Hunter Derbies

Not just for the elite anymore

Preparing former jumper Private Practice for the 2018 Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, Tori Colvin focused on exercises that would “make him ‘hunter-y’ and have him more relaxed.” She avoided things that would remind him of the jumpers, like fences without ground lines. Photo: Tricia Booker

Ten years ago, the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association introduced the hunter derby, a two-round class designed to bring more athleticism, bravery and brilliance into the hunter ring, initially just at the international level. It has been so popular that USHJA has since created similar opportunities for riders at other levels, ranging from introductory, or “outreach,” derbies to pony derbies and national derbies.

This year alone, more than 2,300 horses and ponies were entered in USHJA-sanctioned hunter derbies. Why so much growth in derby competitions? For professionals, these competitions offer large cash purses and can be a good venue to showcase and sell talented hunter prospects. Derbies offer juniors and amateurs an intriguing format that encourages them to learn new skills and ride more challenging courses. Like the international derbies, national and pony events held at rated shows offer prize money, which engenders more excitement for riders and spectators alike.

In 2019, pony riders will have the opportunity to compete at one of two championships offered on either coast. The USHJA Pony Hunter Derby East and West Coast Championships will be held at the Kentucky Summer Classic, July 30 to August 4, in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Blenheim Fall Tournament, September 11 to 15, in San Juan Capistrano, California, respectively.

Liza Boyd believes that practicing wider oxers and triple bars at home helped Clemens (and third-place Tradition) stretch a bit over the wide oxers in the classic round at this year’s derby final. Photo: Tricia Booker

What is a Hunter Derby?

Most hunter derbies are run as a two-round competition. Both rounds typically include natural fences reminiscent of the hunt field, such as stone walls, logs, brush jumps, white board fences, post-and-rail jumps, gates, coops, banks and ditches. Longer than a standard hunter course, the classic round incorporates in-and-outs, bending lines, lines on unrelated distances and fences with long approaches.

The top-scoring competitors in the classic round come back to ride the handy round, which includes a trot fence, rollbacks and tight turns to show off the horse’s rideability. Riders earn extra points for demonstrating handiness. In both rounds, they can select jumps with higher height options to earn additional bonus points. The combination of scores from the two rounds determines the winner.

The pony and outreach derbies offer slightly modified versions of this format. Pony courses do not have high options. Outreach derbies, held at both rated and unrated local shows, combine the two rounds into a single round that incorporates both classic and handy elements.

Fences in pony derbies are set at 2-foot-3, 2-foot-6 and 2-foot-9 to 3-foot for small, medium and large ponies, respectively. Outreach derbies are set at 2-foot-6 with three high-option fences set at 2-foot-9. National derbies are set at 3-foot, with four high options at 3-foot-5, and international derbies are 3-foot-6 to 4-foot, with up to four high-option fences at 4-foot-3.

Liza (riding Tradition) says her plan for the handy round was to have some pace in the beginning over the first three, less technical jumps. “In the middle part, I needed to be handy and cautious. Then, once I jumped that last in-and-out, I could gallop to the final oxer.” Photo: Tricia Booker

Tips from the Top

Hunter derbies are great training grounds for all riders. In this year’s Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship in Kentucky, returning champion Tori Colvin won on Brad Wolf’s Private Practice; Liza Boyd was reserve champion on Clemens, owned by Westerly Farm and her family’s Finally Farm, and third on Maggie Hill’s Tradition. Holly Shepherd won the classic round and finished fourth overall on Tybee, owned by Helen Brown. 

All three of these elite riders say the skills you develop to navigate a derby will make you a better competitor in the regular hunter divisions. If you’re considering giving a derby a try, here are their thoughts and tips.

How are derbies different from regular hunter classes?

“Derbies are a great mix between the hunters and jumpers,” says Tori. “Some of the jumps can be spooky. And the two-round format brings more of a jumper feel to the ring.”

Liza adds: “The first round is single fences, lines and bending lines—the same things you would see in a hunter classic, maybe just more of them. The handy round is similar to a handy round in a hunter class, but longer and asking more questions and adding more difficulty.”

Because the courses are longer and the arenas are often bigger, derbies require horses to be fitter. Tori rode Private Practice twice a day for a month before the derby finals.

How can I tell if my horse will be suitable for derbies?

Most adult and junior hunters can be trained to be derby horses, says Liza. “Over the years that has evolved. In the beginning, we were using equitation horses and jumper types for derbies. But we realized that these hunters can do more than we thought they could.”

The best derby horses are calm and brave, says Tori. “I look for a very easygoing horse who’s not spooky and doesn’t have problems with many things. … Handiness is the top thing. You could come back seventh in the classic round and move right up to the top on a handy horse. If your horse can turn tight, come back for round two and go for it!”

At the upper levels, she adds, mileage and scope are also key. The fences are more technical and difficult, so it helps to have a horse who can get himself out of tricky situations. “For example, this year at derby finals there was a triple combination. If a rider came in a little tight, her horse had to have the scope to handle that and not struggle.”

“For me, heart comes first,” says Holly. “To ride around a derby course the way it should be ridden, you have to have a horse who wants to partake 100 percent of the time. You should not be worried about him having the heart or scope to jump the fence you are asking him to jump … . And you need a horse who is careful: You want to be able to ride up to a jump and not worry about him having a hard rub when you get there.”

What rider skills do hunter derby competitions develop?

“Derbies have made all of us better riders,” says Liza. “They certainly challenge the top tier of riders, but they also teach amateurs and kids new skill sets. You have to be a strong rider; you cannot just sit and look pretty. You have to be effective—which is what riders should be anyway. It’s important that all of us be a little bit of a jumper rider. We should look like ballerinas but ride as strong as football players.”

Tori believes that the two-round format teaches you both to ride consistently and to be ready to adapt your strategy. “You can’t just be brilliant in one round. You could get 100 in the first round, go back in the handy, ride poorly and be out with no ribbon. Or maybe you are 11th out of 12 riders called back for the handy. The worst you can do is end up 12th, so go in and be the handiest you can go. Give it your all!”

How should I prepare for my first derby?

Even if you have a levelheaded horse, says Tori, be sure to test him at home over spooky courses. “You want to make sure that he is ready and solid, especially if you’re a nervous type of rider. Build a course with bending lines, high options, some spooky fences. Set up a trot fence. Get yourself and your horse used to jumping these things, so you are not thrown into a shocking situation at the show.”

Holly, too, recommends practicing lots of trot jumps of different types. “We’ve jumped logs, large brush jumps, split-rail trot jumps. It is important to have that trot jump go well. Too many times, you have a beautiful round and the horse takes a misstep at the trot jump. It does seem like the hardest challenge, even for all of us professionals.

“Make sure your horse is willing to do things that are asked,” she continues. “I add a lot of diversity in course design at home. We do more circle work with jumps off of turns, some gymnastics in the bends, landing on different leads. Landing one lead and then the other is very important. We jump more natural obstacles—birch rails and logs—with fewer ground lines.”

To prepare for the handy class, Holly says, “do a lot of jumps on an angle so your horse is used to jumping into the side of the ring and then rolling back. Practice jumping oxer-to-oxer combinations off some shorter turns to get your horse’s scope to come out when you really need it. Push it at home: Try to make it harder than it will be at the horse show so you’re not surprised. Practice riding a longer, difficult course, making sure you get the whole job done.”

Holly explains that it’s also important to get accustomed to riding forward, as that’s what derby judges reward. “Most juniors and amateurs tend to want to ride backward. They don’t trust that gallop at the start. It can take your breath away and make you doubt your decisions on distances.” Practice galloping at home, she says, until it feels natural for both you and your horse.

Liza also suggests practicing rollbacks and holding the lead on a bending line. She recommends riding at different times of the day, taking clinics with trainers from a variety of disciplines and setting competition goals leading up to the derby. “Take your horse to a big show where he will see different types of jumps, skinny fences or fences with no ground lines. Riding in an Ariat National Adult Medal or children’s medal equitation class is also a good way to introduce your horse to these challenges. Or enter a jumper class—don’t worry about the time, but ride the bending lines and turns as a practice for the derby. Sometimes stepping away from the hunter ring and going to the other rings is helpful. Use those skills to come back to the hunter derbies.”

If you have access to trails, Liza adds, ride your horse outside the ring. “Initially, Clemens was scared of water. I knew that if it rained I would be in trouble, as he didn’t like puddles. So we rode him on the trails and through puddles to desensitize him to the water.” This training paid off when it rained during the classic round at this year’s derby final.

How do I acclimate my horse to the derby atmosphere?

Part of the excitement of riding in derbies, says Tori, is the atmosphere created by the bigger crowds they draw. This can affect even calm horses and those with jumper experience. At big shows, derbies are often held in the evenings, under the lights, which can make horses spookier. Tori’s general advice is: “Do more prep and work your horse a little harder before the class to ensure he will be quiet. If you’re riding under lights, assume your horse is going to go in and light up a little.”

“Go to a local horse show that has a class at five o’clock, when there are people there talking,” Liza recommends. “Expose your horse to those things when the jumps are smaller to get him used to the atmosphere and the lights. Do as many things as you can to take chance away and be prepared—that is my philosophy. I like to go into something knowing I’ve done pretty much everything I can do.”

If your derby is going to be a night class and you can’t make it to another venue to practice, says Holly, “get your horse out in the evenings at home. Try to find some lighting that he has to get used to. Maybe ride under a spotlight at home—or even car lights, if necessary!”

How can I prepare myself mentally and manage nerves for a derby class?

Derby courses are longer and harder to memorize, says Liza. To make this less overwhelming, she recommends inspecting the course early and breaking it into three parts. “Then go in and get part one done, take a breath. Then execute part two. Breathe. Then tackle part three.”

To minimize her nerves before big competitions, Liza’s strategy is to seek solitude earlier in the day. “As you get older, you know what works for you. I try to get away from people. I sit by myself, go over my course with a core group of friends. I go to the stands, I visualize, I work on my breathing and just stay alone.”

Even with these tools, she still found herself getting nervous at derby finals this year. “I kept telling myself to grab something that takes the nerves away. I couldn’t quite get that the first day. And then I reminded myself, ‘What do you think people representing our country at the World Equestrian Games feel like with all their teammates relying on them?’ So I said to myself, ‘I am just going to let go of my nerves and do the best that I can.’”

Tori tells her students who are stressed about derbies, “however it happens, it happens. If you frame it as the biggest class you’ve ever done, you’ll tend to overthink it a bit. That hurts your riding. Just think of it as a regular class. Do your best and have fun.”

Stick to the plan you devised while examining the course, says Holly. “Before you go in the ring, feel that you want to win, whether you think you can or not. You have to say to yourself: ‘100 percent, I’ve got this.’ Don’t doubt yourself. You have the training. Believe you can canter down there and get that job done.”

After Tybee made an exceptional effort over fence three in the classic round, rider Holly Shepherd says, “It started to pour down rain. I was just clamping on, praying to the jump gods, hoping that my scores would match that jump.” Photo: Tricia Booker

Final Advice for Riders New to Derbies

“Be prepared, be organized, practice at home and be good with the situation,” says Tori. “It’s experience, it’s practice—and you are only going to get better.”

Remember, says Liza, “you have to start somewhere. The first time you do it, take the low options, ride a bit more conservatively. Grow from there, practice and learn from it. But go in and have fun!”

With a few derbies under your belt, you’ll develop the confidence to begin picking up more bonus points by jumping higher options and making tighter turns. To demonstrate the brilliance that derby judges are looking for, says Holly, you have to know your horse. “Every horse has some good qualities and some weaker. Some horses ride verticals to verticals differently or might be weaker off of one lead and need more time off of that lead. You have to know where to use your ability to get your best jump. Bring out your horse’s best as often as you can. Mostly, I like to get out of the tack and gallop around—and have a good time!” 

This story was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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