Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Do Our Hunter Divisions Need A Change?

For quite some time various hunter industry leaders and professionals have been saying that the professional hunter divisions are in trouble. At many of the big circuit shows you don’t really notice the problem without doing a “then and now” comparison.

At the average A-rated and many of the AA-rated shows it’s often difficult to split the first and second year green divisions, and often the four-foot divisions don’t fill at all.

This isn’t new, but a condition that has appeared as our sport has changed.
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For quite some time various hunter industry leaders and professionals have been saying that the professional hunter divisions are in trouble. At many of the big circuit shows you don’t really notice the problem without doing a “then and now” comparison.

At the average A-rated and many of the AA-rated shows it’s often difficult to split the first and second year green divisions, and often the four-foot divisions don’t fill at all.

This isn’t new, but a condition that has appeared as our sport has changed.

In the old days, there were lots of owners who sent a string of horses on the road with their own professional trainer and rider. Those days, for the most part, are gone.

Now, many of the horses that go on the road with a professional are ridden in a division by the pro to prepare them for another division where they’ll be ridden by their owner.

Few horses go on to the second year division since their real spot in life is going to be showing in a 3’6″ division, or perhaps at 3′. If they aren’t going to show over 3’6″ or higher, they’re going to be prepared in a three-foot schooling division and not the second year green. This is just a fact of life at the majority of shows.

Several people have suggest the hunters need to go to “levels” as have the jumpers, to help save the hunter divisions. To me, hunters aren’t at all like the jumpers, and I don’t think destroying years of tradition is going to do anything to promote them. In fact, I think it will do the opposite.

If we go to levels it may be the end of the four-foot divisions as we know them. If you have a horse that you need to school for a 3’6″ division and he’s not eligible for the first or second year green division, you have no choice other than to go in the four-foot division; otherwise, the owner can watch him go around in a three-foot schooling division.

The first and second year green divisions are “protected” divisions. The thinking is that horses in those divisions have approximately the same amount of experience.

If we go to levels, any horse, regardless of experience, can go in the 3’6” hunter division. Do you think that the true first year green horse is going to be competitive at 3’6″ with horses that have been showing over bigger fences for years? I don’t think so!

Many people will tell you that it doesn’t make any difference because the class is just being used as a school. I don’t think that’s the purpose of our horse shows, and this is just the type of thinking that has gotten us to where we are today.

Many years ago, when our divisions were much larger, we wrote rules requiring that all of those divisions be offered as “split” divisions. We allowed for combining when the numbers reached a low point.

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Now we’ve gotten to a place where just about everyone in the class must get a ribbon. How many times have you seen divisions of three or four horses? And how many times have you seen owners and trainers go to management and plead to keep two divisions split that could have been combined into one division of eight or 10 horses, or fewer.

I remember when it really meant something to win a class of 40. Not any more!

It’s time that we think about reversing many of those rules.

Divisions should still be offered as split, but it should be required that they be combined if one of the split divisions has fewer than six entries.

Let’s get back to having some competition at the average A- or AA-rated show instead of just handing out points to everyone who happens to get around the course.

We’ve eliminated, for various reasons, many of our classes that made our divisions more fun and interesting. How many shows have an amateur-owner or pony handy?

The appointments classes in the evening at indoors were always exciting. The pony riders loved to get “dressed up” as well. Some people, however, thought that it took too much time to set a special course for the handy. And it took too much time for the children to get changed for the appointments, and then it took too much time for the judge to go down the line and check appointments.

Yes, some of these things make it easier and quicker, but are we having a competition, or is the real competition to see how quickly we can show a horse and get it back to its stall?

We don’t need to become more generic. We need to see what we can do to make showing more fun and challenging.

To encourage more horses to go into the four-foot divisions, why don’t we consider changing the format and increasing the money offered?

Since many of these horses go in another division, why not consider having just three classes—an open hunter, a handy and an under saddle. As a minimum, have $1,000 a class, or at least two times the amount of money offered in the green divisions.

In addition, dues for the show should be based on “money paid” not “money offered.” Shows wouldn’t want to try this if they were going to be penalized with more dues for offering the division and then not having it fill.

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And why not require a handy class for the amateurs and ponies at all AA-rated shows?

I suggested the four-foot idea to my U.S. Equestrian Federation Zone 3 Committee the other day just to see what that group would think. There was not widespread acceptance of the idea.

One professional asked why her owner would send her four-foot horse to show to see him show just two times over fences. Others said that it would work for them because their horse showed in another rated division with its owner. Another person believed we needed to stick to five classes per division.

It’s difficult to find people to sit on committees who don’t have a conflict of interest with the question at hand.

In my example above, each of the committee members wanted the change to work best for his or her own situation. This is just what happens when a rule change goes to the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association convention. No rule is ever going to be perfect for every situation.

The High Performance Hunter Classics that many people are talking about to revive our hunters are a wonderful idea, but how many shows can really have one?

No. 1, you have to have a pretty big show to raise enough money and have enough horses to make it all worthwhile. If you want to include the juniors and amateurs you’ll lose many of the professionals whose horses have gone home. And you need a special place in your schedule to showcase the class.

The professional divisions aren’t the only ones with problems.The pony hunters in our area, Zone 3, are becoming weak. I had more green horses than I had regular ponies at my June AA show (Loudoun Benefit).

I think that we have an obligation to provide divisions that offer a protected and fair playing field to those exhibitors who support our shows. Some change may be good and needed, but to make our divisions more generic than they already are doesn’t remedy the problem.

Let us hear your thoughts and opinions. If you don’t get involved someone else is going to pick up the ball and run with it, and you might not like the direction in which they go.

W. Gary Baker, Middleburg, Va., manages horse shows in U.S. Equestrian Federation Zone 3, is an
R-rated judge, member of the USEF National Hunter Committee and breeder of ponies and horses.

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