Hunting for Perfection

Riding Cuba, Tori Colvin faced a handy course designed for scope and smooth horsemanship at the 2017 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship.
FENCE 1: This year’s USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship winner, Tori Colvin galloped up to the inviting 3-foot-10-inch hollow log. © Shawn McMillen PHOTOGRAPHY

Sometimes a little self-doubt can do the trick. Tori Colvin was halfway through a beautiful handy round on John and Stephanie Ingram’s Cuba when the takeoff on Fence 6, a big oxer right in front of the VIP stand, was a little slower than she expected. Cuba jumped well but rubbed the rail. Tori thought she might have lost her opportunity to win the derby championship.

“And I thought—me being myself—well, that is the end, it’s over,” Tori explained. “Because I like to be perfect and it wasn’t perfect, so I thought we didn’t have a chance. Which was probably beneficial because after that I rode like I thought I was now going to get second. I rode it to be as handy and as tight as I could to get extra points.

“I always try extra hard, but that extra extra kicked in and I tried to be extraordinary.”

Tori’s determination created a handy round score of 309 and a combined score of 584.25 to secure the win in the 2017 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Championship for Cuba, a 10-year-old bay warmblood gelding who just began competing in derbies earlier this year. And it was the first win in the derby championship for Tori, 19, who turned professional in 2016.

The championship includes a classic round and a handy round, both held in the Rolex Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. This year, the courses were designed by Alan Lohman and Danny Moore, and the handy course was intended to reward trips that displayed both athleticism and control.

“A smooth ride will excel,” Alan explained. “You have enough high options so a rider who is going to do a nice smooth ride and get the best jump from the horse will do well.”

The final was the culmination of more than 75 derby events during the qualifying period. Of the 84 horses competing in the championship this year, 25 horses advanced to Section A of the handy round Aug. 19. Six judges, in three judging panels of two, scored each horse-and-rider pair. Riders earned an extra point from each panel for each high option that was taken and could earn up to 10 bonus points from each panel for handiness. The combined score from both rounds determined the winner.

Tori was sitting in third place going into the handy round behind John French on two mounts, Center Court and Skyhawk. Her handy round score was the highest of the evening and included handy bonus points of 9, 9 and 10 from the three judging panels.

Judge Danny Robertshaw said that Tori’s ride in the handy was ideal in that she picked up a good gallop at the in-gate and never changed her pace, even throughout the tight turns. “That is where Tori excels—not one fence was different from the next. She rode it all the same,” Danny explained. “And that made a difference. A lot of people don’t understand this—that being handy is one thing but being handy and still being a hunter is another.”

Danny added that Cuba matched Tori’s style and consistency throughout the course. “He jumped everything the same. He was crisp and high over the jumps,” he said. “If that was the first horse you ever saw do a handy round, you would say that looks fun, that looks simple. And of course, it’s not.”

Tori recently started riding horses for the Ingrams and trainer Tom Wright out of Nashville, Tennessee. She said the win was even more special as the Ingrams had bought Cuba earlier in the year and no one on the team really knew how the horse would perform under the bright arena lights at the derby championship.

“That class was a tough one because they don’t really know him yet and I don’t know him as well as I would have hoped. I rode him before the class and I thought, ‘I think he is good.’ The problem was we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t want him to be too quiet and have a rail or have him too fresh and have him spook under lights,” she said.

Here is a fence-by-fence breakdown of the handy round, including Tori’s thoughts on how she navigated this challenging course and Alan’s comments on the horse-and-rider skills he was hoping to test.

Fence 1: Natural Log

Height: 3 feet 10 inches

Construction: A hollow log lying on its side with natural flowers inserted in holes in the log. Standards made from upright logs. Smaller branches and brush at ground line.

Course Designer Notes: I set this fence a good distance away from the in-gate. I also judge, so I wanted to make sure the judges have a little time to see the horses as they enter and the horses have a little time to get going. Then after Fence 1, there were two tight turns, so I wanted to let riders get a little more horse to help make those turns if they chose to take them.

Tori: When I came into the ring, I wanted to get a nice gallop for the start and then stick to that pace. I got to that canter quickly.

I wasn’t quite sure when I was walking the course what I was going to do. Turning left and then rolling back right to Fence 2 was difficult, but we watched a couple people do it and nobody got extra scores for taking the risk. So I took the option to jump it on the right side, ride past Fence 2 and then roll back to the left to the next jump. It was a nice first fence, inviting. You could gallop up to it and know the horses’ front ends would come up. And Cuba jumped it spectacularly.

Fence 2: Kentucky Fence

Height: 3 feet 8 inches

Construction: A white flat-board fence with three vertical panels set on a zigzag. Gray stone, red-tinted barn wings as standards. Brush and flowers set for the ground line.

Course Designer Notes: I designed the rollback to the option at the Kentucky fence because I wanted to give the riders options to differentiate themselves and show handiness early on in the course. It was an airy jump, a little more vertical. I gave them a row of flowers and brush at the bottom to encourage a better jump.

Tori: When we walked the course, I was discussing this fence with Tom, and he wanted me to do the panel on the far left (facing the fence). I wanted to do the panel on the far right. It was the handiest because I could then have a tight right turn inside Fence 1 to Fence 3.

After the log at Fence 1, I had a nice handy gallop, pulled Cuba together a bit and put my outside leg on him to make sure he was paying attention. I made sure he stayed on his lead by keeping light constant pressure with my right leg. I jumped the panel on a slight angle to the right, and he jumped it nicely.

Fence 3: Natural

Trellis Oxer

Dimensions: High option on right, 4 feet 3 inches; low option on left, 3 feet 9 inches; 4 feet 3 inches wide

Construction: Standards designed to look like a natural Asian-style trellis with natural rails. Planters filled with ferns in front. Brush at ground line.

Course Designer Notes: This was another early option for handiness. That was a hard turn inside Fence 1, probably one of the harder turns on the course with a big-option fence. It gave the horses one more chance to show off their scope. I tried to keep the course natural with a couple exceptions, so this fence was an example of what you might see out on the hunt field.

Tori: Cuba has endless scope, so before the course started we planned to do all the high options. And taking the high options was also the handiest. Usually, I like to go as handy as I can.

One downfall is sometimes I like to go too handy! Cuba kind of cuts in a bit through the turns, which is problematic for me. So when I land, he cuts in and if I turn at the same time, we are basically turning on a dime at a 4-foot-3 fence. Then you don’t have any pace to make a pretty jump, so I had to make sure I didn’t do that.

He jumped that fence on a slight angle and jumped extremely well. I got popped a little loose on that one as he jumped high.

Fences 4 and 5: Gray Stone In-and-Out

Height: Both verticals, 4 feet

Construction: Two gray stone vertical walls, each with a row of gray blocks on top. Set one stride apart. Minimum ground line; a little brush with red flowers.

Course Designer Notes: This was designed to be an early test of the horses’ carefulness. I liked having that option of a tight left turn in front of a tree back to it. It required a little bit of a bold horse with that solid in-and-out, but also a horse who would be careful with those blocks. I had set a lot of solid jumps on this course, but this in-and-out was intended to help the judges judge the class.

Tori: I am not the biggest worrier. I really go with the flow. At this point, I had jumped the third jump and I was just thinking to myself, OK, just make sure the next jumps are as good as the first three.

I landed from the third jump and immediately turned left to make that turn inside the tree. I was already putting myself on a left-to-right angle toward the first vertical of the in-and-out. I jumped in and rode it on a slight bend, so I ended up on the left side of the second vertical. It was a tight one stride so I wanted to give myself a little bit more space and the bend helped with that.

I saw a good distance in, which I wanted. You want space, not get too deep or under it because then your horse will hang his legs if you don’t have the best jumper. Cuba would have jumped it amazing either way—but I still wanted a good distance in just to be on the safe side.

Fence 6: Green and Off-White Wagon-Wheel Oxer

Dimensions: High option on right, 4 feet 6 inches; low option on left, 3 feet 10 inches; 4 feet 3 inches wide

Construction: Traditional standards with small wagon wheels at the top. Green and off-white speckled rails filled with hedges in front. Brush on ground line.

Course Designer Notes: The horses had some turns early on, then that tight in-and-out. Now I wanted them to get going again, let them gallop and let the riders get the horses in front of their leg. I set that big oxer so they could get down there and hopefully have a nice jump in front of the VIP tent.

Tori: I landed off the in-and-out going a little left so I had to straighten out a bit because the high option for the next fence was on the right. And as soon as I landed I started to pick up more of a gallop after those short turns. For me, handiness means also keeping a nice gallop where you can on the course.

This was the one particular fence on the course that I was worried about for a rub. I was extra careful with that—you were heading right into the stands. It was a big jump, airy with not as much brush as the rest, so I wanted a good gallop to get right to the base of the jump. But it came up a little slower than I had hoped—I would have liked to have had a bit more impulsion. He jumped it great but he had a slight rub.

Fence 7: Trot Fence

Height: Approximately 3 feet

Construction: Three vertical panels of natural split-rail fencing with brush at the base. Set on angles as a snake fence.

Course Designer Notes: After the gallop, I wanted them to come back to the trot fence. We see a lot of trot fences with split rails, so I wanted to make it a bit different by adding the option with the snake fence. They would get handiness points for doing the right side. It was a nice, inviting, natural trot fence. They needed to be a little careful, but the rails were secured at the top, so I didn’t think we would see many rails there.

Tori: I did the panel on the far left with a tight rollback from Fence 6. That was a big oxer to ride to then come down to the trot—really difficult—plus an inside turn to the trot fence. I made sure I got my trot before I turned because we saw some people having difficulty there. I regrouped and he came back very easily, better than expected, he was very soft.

I posted to it and sat the last few strides. Usually I sit down so that I am balanced and I get the correct distance. If you post all the time, sometimes you get a half stride or you can’t adjust as much as you’d like.

Fence 8: Natural Branch Vertical

Height: High option on left, 4 feet 6 inches; low option on right, 3 feet 9 inches

Construction: Tall natural wall with a turf rails top. Standards made out of natural tree limbs. Brush and flowers at the base.

Course Designer Notes: I thought all the horses would do the turn right inside Fence 12. That would be a smooth turn for them to the vertical. It was a solid vertical—I didn’t want anything too delicate here as I’d already tested the horses’ carefulness earlier. We put the turf rails, which don’t come down very easily, on the top. So the riders would be able to keep riding through that tight turn to that vertical and ride forward.

Tori: Every course has a “free” jump. In a jumper class it is a triple bar. So this fence was a free jump for me. The construction was nice, it was filled, there was a grass rail on top so you couldn’t hear a rub. It was less spooky compared to the rest of the course. It had an easy turn. The left side was the high option, right next to the rail. I knew I could gallop him right up to the base. Right after the trot fence, I picked up a gallop and turned as tight as I could and caught it on the forward gallop. It was a gift.

Fence 9: Whiskey Barrel Oxer

Dimensions: 4 feet high, 4 feet 6 inches wide

Construction: Standards made with barrels. Row of barrels in front of an oxer made of standard rails. Brush and yellow flowers at ground line.

Course Designer Notes: This was a right turn to a nice long run to the oxer. We had slowed them down a bit, now I wanted to get them going again as the excitement builds on the course. The riders had room to get rolling and show a good jump here.

Tori: The last four years at derby finals I haven’t had much luck—the last two years I didn’t have the best trot jump. So after the trot jump I was a little relieved.

On these last four jumps that you could jump on a gallop—they were kind of fun, almost like a jump-off. You could pick up your gallop and stick with it the whole rest of the course. Turning from Fence 8, first I made sure he didn’t swap. I could get my horse organized and then pick up a good gallop. I kept the pace I wanted through that turn then caught the oxer forward. I used a little extra leg at takeoff to get him across the width. Cuba jumped this one quite well. The commentator said, “Wow!” His hind end was pretty spectacular—he used it better here than on any other jump.

Fence 10: Hay Wagon

Dimensions: 4 feet 1 inch high, 4 feet 3 inches wide

Construction: A smaller version of a hay wagon. A row of straw bales was set at the base and in the wagon. No rails.

Course Designer Notes: It was getting down to the end of the course. We wanted to see a gallop again and a turn inside a tree and for the rider to keep going forward to the hay wagon.

Tori: I planned on landing from the oxer at Fence 9, turning immediately and then lining up a straight approach to that hay wagon on a left to right angle—that would mean extra handy points and give me a little more room for the turn to Fence 11. I tried to ride it handy and forward. Luckily, it came up out of stride.

Fence 11: Wagon-Wheel Oxer

Dimensions: 3 feet 10 inches high, 4 feet 3 inches wide

Construction: Giant wagon-wheel standards, hedge with natural rails. Brush at ground line.

Course Designer Notes: That fence was designed to slow them down, to show handiness, a tight turn option inside the tree. But the good ones were able to make that look smooth and effortless.

Tori: My favorite thing in the handy is to turn extra tight. That was a specific place where I was ready to slice the angle hard. As soon as I landed from the hay wagon, I wanted to turn to that jump, but with Cuba, I wanted to make sure I landed first! Make sure all four feet were on the ground first. Then keep the lead and turn.

It was one of the smallest jumps on the course, not that wide. It was nice to have at the end of the course because sometimes when Cuba gets tired he gets slow off the ground and doesn’t go across as you would like. I had to make sure he came off the ground because if he had hit this, it would have made a loud noise. I have never used more leg in my life.

Fence 12: Stone Pillar Oxer

Dimensions: High option on left, 4 feet 6 inches high; low option on right 4 feet high; 4 feet 6 inches wide

Construction: Turf rails set above a stone wall. Standards included three “roofs” over a stone pillar. Rows of brush as ground line.

Course Designer Notes: We wanted a good hand gallop down to Fence 12, which had a nice ramp so it is inviting to gallop to it. lt had nice turf rails, which the horses respect. A little bit of air between those turf rails tends to encourage the horse to jump up. I wanted the riders to feel that they could gallop a little bit and get a good jump in front of the spectators.

Tori: That last fence … thank you course designer! It was a grass rail so you wouldn’t be able to hear any rubs. That meant I could squeeze as hard as I wanted to on takeoff and just get him over that fence. I could ride him right up to it and know that he was going to jump well.

We did a derby in Florida and on the last jump Cuba kind of fell over because he got too tired, he wasn’t fit enough. I had that in the back of my head. I knew I needed enough energy and impulsion to get over. I got a better canter than I had had, lots of impulsion, but not long—a bouncy forward hand gallop with a lot of energy. As I turned to the fence I said to myself, “Get it together. It is going very well. Let’s make sure we jump this last jump perfect.”

The Finish

Course Designer Notes: I left that last jump far enough in front of the out-gate so that the riders were not pulling up and stopping abruptly. The horses don’t need to be pulled up by the gate with their mouths wide open. Judges don’t reward that and it is not a pretty picture for spectators. I want it to be smooth, so it is a nice gradual end. Then you get the scores in and hope it was a good class.

Tori: When I landed I thought, “That was pretty nice. Thank you, Cuba. That went so well.” But I didn’t think I was going to win. With this round I knew it was good—but I have had such bad luck at derby finals. And I thought John (French) was going to come in and have an unbelievable round. (Ultimately, John was unable to hold the lead on either of his mounts. His first ride in the handy, Center Court, had one bad fence, putting them out of the competition. John’s other ride, Skyhawk, who was last to go, had a block down at the first component of the in-and-out.)

The crowd was a bit louder than I thought, and I wasn’t prepared for that. So Cuba put his head up and I was worried he would get frisky—he knew he did well. Afterward, he got to do the pictures and the ribbons. When I rode the victory round, he was even a bit fresh—fresher than when he did the handy. And then I think he was happy as he got a lot of carrots.

This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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