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April 25, 2014

A Horse Husband's Take On The Hunter Derby

(From left) Jesse, Diane and Dev on Malloy with presenter accepting their hunter derby ribbon. Don Stine Communications & Photography Photo.

The headline event for hunters is the hunter derby.

Getting ready for the derby is kind of like getting ready for prom. Everything has to be just right. You need the perfect outfit;, your horse needs to be at the perfect weight, with the perfect up-do. Everything needs to come together perfectly at the right time. If everything goes just right, you hope to get lucky. You hope to be asked back.

Occasionally an outsider breaks through into the popular crowd, and gets crowned. It is the stuff of John Hughes films. Anyone could be the next Duckie or the next Watts, and so it is with hunter derbies—an opportunity to be part of the next compelling storyline.

The hunter derby is often catered, serving a crowd who cycles casually between a bay of round tables, the press box, and the serving table. Horses and riders are announced, sometimes with a bio, and they stride in, ride a broad circle to survey the course, and then start jumping fences.

There’s a little flexibility, and they can choose whether to jump the big fences or the little ones, and sometimes they can choose what direction they go around the course. Most of them go the same way, and then somebody does something completely different and you are like, “What just happened there?” Sometimes a rider makes a questionable decision, and the announcer calls them out of the ring. Thank you, rider. Thank you, rider.

It is like busting out your breakdancing moves at the prom, dropping down to the floor in your prom dress, and doing “the worm”. You have choices, but you don’t have THAT choice. Thank you rider, please exit the ring.

A hunter derby has two rounds, and you have to be great in the first round to get into the second, so it is different from normal hunter divisions which have a warm-up and several trips over fences to work out the kinks.

So before they get started, all the riders and horses get to walk the course. At the same time. That’s the most fascinating part for me. All the riders are dressed to the nines, the men wearing formal whites, and the women wearing shadbellies, all walking their horses around the ring. It looks like they are retracing their steps to find where they lost a ring, first we want over this fence, and then we went over here.

This is the time when riders and horses get to talk strategy. They’ll walk over to the fence and look over it, and say that doesn’t look so bad. You think we can do the high option? The fences are about mouth-high, so sometimes Malloy will pick up some of the ornamental flowers as if to say, “I’m gonna eat this course up!”

I’m not gonna lie, there is also some gamesmanship in the ring during the walk. Some horses are whinnying, some riders bring their stick in the ring, and I’ve even seen riders goose-stepping across the ring—so it’s all very serious stuff.

Competing in the derby requires a more concerted effort at the ring for the supporting staff too. Riders have a defined “order of go,” which means when their number comes up, they are ordered to go. A lot of things have to happen in the moments immediately preceding.

First and foremost, you need a bucketman to carry the bucket. Nothing happens if the bucket is not in the right place at the right time, and I attribute at least part of our recent success to excellent bucket work on my part. Next, you need someone to paint the horse’s feet before he goes into the ring. This requires leaning under a 1,200-pound horse, with a rider on top, in places the horse can’t see you where you are in relation to his feet. I am clearly not qualified for work like that.

Next, you need someone to clean the rider’s boots. Someone who knows about shoe leather, and finer leather gear—again, not me.

And then, for the derby, you need two more highly specialized skills. You need to have someone who can keep track of the scores, to see what you need to get into the second round. You need a “numbers guy” for the derby. Not that there was much of a debate, but if I ever needed to prove my worthiness for that role, I could whip out my iPhone and my degree in Electrical Engineering, and say “I got this!”

Finally, you need to have a videographer, to capture the memories without having to pay for the professional videos, and since I bought the video camera, I’ve got the inside track on that role too.

So clearly, I needed to get some help with the bucket. I’ve been doing this a while, so I have some contacts, fellow bucketeers and industry insiders I could look to. There are many qualities you look for: reliability, versatility, and ability to improvise.

But probably the most important quality is someone with a good relationship with both horse and rider—that trust factor. Luckily, I didn’t have to look far; I found the perfect in-barn person to fill the role, April Metz. Most of her recent work has been in other horse specialties—riding, showing, training, breeding; but many of those roles work with the bucket so I figured she would pick it up quickly.

She didn’t disappoint. It was like she was born and bred to work the bucket. She had a kind of sixth sense about what was needed when, where it was, and who needed it. She even seemed to anticipate how it would be used, which goes well beyond the job description. Had her horse career gone a different direction, I think she could have been one of the very best bucketmen in the industry. If you find yourself needing help with a bucket in a pinch, I highly recommend her.

The hunter derby is meant to exercise qualities needed in the foxhunting field, rewarding horses that are bold, athletic, and can maintain control over varied obstacles. I can’t help but notice a few minor contextual differences though. I’d like to see how these hunter derbies would go with a pack of hounds milling around the ring, baying and chasing riders in red jackets, but I guess that would be harder to score.

Clearly there must be some similarities, judging by the results. Both Malloy and Dev have a background on the hunt field, and they’ve done great—making it into the handy round in three out of four USHJA National Hunter Derbies so far this year.

I’ll tell you one thing, the bigger the show, the crazier the fences. There are wood piles, and bushes, and rock walls. With brambles stacked on top, no less. You have to admire the craftsmanship of the course. Maybe that’s what why they spend so much time walking the ring.

‘What is that, Dev?’

‘That’s a wood pile; we’ll just jump over it.’ ‘

‘A wood pile? It doesn’t smell like a wood pile, and look … look at this down here Dev—I think it is a fake!’

‘Okay Malloy, but we’re still just gonna jump over it just the same.’

‘Well duh, Dev, it’s not my first rodeo.’

If you do well enough in the first round, you are “called back” for the handy round. The handy round has a few monkey wrenches thrown into the course, which is probably why they call it the handy round. There are some new obstacles, typically just whatever they have laying around: a bale of hay, a pole, maybe some lawn equipment; so not hard to jump, but they are things that make your horse go “What?”

You also get extra points for making tight turns to get from fence to fence. When a derby horse makes a really tight turn, you can hear the audience let out an involuntary “oooo” sound.

There are four kinds of audience reactions you might get when watching a hunter round. One is the oooo, when the rider does something cool. Another is the “oooh”, when a rail comes down, particularly on the last fence. There is the click, click, click sound they make when the horse really needs to speed up to get over the fence. And the last one is a gasp while turning away and covering your face as the fence comes down in a clatter of rails.

Only one of those is good. When you’re in the ring, you want to hear the oooo; otherwise, you’d rather just be listening to your iPod.

Getting into the handy round is a good thing on several levels. One, you did well and you are still in the hunt to win it all, so that’s exciting. Two, you are usually in the money.

Come on, Daddy needs a new bucket!

So that’s cool. But by far the biggest reason I like getting into the handy round is I get to come into the ring to accept the ribbon, participate in the curtain call and the photo op. Those rings sure are big when you get into them, looking up at your adoring audience. The fences are impressive in all their crafty finery, and I stand by Malloy and Dev in my street clothes, waiting for the photographer to snap the perfect picture. Sometimes I’m in there for some time while a ringhand tosses flowers and sand at your horse to get them to raise their ears. You think, ‘that’s gonna get a reaction? Didn’t he just do this whole ring twice, not bothered by a thing?’

Standing out there is kind of like going to the prom as a chaperone, and then getting called on stage to be crowned prom king. Unexpected. And I always feel I should’ve dressed up a bit more. Can you see me carrying the bucket wearing a white linen shirt, a seersucker suit, slip on brown leather loafers?

You might, next time. That’s called raising your game, preparing for the possible. Better to be overdressed early in the day and picture-perfect in the ring, that’s what I always say.

Jesse married into the horse world in 2009. His wife, Diane, rides and trains with Dev Branham (on whose website these blogs are also published) in Tomball, Texas. He has ridden, if you must know, but he does not ride regularly. Jesse prefers to interact with horses more on an eye-to-eye level, two and four feet firmly on the ground, respectively. He enjoys long walks in the pasture and grazing on a rainy afternoon.