BY JESS CLAWSON
I’ve been riding since I was four years old, and almost all of that time has been in eventing programs. I missed the pony hunter world entirely. Though I love the jumpers I’ve ridden, I never really did much of the hunter thing beyond taking baby horses to hunter shows every once in a while for a calm introduction to competing. My horse, Mo, could have been a hunter because he’s a nice, quality dude, but it never occurred to me to go that way with him.
That doesn’t mean this eventer has never learned anything from the hunters. Though many eventers roll their eyes at hunters, there’s a lot we could learn from the discipline.
In any over fences discipline, what makes a good round? A good canter. And the first thing that makes good canter is consistent rhythm. Out of rhythm comes relaxation, and all athletes perform better out of relaxation than tension. A lot of eventers can stand to learn more about relaxation in the canter, especially in the show jumping. It’s a thing I have to work on too. As the fences go up, I have a tendency to drive for the last three strides, which loses the rhythm before and after the jump and makes it harder for poor Mo to do his job. If I have him in a good canter to begin with, I am less likely to make that mistake. A rhythmical canter also means you can lengthen or add power to the stride without going faster, which is crucial to finding an accurate distance.
That rhythmical canter that’s in front of the leg lends itself to a balanced canter, and that means timely and correct lead changes, corners that stay connected and balanced instead of motorcycling and losing the hind end, and a square approach to the fences. A balanced and forward horse also makes those trot jumps easier, and while trotting fences is never required in eventing, sometimes it happens — especially with young horses who might need an extra minute to look at a fence before they jump it.
Yeah, some eventers are snarky about the hunter crest release. But I, for one, can be too defensive in my approach in the show jumping sometimes (see above re driving in the last three strides). My body falls back, and I push him flat. If I can stay soft in my half seat, he canters nicely to the base and jumps with good technique. I’ve been watching a lot of good upper level hunter riders lately to keep an image in my head when I’m schooling Mo. It makes a huge difference. Sometimes I need my defensive posture, but I can save it for when we’re jumping over a log off a bank and landing in water. I don’t need it in the show jumping phase.
Seeing a Distance
Successful hunter riders can see distances and stick with what they’re seeing. Why? Because they’re in a rhythm and they’re soft at the base of the jump. When I ride with that feel in my show jumping, I can see it too, because I’m not driving Mo past his distance or asking him to leave the ground early. The bigger the jumps get, the more important that accuracy is. Good riders make it all look so effortless (even though we all know it isn’t) and that it comes from really mastering softness.
A proper show hunter has good form in the air. Ideally, the horse will jump that way naturally, but there are also kind, ethical ways of encouraging the horse to use their body well and create a nice bascule. If eventers want to go above novice or training, they need their horses to jump well… not just get to the other side. Rotational falls are a real risk, and good technique reduces that risk. My coach and I use a bunch of exercises she learned from hunters. Grid work, V-rails on the front of an oxer, and ascending oxers are all good ways to encourage horses to lift their knees and use their bodies. A lot of those exercises originate in hunterland.
I love a beautifully braided, turned out horse, gleaming tack, and polished boots. I’ve seen some major upping of the game in this department in the event world over the past few years, particularly in the dressage phase. I’ve learned a lot of tricks from hunter friends about how to present my horse to his best advantage. It makes me happy to see him look so dapper.
I’m sure I’m missing a lot more lessons I could be learning, so I’m going to head to YouTube and watch some more hunter rounds and see what else I pick up. Happy jumping, everyone!