are being used today. I guess it goes without saying that I don’t care for bling on clothes, tack, spurs and stirrup irons.

So now you’ve got the picture of appearance. Let’s go a few more steps to raising that score!


 In an equitation flat class, try to enter the ring as soon as the gate is opened and show off what you do best as you make an early pass by the judge’s stand. Once the class is called to order, position yourself away from the crowd. It is not the judge’s responsibility to find you. Make it easy—without being obnoxious—by placing yourself in front of her. For example, if the judge is on the outside of the ring, when you pass, make sure you are by yourself and far enough into the ring so she can see you. Move your number very slightly to the outside so the judge can see it. Avoid being so close to her that she can’t see your leg. You want to be seen with your horse as an entirety. When you are on the opposite side of the ring, make sure you are not hidden by another rider so when the judge looks straight across the ring, there you are! The placement of the riders in the arena is constantly changing so you need to be very conscious of where the others are. This requires you to have eyes in the back of your head as well as in the front. 

When it’s time to line up, head for the center of the lineup. Make it easy for the judge to write your number down on top. Also, remember you are being judged from the time the class is called to order until the ribbons are handed out, so while you are standing in line, continue to maintain your position with your reins short enough to have contact of your horse’s mouth. Sit at attention.

To ride a course, walk into the ring with your reins the length you will use them for the round as well as a plan that shows the judge you understand the questions of the course and you are confident. Wear a confident expression and don’t make odd faces when you’re jumping. Remember this is a horse show. You never want to go into the ring still discussing the course with your trainer. Be prepared before you ride through the in-gate.


The under-saddle class results can be improved as well with a few simple tips. Focus on many of the details described above, such as horse and rider turnout and placement in the ring. In addition, make sure to show off your horse’s trot by sending him out of the end of the ring with his hindquarters underneath and his shoulders swinging. This will make him move a little better than just poking along. Of course, you don’t want to run him off his feet or cause him to break into the canter so use good judgment. Make sure his canter is even, smooth and balanced. Keep a light contact with his mouth. It’s not a pleasure class, so you don’t want long reins. 

One more thing: When you are in a model class where his conformation is also judged, you can help your horse or pony obtain a better ribbon by not only standing him up properly but by continually showing him off. Encourage him to prick his ears and look bright. The judges go up and down the line and then get together and take another look at the horses. Show off your horse until the class is pinned. Watch the judges, and don’t look bored and defeated. Keep your horse looking interested as well. If he looks dull and sleepy, you could move down in the line. Just last week, we had a ring conflict and asked a Junior to jog and model one of our horses. Apparently she either forgot her instructions or got as bored as she looked. Soon the horse took on the same bored expression as the handler and they promptly got moved down one place. Now, I’m not saying that wouldn’t have happened with our professional rider standing at the helm, but it’s food for thought.

These ideas are meant to be helpful and not a guarantee of a blue ribbon. The rider I am attempting to help must ride well and the horse has to move adequately well for these ideas to effectively produce a higher score.

Good luck showing and always love and care for your horse regardless of the color of the ribbon!

Trainer Holly Hugo-Vidal judges and gives clinics around the country. Her mentors include Victor Hugo-Vidal and Rodney Jenkins. She is the author of the book Build Confidence Over Fences! Holly currently trains horses and riders at Brownwood Farm in Alpharetta, GA.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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