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April 2, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Here's How I'd Make Hunter Shows Even Better

Susie Schoellkopf. Photo by Molly Sorge

This Between Rounds column first appeared in the Feb. 16, 2007 print issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. In a Letter To The Editor in the April 7, 2014 issue, Vince Dugan references this column and asks us to republish letters he and Patty Heuckeroth had written seven years ago in response to Susie's 2007 column. The more things change the more they stay the same? Here's Susie's 2007 column—if you're a Chronicle subscriber, you can read the letters in the April 7 issue, too.

A bit more than a year ago, I wrote a column about several hunter/jumper show facilities in the Northeast and Midwest. And in early February I judged the first show at the brand-new facility in Thermal, Calif., built by Tom Struzzieri and his HITS company. I used the phrase “build it and they will come” in my last column, and once again that saying has proven true. It’s a well-designed, top-notch facility.

I judged the show with three friends I grew up with- Bill Ellis, Brian Lenehan and Don Stewart, Jr. We had long discussions of how showing hunters has drastically changed since we were all juniors and starting out as professional horsemen. Most of the horse shows in those days had just one ring; two or three rings was considered extravagant. But in today’s show world—especially at the shows in Thermal, Ocala (Fla.), Saugerties (N.Y.), Wellington (Fla.), and Gulfport (Miss.)—10 or even 12 rings is commonplace. The horse show business is healthy!

Yet I hear managers and exhibitors complaining that the rated divisions are weak. So I’ll pick them apart and try to offer some ideas to get the ball rolling to address those weaknesses around the country.

I still maintain that the reason some perceive (or insist) that the rated divisions are weak is that we have so many shows that the horses are spread out much more than previously. When we all meet at certain shows— Devon (Pa.), the Capital Challenge (Md.), the Pennsylvania National and the Washington International (D.C.)—most of the divisions are packed. It’s wonderful to watch the great hunters perform, so let’s start with the divisions that are working.

The pony division, split by size (small, medium and large) is healthy at all of the shows, and the USEF Pony Finals are packed because it’s fun for the children.

Still I’m not sure that the formula (the model) works completely. The reason I say this is that if you don’t have a hack ribbon winner or a model ribbon winner, it’s hard to win a tricolor at Pony Finals— and the days are very long for us judges. Perhaps the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Pony Hunter Committee should revise this formula? But the Pony Medal seems to work really well with a stand-alone day just for that class.

Let’s move on to the junior hunters. In California, they started splitting the junior hunters by age long before it caught on in the rest of the country. Don Stewart, as head of the USHJA Junior Hunter Task Force, led his committee to make it mandatory to split the junior hunters by size and by age at AA-rated shows. This has worked out well and seems to be an incentive for juniors to move out of children’s and pony hunters to the junior division. I think kids prefer to compete against peers in their own age group than against much older children, and that’s how it’s done in most sports throughout our country.

Each year this Junior Hunter Task Force is trying to expand and to keep up with the times. The now-mandatory handy hunter class adds a different dimension to the juniors’ riding skills, and it’s fun for the parents, trainers and other exhibitors to watch. But it’s up to the course designers to give the riders choices and risks to try to win the class.

The equitation divisions seem to be popular and full everywhere. I think that’s because the classes offer so much variety. Each one asks for different tests of the rider and horse. And the finals are all different.

But I’m still a believer that the ASPCA Maclay regional qualifiers need to have a different format. Maybe base qualifying on points like the Washington International equitation class rather than a one-day, single performance?

The adult division has become extremely popular in the past 20 years. They’re usually split by age— as many as three times. The 50 and over division is relatively new and is catching on all over. At the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla., show managers added a 3’3” non-recognized adult hunter division, an example of meeting exhibitors’ needs by changing the format.

The children’s hunter division has also benefited from splitting by age. Why? Because a 10-year-old shouldn’t be showing against an 18-year-old. This division seems healthy throughout the country, at the big and the small shows, and it’s definitely a stepping-stone in the junior hunter division.

The amateur-owner division is also popular. There have been long discussions about changing the age split, but each year the USHJA Open Hunter Task Force examines it throughout the country, and it seems to be current. Some of the best horses that come out of our professional divisions end up in this division. It’s filled with great riders who love showing their lovely hunters.

But it may be time to change the rated professional divisions: the first year, the second year, the regular working and the green and regular conformation divisions. When the green divisions were created years and years ago, we only showed form April through October. We had no winter circuits, there were far fewer A-rated horse shows, and there were no pre-green divisions.

So what do we do? I like the fact that we’re keeping track of money won in the USHJA programs, but I don’t think that should replace the point system of the USEF National and Zone standings. I think money won leaves the door wide open to chasing money and to cheating. Maybe money won should have its own incentive program in addition to the system in place?

As of this year, the jumpers have completely replaced their old format (green, preliminary, etc.) with the level format (by fence size instead of experience). Is it time for us to change the format for the green and working hunters too? Should we have classes open to 3’6” horses that professionals ride along with junior and amateur classes at 3’”? Should we have a 3’9” divisions and a 4’ division? Should those divisions be open to anyone and any horse regardless of their showing experience?

Maybe we should split the divisions by the age of the horse? Should the pre-green divisions be the place to start the young horses, instead of the first year division?

Maybe the regular working division should have more variety of classes, like a hand class, a ladies class or a gentlemen’s class? If these classes were set for 3’9” to 4’6”, managers could add more money depending on the number of horses showing.

Conformation is a specialty divisions, and we could either add conformation classes to the mix of regular classes or leave those divisions to stand on their own.

All of us who are involved in the hunter divisions need to come up with better formulas for the weaker divisions. Change is hard, but it’s also healthy. 

 
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