Straight From the Judge’s Booth: Strategies for the Under Saddle

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


The more I judge, the more I am surprised that riders do not think more about how to ride an under saddle class. Yes, a good mover is a good mover is a good mover. That horse will usually prevail and earn a primary color ribbon. However, the way a horse is presented in the class can mean the difference between a high ribbon or a low ribbon or no ribbon at all. Let’s strategize.

In the vast majority of competitions, the judge is sitting in a booth on the side of the ring, usually at an elevation. So, he/she is looking down on the horses as they go by on that side. In addition, the ring almost always contains a course of jumps with perhaps lines cleared on each side to make a path for the horses hacking. With all of this in mind, the view of the judge is determined by his/her stationary position and the extent to which the jumps clutter the ring. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Why does this matter? Because we have to see you in order to judge you. Before riders enter the ring for a hack class, they should take a moment and assess the vantage point of the judge. Where can I be seen and where am I hidden? Both factors may be important in the context of the class. For a great pass in front of the judge, I need to be here. To hide my horse when he is crabby or misbehaving for a moment, I will place myself there. As with the over fences classes, there are places in the ring that are more difficult to navigate than others. Stay away from a narrow opening if your horse hates others around him. Hide in the corner for the canter departures if you are worried about catching the correct lead. Assess the best and weakest features of your horse and ride the class accordingly.

I often am asked about the warm up before the class starts, when everyone is trotting or cantering around. Do we judge those few minutes? Does it make a difference in the outcome of the class? A great mover that brilliantly trots by before the class starts will be noticed. If your horse canters better than he trots, make sure you present his best gait to the judge. First impressions endure. Watching the warm up, I will write down the numbers of horses that impress me so that I look for them when the class starts. However, the class is judged by the performance of the horses once it has been called to order and the announcer says, “Walk, please. You are now being judged.” 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Assuming that the judge is on the side of the ring in an elevated booth, think about where he/she can best view your horse. Usually, it is on the inside track on the far side of the ring and the outside track on the side of the judge. We can’t see through other horses and we can’t see you if you are beneath us and on the rail. And always remember, the class is a performance. Show your well groomed horse off, be impeccably turned out with gleaming boots, hoof polish, and clean clothes.  Have poise and confidence and place yourself in the best position to be seen. 

As with the over fences classes, the under saddle warrants thought, practice, and execution. Coming into it with a well thought out, practiced strategy will not only show off your horse better, but also make you feel more confident when it counts.

About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.

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