The Hard Knocks of The Hunter World

May 26, 2016 - 5:09 PM
This mare makes me smile. Photo by Robert Cade

On April 1 we moved to a new farm and life since then has been wonderfully chaotic.

Between settling in 17 horses, moving my house and generally getting the lay of the land, it’s been a non-stop marathon. But it’s great. I love the place. I have enthusiastic, supportive clients who have done everything from moving furniture to building jumps. And in the midst of moving all of the things, I’ve also been moving my horses up the competitive ladder.

I bought Solana last July as a green prospect from some wonderful folks who specialize in eventers and fox hunters. She wasn’t quite right for their disciplines, but after watching a short video of her jumping, I knew she was right for mine.

I had originally planned to develop her as an upper level show jumper for myself or as a resale project. But as we got to know each other better, it became apparent that her calling might be in the hunter ring.

I’ve done the hunters all my life. It’s where I started in the horse world and where I make a significant portion of my income as a professional. It’s part of my job and I like to think that I don’t suck at it. However, to put it bluntly, it’s not my first love. A three-foot pre-green round doesn’t make my heart go pitter-patter.

Sure, it’s a great way to spend a day and I am extraordinarily grateful for any opportunity to show in any ring. But if I’m putting my very limited funds into showing one of my own, odds are good that I’ll be jumping striped rails.

So as my young horse continued to canter in slow motion and racked up time penalties in the local puddle jumpers, I thought perhaps I should redirect her efforts. And believe me, I tried to deny it.

When I eventually caved and got on board with making her up as a show hunter, I made the horse a promise. I promised her that I would not do extraordinary things to fit her into the hunter mold. If she wanted to go that way, jump that way, move that way, then fine, let’s get braided and go to the ring.

But if she woke up one morning and decided that she was in fact a young, expressive horse, who occasionally plays in the end of the ring, I would not longe, medicate or otherwise abuse her into performing in an unnatural way.

But that doesn’t mean I did not train her. In my opinion there is a distinct difference between educating a young horse with consistent training and exhausting a young horse with consistent longeing.

The education of Solana has not always been easy. She is a big, powerful, athletic, young warmblood mare with plenty of opinions that don’t necessarily align with mine. She is a horse with a huge ego. That is one of the things I loved the most about her right from the start. It’s one of the things that leads me to believe she will be a great horse someday.

But it is also one of the things that makes her challenging to me as a rider and trainer. With horses like her you are always walking the line of establishing dominance while also getting them on your side. If you’re too heavy handed, they hate you. If you’re too soft, they walk all over you.

I decided to let her make her debut in the baby green hunters at HITS Ocala (Fla.) in January. We splashed around in the pouring rain and put in reasonable courses and got reasonable ribbons for our efforts. But she looked ridiculous. In the pictures she was about three feet in the air above the jumps.

Solana making quite an effort over 2’6″ in the baby green hunters at HITS Ocala—note the smile on my face! Photo by Robert Cade

Clearly, height was not an issue. The flatwork between the fences needed to be ironed out so we spent the next couple months working steadily to improve the straightness and regularity of her canter. Low and behold, the lead changes came on their own after that.

I’ve never been the world’s most patient person and I don’t have much use for a 2’6” baby green hunter, so we moved up to the 3’ pre-greens in April.

And we stuck to our agreement—she continued to act like a hunter and I didn’t do anything beyond flatting her under saddle early in the morning to make that happen.

And yes, she did green horse things and I’m OK with that, because she’s a green horse. She didn’t do anything naughty or untoward, just a little babyish. For example, on the first day she jumped three textbook perfect fences, then proceeded to whinny down the entire diagonal line. Loudly, I might add.

And no, I didn’t expect to win or really even place, because, let’s face it I am still a very little name rider in this great big world. But as I watched the competition go, I realized just how robotic some of the horses seemed—how far we’ve deviated from where show hunters began. This is something I’ve come to expect and accept in the amateur divisions and regular working hunters.

Many, better qualified individuals have written on this topic but it was alarming to me just how sloth-like this particular division had become. These are the pre-green horses. Are green, expressive, alert young horses no longer welcome? The USHJA pre-green incentive program has done its intended purpose and the division has grown in size and quality of horse over the past several years, which is great for the industry. But has this incentive created such a craze for the “perfect hunter” that there is no place for actually green horses? So tell me this, where does my young horse belong?

From the outset of this recent foray into hunter-land I did not expect to be showered in tri-color ribbons. I am not that naïve.

My goal was to take her and put in trips that I was proud of and give my horse a good experience. OK, checked that box.

So this past week we tried something new and for the first time in a long time I had a lot of fun in the hunter ring. I mean, if I’m going to spend a small fortune to get her the show experience she needs then I might as well enjoy it. So in a very carpe diem moment I entered her in the USHJA National Derby at Blue Rock (Pa.).

The plan was to walk the course in the morning and if any of the questions seemed unfair or beyond Solana’s level of comprehension we would scratch. One of the things I feel strongly about when training young horses is that they must be rideable outside the ring. They have to trust and respect your guidance to ride out cross-country and to jump whatever you put in front of them.

And in exchange, we must always try to be honest with the questions we ask them. I take Solana riding out at least once a week at home. I ask her to cross streams, jump logs and coops and generally be obedient in an open environment. This training has not been easy or quick, but it has created a horse that I feel confident cantering up to the base of just about anything.

In many ways, she was probably better prepared for the derby than I thought. The course seemed reasonable, mainly normal show-ring type fences. There was this little part where you canter out of the ring, jump some things, then canter back in the ring and jump some more things…

Were we perfect? No. Did my horse answer every question I asked of her to the best of her ability? Yes.

A much more mature and consistent Solana this spring. Photo by Teresa Ramsay

An arbitrary lead change mid-line and a playful romp through a change on the outside portion of the course knocked our score down significantly but I smiled ear-to-ear and praised my horse in spite of the numbers. She just turned 5. She started doing the 2’6” baby greens in January.

There is so much joy to be found in her progress, so much happiness and light in the horse she is becoming. Life is short. Take the high option. 

Chronicle blogger and up and coming hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade spent most of the 2015 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival working for Margie Engle’s Gladewinds Farm, and has recently made the decision to return to Virginia to start her own riding and training business, Country Fox Farm, Inc. Paige would like to thank Antares, Equine Omega Complete, Dr. Sallie Hyman and Total Equine Veterinary Associates for their continued support for the 2016 seasonRead all her blog entries.


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