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!
1. Pick Up—and Keep—A Good Hunter Pace
The Challenge: In a big derby ring, the judges want to see your horse cantering forward as if he were out on the hunt field with what we call “a good working canter.” But it’s human nature for all of us to start the course a little weak and to lose the pace on the turns. Given the complexity of a derby course, establishing and keeping the right pace are critical skills for any derby rider.
Your Goal: Understand the feeling of the right pace for you and your horse–the working canter that lets your horse shine over fences. You should be able to walk in the ring and quickly create this pace and then—using invisible aids—keep it consistent throughout the course as you navigate the fences, turns and other tests. The more you practice, the more seamless this will become.
The Exercise: You need four pieces of ribbon or brightly colored rope—anything that you can see easily from horseback will do the trick. Tie these markers at uneven intervals around your ring, at least six or seven strides apart.
Step 1: Pick up the canter in a half seat, with your upper body in front of the vertical, and head down the rail toward the first marker. When you get there, lighten your half seat. Push your horse forward into a good working canter. Imagine that you need enough canter to comfortably ride down to a big oxer—your horse should feel energetic, balanced and forward. If your canter feels choppy, if your horse feels hollow in his back or if he is not connected between your leg and hand, then you need to use more leg to engage him.
Step 2: At the second marker, push further to go above the pace into a hand gallop. Add more leg and take a soft feel of your horse’s mouth as he increases his stride. You should feel more power, more energy and a longer stride from your horse. Keep that feeling.
Step 3: At the third marker, decrease your stride. Bring your upper body to a more vertical position, sit down into a full seat and then steady with leg and hand working together. This should bring your horse to a more collected canter. You should feel a shorter stride, a slower rhythm and a little less energy.
Step 4: At the fourth marker, move up to recreate your good working canter.
This is basic flatwork because in the end your derby course is just “flatwork with jumps in the way.” As you progress, your horse should become more responsive to your aids and begin to react to just the changes in your upper body and your seat. Over time, you will be able to make the transitions at the markers more promptly and more seamlessly. But the trick here is to really concentrate on how it feels when you have created your horse’s right hunter pace and recognize when you are above or below that ideal.
If you are struggling with this exercise, go back and try it at the trot—ask your horse to move up into a forward posting trot, then collect to a sitting trot. Once he has mastered that, he’ll be more likely to respond well at the canter.
2. Master the Bending Line
The Challenge: A derby course usually includes at least one bending line. When the footage is not marked on the posted course diagram, the striding is determined by the track you pick and the pace you choose to bring out your horse’s best jumping style. (Note that when the footage is indicated—for example, “110 feet” or “eight strides”—the judge will be looking for you to ideally execute the line in that number of strides.) Depending on the bend between the two fences, you may also have to execute either holding the counter canter or a smooth lead change.
Your Goal: Plan your bending line in advance. Learn to make both fences match: Find a nice distance in, keep a consistent tempo and a smooth track, then find a nice distance out.
The Exercise: Start with the fences low so you can focus on mastering the track. Set two fences (a vertical to an oxer) on a bending line to the right, eight strides apart. This should measure 110 feet from center to center, but you can set it a few feet shorter if you have a small ring or if you are riding a short-strided horse. Walk the line and identify a gentle bending track between the two fences that measures eight strides.
Three strides in front of the vertical, place two short PVC poles (about 3 feet long) on the ground at a 90-degree angle to the fence (see Diagram A above). These poles will help you set up the right angle to the vertical as you go through the exercise. I like to use PVC poles as they do not hurt the horse if he accidentally bumps them.
Step 1: Canter to the vertical straight on, riding between the PVC poles. Land straight and canter forward, then follow the gentle bending line to ride an easy eight strides to the oxer.
Step 2: Now for training purposes—riding the exact line that you want—try to execute the line with more bend and an extra stride. Move the PVC poles to the right, forcing a more acute angle to the left over the vertical fence (see Diagram B above) and a deeper bending line to the oxer. This time you should ride the line in nine strides.
Step 3: As you jump on more of an angle from right to left, it is likely that your horse will land on the left lead. This gives you the opportunity to practice a lead change at the point in the line of changing direction. Set up a cone at the apex of the turn and practice getting your lead change promptly at that point.
If you are riding a bending line that is very gentle and your horse lands on the wrong lead, you are better off not risking a missed lead change—so just hold that lead down to the oxer. When your trainer thinks you and your horse are ready, you should practice the counter canter in your flatwork, then practice holding it on a less acute bending line.
3. Make Peace with the Trot Fence
The Challenge: Derby dreams are often dashed at the trot fence. Set in the middle of a course, the trot fence represents a challenging change in pace and format and is the nemesis of many good riders. But as my dad always says, “Trot fences don’t have to be great, they just have to not be bad.” You just want to avoid the duo disasters: cantering the last couple of strides or getting left behind the motion.
Your Goal: Come back from the canter to the trot smoothly at a distance from the trot fence that works for you and your horse. Then nicely jump over the trot fence and canter away with purpose.
The Exercise: Set up a small vertical with eight to 10 strides to a simple trot fence with standards and poles—in the beginning the trot fence will be just a pole on the ground. This is not about the size of the trot fence. It is about the horse and the rider getting comfortable with this test.
Step 1: Begin by cantering the vertical, come back to a nice medium posting trot and then trot the pole. Keep your eyes up. You can sit the last few strides to the pole if you like. Make sure your shoulders and your horse’s shoulders are straight to the pole. Once your horse steps completely over the pole and lands on the other side, gently push him into the canter and get a nice cadence going forward.
You are looking for the ability to come back to the perfect trot first—the perfect trot fence will come from that. You should feel a nice rhythm, a gentle spring to your horse’s stride and a ittle connection from leg to hand.
If your horse is behind your leg, you will get to the trot fence off a half stride and get a three-legged jump. If that happens, after you ride the transition to the trot, use your leg and a little cluck to get him active first. On the other hand, if your horse is grabbing the bit and trying to canter the trot fence, jump the vertical and then bring him to a halt several times until he gets the idea. Remember—horses learn by repetition.
Step 2: Build the trot pole up to a crossrail. Jump the vertical, create the right trot and keep your eyes up with your leg lightly supporting your horse as he jumps the crossrail. Make sure not to land in a heap on the backside of the fence—land and canter off with purpose. This develops the right muscle memory of immediately recreating the right pace—the canter you’ll need to finish your hunter course. Once you and your horse can manage this with ease, put the trot fence up into a small vertical and practice this until you can do it smoothly.
Step 3: Now up the ante by introducing new materials. Use a log or a small wall or drape your poles with a horse blanket. Try taking away the standards or setting a narrower fence. These variations test for a spook or a runout. The key here: Make sure you are straight and purposeful to a new or spooky fence. Hug your horse with your legs to give him confidence and momentum.
In competition, you are living on the edge until you really understand how close to the trot fence your horse can successfully make the transition from canter to trot. Start by making the transition early, perhaps eight to 10 strides back from the trot fence. Then shorten it to six or seven strides back, then four strides back. Your goal is to understand where your horse can make this transition smoothly, but the closer to the trot fence, the handier.
Keep some options set up in your ring at home and jump a few trot fences every day when you are doing your flatwork until it is not an issue for either you or your horse.
About Liza Towell Boyd
Liza Towell Boyd is one of the country’s most successful hunter riders and trainers and has won more than 25 USHJA International and National Hunter Derbies. In a historic three-peat, she rode her legendary chestnut gelding Brunello to win the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Brunello went on to be the 2015 USHJA National Horse of the Year. Liza trains at her family’s Finally Farm in Camden, South Carolina.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.