Q: How much expression in the horse are judges looking for in hunter classes? Is any allowed, or should the horse be dead quiet throughout the round?
A: This is a very timely question. I’ve heard a lot of discussion at recent judges’ clinics about how much expression (which generally describes how much enthusiasm, exuberance and—in the best cases—brilliance a horse displays) is appropriate in the hunters. The consensus is that we want to move away from the perception that every hunter should look exactly the same in the ring. We don’t want to see horses who have been drilled to the point of being dead quiet or what I call “overdone.” At the same time, we need to draw the line on expression if it diminishes the manners—and, consequently, the safety—so essential in a great hunter.
In 2012, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association made a statement advocating “allowing a horse to show expression, not to the point of it being a safety issue or significantly disrupting the round, but natural and enthusiastic about the job at hand.” In other words, we want to see the qualities for which show hunters were originally judged when their primary job was in the hunt field. An ideal foxhunter is beautifully mannered and balanced, sure-footed with a safe jumping style. He’s also smart and alert. The best foxhunters listen to the hounds and learn to anticipate what’s coming next.
In the hunt field, it’s a pleasure to be on a horse who wants to keep up with the other horses and even takes a little hold of the bit in his enthusiasm. After all, if he enjoys his job, his rider probably will, too. But you don’t want to be on a horse who pulls your arms out all day long—or one who does anything else unsafe, like bolting or bucking.
Over the years, the ideals in the show ring have evolved slightly away from those in the hunt field. Looks and movement now count more in a show hunter than they would in a foxhunter. But the fundamental qualities are still the same. Judges want to see horses with wonderful manners and safe jumping styles who also look fun to ride. A horse who pins his ears as he goes around the ring, for example, doesn’t make as good an impression as a horse with a happy, willing expression.
Most importantly, we like to see horses be horses. They should be allowed to demonstrate their individual personalities. I love to see a horse with a keen expression on his face—pricked ears and bright eyes. In fact, this extra sparkle can mean the difference in how I place a class.
The challenge for judges is to determine how much expression is too much expression. If a horse shakes his head, flips his tail or even lets out a small squeal of joy after an impressive jumping effort, that’s not the end of the world in our eyes. We can’t, however, reward a horse who plays in every corner or takes off with his rider. Safety is always our first consideration, especially in classes where riders aren’t expected to be experts. For example, in the Children’s and Amateur divisions, extreme speed must be penalized. On the other hand, in the High Performance divisions I reward a horse who shows his enthusiasm by tackling the course with a little more pace.
The bottom line is that expression should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We judges don’t like to see dull, listless horses who don’t seem to enjoy their jobs or horses so fresh they’re borderline dangerous. But there’s plenty of room in between those two extremes for horses to demonstrate their unique personalities and enjoyment of the sport.
S. Equestrian Federation “R” judge Betty Oare has spent most of her 72 years in the horse world. She rode professionally for her father, J. Arthur Reynolds, before turning amateur in 1981. She has won championships at most of the country’s top hunter shows. Her winning partners have included Gabriel, Forty Winks, Navy Commander, Spirit of Song, Freedom Rings, Fiddler’s Bridge and Estrella among many others. Based in Warrenton, Virginia, Betty still rides and shows in the Amateur-Owner hunters. She has served on several USEF and USHJA committees as well as many Virginia horse-show boards and continues to make time to do so.
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Practical Horseman