This Is How I'd Fix Our American Hunter Divisions

Mar 8, 2007 - 10:00 PM

I’ve maintained lifelong interest in the American hunter division because it’s the base of our equestrian sports. Our hunter division has spawned riders (and even horses!) for the jumper, equitation, eventing, dressage, endurance and even driving divisions. Other countries have vaulting, dressage, jumping and foxhunting as their starting platforms, and we’ve always had the hunter division.

But now the hunter community must re-examine the classical principles of their division and get back on track. It won’t take much to do it right.

Over the last 25 years, we’ve taken a slight detour and haven’t really noticed. But we’ve strayed too far from the original intent of the sport–to bring the country to the arena.

We’re supposed to be judging which horses might be most suitable to go across the country over uneven terrain and long distances, jumping real fences, and following hounds.

According to the 1950 American Horse Shows Association rulebook, the divisions were to be judged according to some of the following criteria: appointments, brilliancy, conformation (build), handiness, manners, performance, quality, soundness, speed, substance (strength), suitability, uniformity, way of going and style of jumping.

If you really stop and think about these criteria, you’ll see how far we’ve wandered from the original intent over the years.

To me, the pinnacle of showing hunters was in the 1970s. It was a fabulous blend of the old horsemanship and the new technical horsemanship. The sport was still dominated by quality American Thoroughbred horses. Rodney Jenkins, Bernie Traurig, Katie Monahan Prudent and Charlie Weaver (to name just a few!) were at their peak. And the fences were natural and big (4’6″). We used to have to gallop faster and jump higher to win.

We’ve forgotten that it’s “a sport,” a sporting pastime. It’s now too generic, always the same, with little variety and less challenge. We must inject more excitement back into this sport!

We lost a lot when show managers began offering a smaller variety of classes. Yes, on occasion we see a handy hunter class. But what happened to the ladies or the gentlemen’s appointments classes, to the stake classes, and even to the hunt teams classes? I guess it’s just too much time and trouble.

I’m always a firm believer in concentrating on a sport’s top level, knowing that will pull the lower levels up. So let’s start with a series of hunter classics across the country. The prize money must be a minimum of $25,000. And the jumps must be big–up to 4’6″ with one fence at approximately 4’8″ (1.40 meters). I didn’t realize this, but according to the 1930s AHSA rulebook I have, working hunters jumped 4’6″ to 4’9″.

Our primary goal should be to use the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park to showcase our hunter division in front of the world, including officials from the F�d�ration Equestre Internationale. Why shouldn’t hunters become an international division sanctioned by the FEI? Now that the Las Vegas World Cup hunter competition is such a big hit that many other countries have their own type of hunter classes, and now that they’re all selling us horses to become hunters, the timing is right.

Hunters and hunter ponies are coming to us from all over the world now–North and South America, Europe, England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, even from Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s time to look to the future and have an internationally recognized hunter division.

Leading up to this, we should have classes for young horses in age groups and have levels of hunters according to the height of the fences and the prize money. The pre-green and green divisions are obsolete today with all the imported horses–there’s simply no way to verify their experience for these classes–but all of the amateur and junior divisions would stay intact.

I would strongly oppose changing the rules of the hunter division otherwise, though. I’d rather go back in history and use the traditional hunter rules of old as a guidepost. We must keep this a pure hunter division, not a pseudo-jumper division or what it’s almost become today, a pseudo-dressage division over fences.

Because the point of the competition is to find the best performance horse. With the way they construct the fences and the courses today, the “average” horse almost has an advantage. Certainly a great-jumping, great- performing, great-moving horse is at a disadvantage most of the time.

And classic hunter-type fences must be used. This is not a garden club flower show. The rules could state that every course–from the ponies on up–must contain two vertical fences without ground lines, two ramped oxers without ground lines, and if ground lines are used with the other fences, they must not be more than 6 inches in width.

While triple bars are not allowed in hunter classes, almost every fence in every course today is some form of a triple or even a quadruple bar. Rarely, if ever, does a fence in the show ring resemble a fence in the hunting field, even though the rule states that the fences should simulate those found in the hunting field–post-and-rails, brush, coops, gates, walls, snake fences, and even simple banks and ditches where space permits.

Much more imagination could be used in designing today’s hunter courses. A “soft” broken line is certainly appropriate. The problem is that the professionals, judges and show managers are so afraid of causing a problem, and making people unhappy. They constantly want things “watered down.”

But that isn’t how to encourage good sport. We should have challenges, tests even, that separate the good, bad, fair and outstanding horse and rider.
Proper courses teach people to ride better at every level. And this should start with children and ponies. The most basic fence is a vertical fence, a fence on one plane. And they do not exist today in the hunter world.

And our hunter riders’ technique has to improve. The hunter competition at the 2005 FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas proved that. Even with good-riding top professionals, the rounds often become mannered, affected and artificial. When jumping a fence, it’s unnecessary to swing one’s legs, jump ahead of the saddle, duck down, throw one’s hands, and collapse on the horse’s neck upon landing. These grotesque mannerisms do not aid the horse in any way. They only distract the horse and the spectators–and the judge!

If we can improve our American hunter division, it will spawn improvement throughout our whole equestrian world. Historically, it’s had that much influence on our riding in North America. And that’s the responsibility of this generation. For good or bad, that will be their legacy.

George H. Morris

Category: Columns

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