Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation

By Anna Jane White-Mullin

Frank Madden writes in his intro to Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation: “Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation, now in its fourth edition, has been a useful tool for judges and exhibitors since it was first published. Explaining the judging standards of the sport and giving photographic examples of good and bad aspects of performances of both horse and rider, it was viewed at its inception as a companion to the rule book and endorsed by the American Horse Shows Association [now United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)] at its convention in Williamsburg,Virginia, in January 1985.” 

We are thrilled to include an excerpt from the new volume, focusing on Hunter Classes Over Fences. Examining and outlining what judges are looking for in today’s hunt classes is extremely helpful for riders and trainers trying to unpack the subjectivity of hunters and better understand how horses are judged, the faults at play, and how to use this information to their advantage in the ring. 

Enormous thanks to Trafalgar Square Books for providing this excerpt. 

The Ideal Hunter 

What are the components of an ideal performance in a hunter class over fences? First, the ideal horse will meet each fence at the correct takeoff spot for a perfect arc over the obstacle. Its jump will be “snappy” and athletic, with the forearms held at or above a parallel line to the ground, the joints of the front legs tucked tightly in front of its chest, and the neck and back arched over the fence (figs. 2.1 A & B). It will begin its round at a pace suited to the size of the fences and sustain this pace for the entire trip, staying straight through its body when negotiating fences on a straight line and bending in the direction of travel on the corners of the ring. 

That’s the ideal, but in judging you rarely observe this flawless performance, so let’s look at faults you may see while judging a hunter class over fences and consider the degree of penalty for each. 

Form Faults Associated with Long Spots 

The worst error in a class over fences is a “risky” fence in which the horse leaves the ground dangerously far from the base of the obstacle. An animal that realizes it has left the ground too far from the base of a fence may try to put its feet back on the ground on the near side of the obstacle and crash through the fence; or a horse may flail its legs in an effort to propel itself in the air and barely clear the obstacle. Another drastic alternative is “diving”: the horse stretches its front legs so far forward in an effort to clear the rails that it appears to be diving toward the ground (figs. 2.3). Any of these desperate actions should keep a horse out of the ribbons unless the class is so small or the trips so bad that you have no other choice.

“Reaching” and “cutting down” are less dangerous methods of dealing with a risky spot, but are still major faults. In “reaching,” a mild form of diving, the horse tries to clear the obstacle by stretching its front legs forward—beyond their normal position in the air (fig. 2.4). In “cutting down,” the horse unfolds it legs early on the far side of the fence, landing closer to the center of the fence on the far side than its takeoff was to the center on the near side (figs. 2.5 A & B). Cutting down demonstrates lack of scope, since a more athletic horse in the same situation would leave from the long distance, make its arc higher than the size of the fence demanded (though appropriate to the takeoff spot), and land as far from the fence on the far side as it took off from the fence on the near side.

Unless the horse that cuts down also carries a rail to the ground with its hind feet, you should penalize this fault less severely than reaching. The reasoning is that in reaching, the horse risks catching its front limbs on the obstacle and possibly flipping over in the air. In cutting down, the horse risks catching its hind limbs on the obstacle—a fault that has much less potential danger for the rider and horse. (As a rule, front-end errors are more heavily penalized than hind-end errors.) 

In a class consisting only of the horses mentioned, you would pin as follows: sixth, the horse that tried to put its feet back on the ground on the near side of the fence and crashed; fifth, the horse that flailed its legs but cleared the fence; fourth, the horse that dove over the fence; third, the horse that reached; and second, the one that cut down. The winner would be the athletic horse that compensated for the long spot with an even arc. 

2.5 A & B When a horse “cuts down,” the takeoff spot is much farther from the fence than the landing spot. This horse is leaving the ground at least 6 feet from the obstacle (A), but is landing about 2 feet from it (B). The sharp downward angle on landing is the reason it is called “cutting down”.

Form Faults Associated with Short Spots 

When a horse leaves the ground from a spot too close to the fence—whether the rider has placed it there or the horse happened to meet that spot through lack of rider assistance—the animal should compensate for the deep spot by bringing its hocks well under its body on the takeoff stride and rocking backward slightly more than it would for a medium spot, so that its legs will be away from the rails. A talented, athletic horse will get its rider out of trouble this way, but a lazy or untalented one will hit the top of the fence with its front feet. 

Even worse than the horse that doesn’t mind touching the fence is the one that hangs its legs down toward the fence when placed at a deep spot. Not only is hanging visually unattractive, but it should be penalized severely for safety reasons: a horse that hangs its front legs could catch one or both of its forelimbs on the top of the obstacle and have aserious accident (figs. 2.6 A–C). Front and hind legs should be neatly tucked while jumping so there is no danger of the animal entangling itself in the rails. You should penalize a horse that hangs even if it doesn’t touch the rails, for the Rule Book directs that “Judges must penalize unsafe jumping and bad form over fences, whether touched or untouched.” 

In judging only these horses that have taken off from deep spots, place third the horse that is lazy with its legs and hangs. Pin second the horse that remains in good form but has a front-end touch, and place first the horse that rocks back at takeoff and copes with its placement in an athletic manner. 

Your key to success in the hunter and equitation ring, from one of the sport’s classic judges and competitors, completely revised for today’s rider. 

ANNA JANE WHITE-MULLIN began riding when she was five years old. Competing in major horse shows on the East Coast, Ms. White-Mullin won junior hunter and equitation championships at many noteworthy shows. In 1971, she won the Alfred B. Maclay Finals on her horse, Rivet, and was awarded a gold medal for winning 20 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Classes. After graduating from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Ms. White-Mullin continued her equestrian activities as a Registered (Big “R”) judge in the hunter, hunter seat equitation, and jumper divisions. In 1986, she was a panelist at U.S. Equestrian’s Hunter Seat Equitation Judges Clinic in San Francisco, presenting a slide show based on her book, Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation. Subsequently, these slides were added to the permanent files of U.S. Equestrian. 

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