(This is an excerpt from Austin Bell’s newly released book Horse Show Boyfriend: My Crazy Year On The Hunter Jumper A-Circuit. Read more about Bell here, or you can purchase a copy of the entire book.)
Before the deep dive into the rabbit, or in this case fox, hole that is the hunter discipline, I warn you right away to abandon all logic. In my attempts to figure out the many “why” questions behind the hunter class, I was repeatedly met with the old adage “because that’s the way it’s always been done.” At first to an outsider, very little of hunter competition makes sense. In a Zen sort of way, once you understand that hunters are not meant to be understood, then you can start to truly understand them.
As with other show jumping disciplines, hunter classes involve riding a horse around and over a course full of jumps, but that’s where the similarities end. The basic distinction of the hunter discipline is that scoring is done subjectively, by a judge, on the horse’s form going around the course, instead of an objective measure of time and jumping faults. The score is numerical and arbitrary, on a scale of 0 to 100. There is no set number of points added or subtracted quantitatively for anything done during a round. 1 A judge simply gives you a score of 84 because it feels like an 84 round to him or her. To say that this can be troublesome is barely scratching the surface of the dangers of imprecise, subjective scoring. It becomes difficult for a judge not to consider things like the reputation of the rider, trainer, or even horse when doling out scores.
An entire book could be written on the politics of the hunter class which I am not remotely qualified to write. Scoring can vary drastically depending on the venue and judge, but most successful or winning rounds will score between an 80 and a 90 depending on the overzealousness of the judge, and anything below 60 can be seen as nothing short of a catastrophe. You will very rarely see anything above a 90, and only once in my travels did I hear of a 100 score. 2 Some classes will mercifully announce the score after the round to give you some idea of how the rider did, but just as many leave you guessing.
At its core, the hunter competition is much more of a beauty pageant with ancillary jumping activity. The main goal is to look pretty while navigating the course. This can be more difficult than it sounds, as distances between jumps must be perfectly assessed while managing the horses’ wavering moods and actions.
Where in the jumper ring a winning, double clear round can be riddled with miscues, any small mistake can derail a hunter’s chances of victory. I admit that I have some biases against hunters because they are far less enjoyable to watch than jumpers for a less knowledgeable spectator. The combination of the very nuanced elements of the ride that are judged and the rounds’ repetitive and languorous pace makes it very difficult to follow for someone new to the sport. Forgive me if I am less enamored of hunters as I go into more detail about them. I just haven’t had a chance to appreciate their tradition or learn exactly what a swap off a lead change looks like.
In contrast to the jumper ring, dress code is strict—a rider must have very few extra accessories on his or her tack, and their horse’s mane must be braided. The hunter course can best be explained by attempting to understand that the discipline’s roots lie in fox hunting, where the primary purpose of riding a horse was to go out in the woods wearing red coats while hunting foxes. 3 It was a different time, before you could just order fox pelts in bulk on Amazon from your iPhone as you waited for the jog to be called. In an attempt to either fool the horse or cultivate some link to the past, the jumps on a hunter course are designed to be natural, that is, wooden with green and brown hues that slightly resemble trees or brush. There are no sponsored jumps in the ring, but hunter jumps do vary from basic faux-birch to large hay bales and stacks of wood. An important skill to have for any non-horse person is the ability to look in a ring and determine whether or not a hunter or jumper competition is going on—looking at the type of jumps is the easiest way to do this.
A hunter class’s difficulty is less easy to discern than the jumper division—there are only a few different heights of jumps, 3′, 3’3″ and 3’6″ being the main ones. Instead, hunter classes are divided by the rider’s age and, at the junior and pony level, the size of the horse. For kids, pony hunter classes are the big events. Kids doing the pony hunters usually don’t end up there by accident—there is generally some equestrian interest in the family that pushes them into doing it. From there, riders under 18 are separated by the children’s and junior divisions, the latter of which has higher jumps. Upon turning 18, you graduate to the amateur owner division, with a select few riders opting to become professional. The main reason to become a professional is so that you can compete while riding other owners’ horses. However, few amateurs do this, as they are usually able to afford their own horses for high level competition. The equivalent of the jumper Grand Prix is the Hunter Derby. Aside from reminding me of the name of a fraternity bro I knew in college, a Hunter Derby has a slightly modified format and features the female riders wearing specialized coats called shadbellies, which are essentially just coats with tails. For some reason, men don’t get to wear these—they just have to sport a monocle (I wish). You’re wondering why this is—I have received no straight answers other than “that’s just how they do it in hunters.” Oh, okay. 4
The hunter horses, courses and competitions are very much unique to their discipline. Hunter horses, or just “hunters” as they are commonly called, mostly compete in only hunter classes because they are designed to look good going over jumps—not necessarily to be fast or jump high. This leads many riders to joke that their hunters are the “fat ones” compared to their svelte jumpers.
- One exceptions is in some competitions riders can earn a bonus point if they choose the higher of two jumps side by side on the course, or the high option. I knew some people in college who frequently took the high option.
- Tori Colvin. Who else?
- There are many amusingly quirky aspects to fox hunting, but one of my favorites is that in order to wear a red coat on a hunt you must “earn your colors.” I read more about this in Introduction To Foxhunting, which included such gets as: “To be awarded colors means you are a member of the hunt who has met all of the hunt’s standards for hunting” and “The criteria to earn colors differs” but “most importantly anyone awarded colors should not be an embarrassment to their hunt should they hunt with another hunt.” All this made me think twice about picking up a red show jacket for fun at the consignment store.
- I did research and the only definite answer is that, in the USEF rulebook, shadbellies are not considered “formal hunt attire” for men. Further confusing matters is that in dressage, both men and women wear shadbellies. Either way, it seems silly to me that guys that do hunters don’t have to buy an extra show coat. If I had a daughter, I would protest this and have her not ever wear a shadbelly.