Decoding the Derby: Highlights of the USHJA National Derby Program

Above: Professional Rider Hope Glynn competes in a derby class aboard Cabana VDL. Photo by Full Gallop Photography.

By TPH Intern Lauren Aubert

At horse shows nationwide, there is one spectacle in particular that can rack up more than forty entries per show because of its versatility: The USHJA National Hunter Derby.

The USHJA National Hunter Derby is a two-round class offered at AA, A, B, and C shows nationwide. Open to Amateur, Junior, and Professional riders, the class consists of jumps set at 3’, with high options at 3’5”. As a frame of reference, the higher-level International Derby has jump heights starting at 3’6” and high options at more than 4’.

The USHJA National Derby class was created with the intent of giving emerging riders and/or horses the ability to experience the atmosphere and feel of an International Derby at an accessible competition level. Obstacles are creative and may include logs, coops, tree branches and even the occasional ditch.  The goal of the course designer is to simulate the experience riding in the open fields during fox hunting.

Caption: A rider opts for the high option in a National Derby course. Photo by Full Gallop Photography.

The class is comprised of two rounds: A Classic round and a Handy round. The Classic round is the opening round of competition. A minimum course of ten fences is set, four with an additional high option next to the original jump. Horses are judged on their way of going,  jumping form, and quality of movement, with one additional point given for every high option taken. The top twelve placing riders in this round are invited back to the arena to compete in the Handy round.

The Handy round is judged with emphasis on taking an efficient, polished track to each jump, with a faster pace rewarded in the score. Like the Classic round, an extra point is given for every one of the four high options taken.  In the Handy round, only eight jumps are required to make up the course. Trot fences, walk-jumps, even jumps that are optional, can be seen in this round.

To prove how wonderful the National Derby program can be for aspiring riders, I spoke with top Northern California professional Hope Glynn of Sonoma Valley Stables and accomplished junior rider Mckenna Norris about their experiences showing in the class. “I wasn’t ready to compete in a 3’6 course, so I used the zderbies to help me gain experience,” explains Norris. The National Derby is often held in a show’s main or grand hunter arena, granting riders the opportunity to ride in a ring they will compete in when ready to move into the Junior Hunter division. Obstacles used in the class can also be the same as the ones used for the Junior Hunters – another way to get exposure to a competition environment at a comfortable lower level.

However, the National Derby does not just appeal to up-and-coming riders. It is also popular with professionals riding green horses to help prepare them for higher jumps. “The National Derby is a great entry-level Derby that I take my pre-green and young horses in. It gets the horses used to the Derby jumps without over-facing them,” says top professional Hope Glynn. By competing in the National Derbies, riders who intend to move up to the 3’3/3’6 height, high-level jumpers, or even the International Derby have the chance to demonstrate their skills at a jump height that feels comfortable to them and their horse.

Glynn and Norris both shared expert advice from the experience they gained in their years of competing in these classes. “Just ride your best ride,” Norris says. “I find that judges like to see a little pace and that the horse is carrying itself. Find a good rhythm and stick with it the entire round. There are usually a lot of single jumps or long bending lines, so I like to think about just riding each jump out of the same canter.” To clear the larger obstacles with confidence, building up a strong canter is key. “As a judge and a rider… [building] a great pace before and over fence one is key. It sets you up to find a rhythm for the entire course.” This is especially helpful when nerves get the best of you and might cause you to pull on the reins or tense up your upper body. “Just ride your best ride. Don’t change anything you normally do,” Norris advises. Although the competition may seem experienced and tough, focus on your own trip and trust that the experience will prepare you for the next levels of riding. “Pick the track that works best for the horse you are on. That may mean doing a different track than the one everyone else does,” says Glynn. For a new Derby rider, it is easy to want to go with the crowd and stick to the ordinary, but it is not always the most strategic. Finally, remember the class is just like a Children’s Hunter or 3’ Equitation round, only with additional bending lines and high options. Whether you are competing on a green horse, want to gain a little more practice jumping smaller obstacles at a high caliber, or want to try Junior Hunter height for the first time, the USHJA National Derby has the perfect amount of flexibility for just about everyone.

McKenna Norris rides Epic over an oxer in an International Derby class. Photo by Full Gallop Photography.