Winning an over-fences hunter class requires a combination of natural talent, excellent execution, enthusiasm and confidence, plus a little bit of luck. USEF ‘R’ judge Patrick Rodes, who has officiated at top shows such as the Washington International, the Capital Challenge, Palm Beach, the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg and the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship, says this formula has been the same for decades, but the competitiveness of horses and riders has improved dramatically. “Horses are so well trained and riders are so much better these days. It blows my mind how good some of these Juniors and even kids on ponies are. They have a great feel.”
As a consequence, it’s often subtle differences that put one horse-and-rider combination over another in the final placings. So your job is to squeeze the most points out of your round. Before you step into the ring, though, understand that the judges are rooting for you. USEF ‘R’ judge Chris Wynne, who has officiated at major shows such as Devon, Washington, the Derby Championship and the Pennsylvania National, explains, “I’m not trying to find what you’ve done wrong. I’m trying to find something you and your horse have done well, even if that’s just a beautiful hunter circle at the end of your round.” A judge’s job isn’t to be a scorekeeper, he says, counting negatives, like rubs. “We recognize the mistakes, but reward the positives.”
It Starts with the Horse
The biggest factor in a winning round is the quality of the horse. Both Chris and Patrick want to see a horse with natural athletic talent and presence. “I relate our sport to lots of other sports,” says Chris. “Athletes like [basketball star] LeBron James and [football star] Tom Brady have a cockiness about them. I want to see the same in a horse—not a dull, machine-like animal.”
“I like horses who are really athletic, spectacular,” says Patrick. “If a horse wows me with quality movement and jumping style, I’ll overlook some mistakes and pick it over a horse that goes around and doesn’t make any mistakes but is a little flat and plain.”
In over-fences classes, jumping style is the most important quality. “A tie goes to the better jumper, not the prettier horse or better mover,” says Chris.
Talented hunters slow down on takeoff to jump up and around the fences, says Patrick, rather than “just picking up their legs and speed-bumping over them. They stay round in the air, follow through with their hind ends [flexing the joints in their hind legs] and land in the same balance and rhythm they had on takeoff.”
Quality of movement is important, but not as influential as jumping style. Patrick says that over-fences winners don’t have to move as well as under-saddle winners, but they do need enough stride to get down the distances without hurrying. He rewards horses who have “a nice, soft canter, stay in balance and look fun and comfortable to ride.” Additionally, he wants to see “a balanced horse who wears his head and neck out softly and goes around the ring in a nice, soft feel, not pulling on the bridle.”
Another quality judges are looking for is expression. “I love a horse that pricks his ears up and wears them all around the course, looking like he likes his job,” says Patrick.
If that enthusiasm goes a little over the top sometimes, adds Chris, that’s often forgivable. “They don’t have to be robots.” Say the crowd goes wild after an especially good round and the horse reacts with a playful head toss. “I’m OK with that. I’m excited too!” He doesn’t mind horses celebrating, for example, after a big effort over an oxer so long as their exuberance doesn’t break up the flow of the round or pose a danger for the rider. This also depends on the division. “If it’s an Adult Amateur division and that playfulness could be unsafe for that particular rider, I have to penalize it.”
When it comes to gauging the highest-quality horses, judges have realistic expectations, he adds. “Every show is not Devon. If I’m at a 4-H show, I may judge a little on a curve. If you just had the trip of your life on a 15.1-hand Quarter Horse, I will reward you for that. In his own environment, he’s a contender.”
Make a Great First Impression
Regardless of how fancy your horse is, give him the best chance at a ribbon by maximizing his strengths—starting with a terrific first impression. By all means, get to the ring on time. “Most of our days are fairly long,” says Patrick. “We know people are busy, but we don’t want to get to the end of the class and have to wait on somebody.”
How well you care for and groom your horse can give you an edge from the moment you step into the ring. Chris explains, “A beautiful horse—not necessarily conformationally, but his coat, his weight, his turnout—makes a big difference.”
Judges look at the whole picture, says Patrick. “Is your horse turned out well? Are your boots polished? Does your coat fit? If the overall look and appearance is happy and balanced and the horse has a certain presence, I get excited to watch your round.”
What you do next sets the tone for the judge. Chris and Patrick like to see a rider start the round efficiently and confidently with an “I got this!” attitude. “Pick up a nice gallop in a rhythm and pace that suits your horse, then go straight to the first jump,” advises Patrick. “Don’t tour the whole ring.”
If your horse is spooky, try not to overreact, says Chris. “If you need to show him everything in the ring before you start, that’s not exuding confidence. It draws the judges’ attention to the issue and makes us look for the spookiness throughout the rest of the round.”
Throughout your round, focus on three things: pace, rhythm and track. A good pace is the best way to show off your horse’s jumping style, says Chris. “Riders who are more comfortable keeping pace around the turns and all the way to the jumps usually score higher than cautious people who slow down to find their distances, are too careful around the corners, add strides out of the turn and try not to make mistakes.”
Patrick agrees. “I like to see people stay on a better lick.” So long as the horse is in balance, he says, he’d rather see riders a touch forward to the jumps than underpaced.
However, the pace must be even and under control, cautions Chris. “The best riders start and finish the course at the same speed and rhythm. There are variations along the way—but no great variations.” He teaches his students to think of their show pace as their third gear. “If you need to change that to second or fourth every once in a while, that’s OK. But always go back to third gear. And never skip a gear—going from third to fifth or third to first.”
Unless you’re riding in a handy class, he adds, choose the smoothest track possible, using the entire ring. “Turns are there for you to reorganize yourself. Take the time to use them. Don’t take inside turns or short approaches. Use your pace to make up the difference instead of making the ring smaller.”
As you plan your track, be very conscious of your straightness. “I like a horse to stay very straight,” says Patrick. “I definitely have to deduct points for a horse drifting to one side on takeoff.”
Stay Out of Your Horse’s Way
Both judges agree that anything a rider does to distract their attention from the horse can potentially bring down the score. “We’re judging the horse,” says Chris. “If you’re tall, short, heavy, thin, that really doesn’t affect me. But if you’re unbalanced, sooner or later that will throw your horse’s balance off and affect his jump.” Judges aren’t looking for perfect equitation in the hunter ring, he says, but they do reward riders whose balanced, flowing style enables their mounts to jump in their best-possible form. Three great examples, he says, are professionals Liza Boyd, John French and Hunt Tosh.
One of Patrick’s favorite horse-and-rider combinations was Tori Colvin and Dr. Betsee Parker’s now-retired champion hunter Way Cool. “Tori has a great soft feel for hunters,” he says. “Once, at Hampton Classic, I gave them a score of 98—my highest ever given.” Tori and Way Cool even scored a perfect 100 in a Junior Handy Hunter class at the 2015 Upperville Colt and Horse Show in Virginia.
A rider who gives a release over the jumps that allows the horse to use his head and neck in beautiful style will be rewarded. In contrast, Chris says, “I’ll deduct for a rider who otherwise looks correct in the saddle but has a stiff arm and an inadequate release that inhibits or restricts the horse’s style.”
Judges also reward rounds that are executed especially smoothly. That means you have to know your horse well. For example, some horses perform flying changes best immediately after a jump. Others have been trained to slow down and organize to make the change. “Where you do it doesn’t matter,” says Chris, “so long as you execute it smoothly before you actually change your direction.” On the other hand, he penalizes riders who pull their horses’ heads dramatically to the side to force a rough change. “Anytime you make a big production for something to happen, that’s a deduction.”
This rule holds true for any mistake on course, be it major or minor. If you handle small things—like a rub, stumble or small spook—calmly, you’re still in the hunt, Chris says. But if you panic and overreact, “that kills your score. The more times your actions tell me, ‘I’m having a problem,’ the lower your score is going to be.” There are different degrees of mistakes, of course, but regardless of what problems arise, be aware that your reaction to them can further affect your score by as many as 10 or 15 points.
Luck and Human Factors
Theoretically, everything that happens during your round will affect your score. “I try to keep my eye on the horse from the time he walks in until the time he leaves,” says Chris. At some point, though, all judges have to glance down at their cards. “And we can’t punish something that we didn’t see. That’s not fair.” So keep that in mind if you or your horse makes a mistake on course. If you can, carry on as if nothing happened—just in case the judge missed it!
Meanwhile, accept that some factors are completely out of your control. For example, where judges are positioned around the ring can influence their decisions. Two judges sitting at different locations—and thus seeing the course from different angles—might give your round dissimilar scores.
Although most judges agree on what horses are exceptionally athletic and what rounds are well executed, their personal preferences do come into play as well. For example, says Patrick, “If I had two equal rounds, I’d pick the more refined, classic Thoroughbred look to heavier-boned types.” He has a special soft spot for mares. “If you have an athletic 15.3-hand chestnut mare who pricks her ears around the course, bring it on!”
One mare who Chris says epitomizes this classic hunter look is Surely, Chelsea Ireland’s winning mount in the $10,000 North American League Adult Hunter Finals at the 2014 Pennsylvania National Horse Show.
Judges also draw on their own personal riding experiences, says Chris. “If I see a horse do something and think, ‘I hate it when horses do that,’ I’ll penalize it because I know I would find that uncomfortable as a rider.” Since everybody’s experiences are different, judges don’t all zero in on the same things. “We’re harder on things that have been a big deal to us personally.”
Even small details can influence a judge’s opinion, says Patrick. “I like more traditional clothing—not a lot of sparkles on the helmet. I’m not in love with the new shorter-cut jackets or breeches with logos on them. I prefer navy or dark green jackets, no loud colors or extra piping.”
However factors like these influence your score in the end, remember that the judge’s focus is still going to be primarily on your horse, says Chris. “I’m always going to go back to the horse to make my decision.”
This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.