Sometimes it is perplexing to a rider that he could be very successful in hunter classes, yet not even place in hunter seat equitation classes, or vice versa. I’d like to address this issue from the judge’s point of view.
First, when a horse and rider enter the ring for a hunter class, my focus is strictly upon the horse. If it is a hunter under-saddle class, then I’m looking at the way the horse moves and behaves. The horses with long, flowing steps that sweep close to the ground are placed in a group at the top of my card, and the ones with high knee or hock action and short steps are placed in a group near the bottom. As the class progresses, the horses at the bottom only move up if the horses at the top make a big mistake—such as a break in gait, a wrong lead, a bucking spree, etc. So, the rider may be hanging on like a monkey, but if the horse has a beautiful way of moving, doesn’t make a major fault at any gait, and remains calm throughout the class, then the horse may surface as the winner.
The same is true in a hunter class over fences. If the rider is making all kinds of mistakes—such as looking down in the air instead of between the horse’s ears or letting his legs swing back in the air so that he really isn’t “glued on” very well—there is no penalty unless it affects the horse’s way of moving or jumping on course. If the horse stays straight between the fences, maintains the proper pace so that the horse has even twelve-foot strides between fences on a line (with twelve feet being the national standard for setting courses for hunters), and the animal shows great form over fences (with the front legs tightly folded, the knees even and above a line that is parallel to the ground, the legs clearing the obstacle without touching the top rail, and the head and neck stretched out and down to counterbalance the rest of the horse’s body), then the horse can win the class, even though the rider’s form is terrible.
Now let’s consider this same horse and rider combination in an equitation class. On the flat, I watch the rider as he enters the ring. Remember, I referred to him as “hanging on like a monkey,” so this is a person who doesn’t have a good base of support. He would be hanging on because his legs and seat weren’t steady enough for him to keep his balance, and his hands would be his last resort for staying on the horse. Even as the riders enter the ring at a walk, I’m already looking at their position—especially their legs. The ones with a sound leg position—that is, a position forming a vertical line from the knee to the toe, the calf of the rider on the flesh of the horse just behind the girth, and the rider’s seat close to the front of the saddle, near the horse’s center of gravity, so that the entire leg is properly placed—go in the group at the top of the page. Of course, I’m also looking at the rider’s upper body position and use of his hands, which should be following the horse’s mouth as the animal nods each step at the walk. I’m also observing the rider’s eyes to see if they’re properly looking forward through the ears of the horse; and in upper-level equitation classes, I’m checking to see if the rider has the horse collected into a medium frame at the walk and maintains a steady, marching rhythm. (See a photo of the “Correct Position at the Walk” by clicking on http://annamullin.com/horseinfo.) I’d also like to mention that the riders who look great at the walk in the beginning of the class don’t always prove to have an effective position in the upper gaits. When I call for the trot or canter, if the rider’s form begins to fall apart—for example, the legs don’t stay in place, the hands go up and down as the rider trots, etc.—or the rider shows that he lacks knowledge of bending, transitions, or frame, then he can quickly be moved lower down the page.
The riders who have a weak leg position—especially riders whose legs slide back and forth or who grip with the back of their legs so that their knees and toes stick out, robbing them of the security their legs could provide—go in the group at the bottom of the page. Once again, they will only move up if the riders in the top group make a big mistake.
In the equitation over fences class, the rider “hanging on like a monkey” may have a very good round, just as he did in the hunter class; but this time, I’m not judging how his horse moves or jumps, other than faulting the rider if the horse makes an awkward jump due to the rider’s placement of it at a fence. This time, I’m strictly looking at the rider’s form and technique. If he is ducking in the air or letting his legs slide back and forth, then he’s penalized for big riding errors. Just because he has a nice horse that is a “packer”—that is, carries him along even though he is as ineffective as a bag of grain—that doesn’t mean that he will place well in equitation. Yes, the horse is wonderful, but it is despite the rider, not because of him!
I hope these observations are helpful to those confused about how hunter and hunter seat equitation classes are judged. There are clear standards that we are required to adhere to as judges licensed by the USEF. The organization’s Rule Book can be found online at http://usef.org/_IFrames/RuleBook/rulebooks.aspx. Additional information on judging can be found in my new book, The Complete Guide to Hunter Seat Training, Showing and Judging in the second section, entitled, “Judging Hunters and Hunter Seat Equitation.”
Talk to you next week! — AJ