What Determines How You Place in the Hunters?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


We are pretty committed to client education at Two Bit Training. Our unmounted lesson topics range from leg wrapping to taking a temperature and pulse to walking a course to explaining hunter judging. We’re big on writing our thoughts down and sending them home with everybody for their use to occasionally refresh memory and answer questions.

The nuances of judging at the bigger shows can be hard for professionals with years of experience to grasp…much less parents with little or no knowledge. It’s a bit like scoring a gymnastic routine, as opposed to knowing who won the 440 yard dash at the track meet. The former is very subjective and subtle and the latter—not so much. When it’s your child on the floor exercise mat, you have a vested interest in understanding what is going on.

We always spend an unmounted lesson or two helping riders understand what’s going to happen at those big shows ahead of attending their first one. I feel that way about parent education as well. The most frequent question newbie show parents ask me is some variation of “why didn’t we win.” So, we hold an occasional, informal evening with parents of riders too, and give them as much information as we can before they ask that question.

This is our handout that accompanies our presentation on hunter judging at USEF shows.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Playing in the big pond

What determines your score in a hunter over fences class at a bigger show? Here are my picks for what the judge is most likely to consider:

  • Ceiling
  • Expectation
  • First Impression
  • Pace
  • Track
  • Movement
  • Jumps

Here’s a brief explanation of how each one affects the placings…


There is such a thing as a quality animal, and for some people that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Each horse has a ceiling – a score they cannot rise above – and a quality horse will always have a higher ceiling than a less quality one. Quality is hard to explain (pretty, balanced, good mover, good jumper, beautiful carriage, big flowing stride, level…to cover just a few of the ingredients), but easy to see. This is not “unfair” or “political” judging. This is a judge correctly weighing the quality of the animal into the overall score.


The bigger the stage is, the higher the expectations will be. So, you will have to perform very well to receive a prize at a bigger, more exclusive show. The judges are going to be expecting very good rounds of everyone coming in to the ring. They will SEE many very good rounds. Yours will need to stand up to the comparison.

First Impression

Much of your first impression is totally under your control. You can literally lose points with a judge if you walk in to the ring and look messy or unorganized, before you even break out of a walk. If you don’t have the most quality horse, have the cleanest tack…the neatest hair…the best turned-out horse…the shiniest boots.


Judges judge what they see, and what they will see the most of is your canter since the entire course is performed at this gait. So, selecting the right canter and staying in it is very important in determining your prize. You are looking for the canter that lets you find all the jumps and all the distances, and all the strides between the jumps, without a lot of visible adjustment. Judges (and everybody else) love a good canter.


Judges judge what they see, and what they see next is the track (route) you take around the ring. That means corners, the end of the ring, lines between jumps, etc.  If you can’t stay out in a turn and ride a straight line, your prize will reflect that. Most judges consider not being able to hold the correct track a serious mistake, and will reflect that in scoring.


Judges judge what they see, and the next thing they see is your horse moving. From your courtesy circle at the beginning of the course to your courtesy circle at the end. If you have a horse that trots great, add trot to both courtesy circles, or trot across a diagonal before your circle if the course allows. If you have a horse that trots poorly, we are going to suggest going right in to that canter.


Believe it or not, your horse spends the LEAST amount of time on course jumping. Yes, it’s a jumping competition and the jumps matter. But, if you are doing well everywhere else and your horse is not a spectacular jumper (but adequate) you can still get a good prize. If your horse jumps fabulous but can’t get anything else right, you will probably get no prize at all. Good jumping form alone will not win…it has to be combined with all the other variables. However, if you get everything else right, good jumping form will vault you to the top of the class.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

How does all this translate into a score?

The USEF says that Hunter rounds are judged on the following:

  • Even Hunting Pace – this means you don’t speed up or slow down and that the canter you choose is the right one for the strides and corners in the ring.
  • Manners – this means that your horse lands on or changes to the correct lead, shapes corners, doesn’t pull or lug, and does what you ask of it.
  • Jumping Style – this means that your horse jumps each jump well and in good form. Any bad form is severely penalized.
  • Way of Going (Moving) – this means that your horse has a beautiful way of covering the ground, stays straight and on the correct lead between jumps in a line, steers easily.

They don’t directly address your ceiling, the expectations, and your first impression…but believe me they are all still there and are being judged. 

Here is what I think are some good general guidelines for predicting hunter scoring, weighing everything we’ve looked at so far:

  • 90’s – GREAT trip. Exceptional. VERY quality horse. No mistakes.
  • 85-89 – Very, Very good. Solid performance. Very quality horse. No mistakes.
  • 80-84 – Very good. Maybe not foot-perfect, but quality horse with no error or very minor error.
  • 75-79 – Pretty darn good. Quality horse with a couple of small errors, or an average horse with a very good trip.
  • 70-74 – Ok. Average horse with a couple of errors. Quality horse with several errors.
  • 65-69 – Not ok. Usually a major error or obvious poor quality.
  • 60-64 – Poor performance, serious errors, or very poor style.
  • Below 60 – Bolting, bucking, trotting, knockdown, refusal, bad jumping form, etc. Usually one of the major mistakes, or many minor ones.

Most judges score major faults using some close variation of the following numerical guidelines:

  • Trotting 55
  • Rail down 45
  • 1st refusal 35-40
  • 2nd refusal 25-30
  • Bad form 50’s
  • Starting on wrong lead -5

The scoring for minor faults is not as generally accepted. Minor faults can include no lead change, late lead change, adding a stride (taking one out is bad form and 50’s), short or long distances, changes in pace, poor track, rubbing a rail, and many others. They’re all a deduction. Some judges will deduct more than others. The good news is that judges are usually very consistent within their judging criteria. So, that late change will score the same for every ride under that judge.

Finally – and I know this seems a bit unfair – where the judge is sitting can affect the scoring. Things can look different from different angles and heights. Some things can be hidden at certain angles (that swap before the single oxer) or easier to see (that little suck-back at the in-and-out). Background noise can affect the scoring. Sometimes a judge won’t hear a small rub. Sometimes, if it’s very quiet, a small rub can sound like a gunshot. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Your SCORE is not your PLACING. So, what determines your placing?

The answer is all of the above…in the context of how everyone else in the class did, as well. So, it’s not enough to know what your score will be to know where you will place. You may have a quality horse with a very good trip…and score an 86. You may then get beat by a similar trip that scores an 87. 

But, everyone makes mistakes—even the best riders on the best horses. So, you might also beat a very famous rider on a top horse because, on that day, in that class, they biffed something and got a lower score. You earned that placing on that day. Enjoy it.

Winning at the higher levels is pretty rare for most people in this sport. Quality horses, excellent training, and top-tier horse shows are all expensive. If there is an inherent “unfairness” in the hunters, money and the expense of showing would be it. Realistically, most people simply can’t afford to play in that pool. 

I don’t think hunter judging is terribly political. I’m a nobody from Kansas, and I’ve won a fair amount – as long as I stood at the in-gate with a well-trained and high-quality horse.  Most of the judges (really, probably ALL of the judges) who gave my horses a high score had no idea who I was. Ignoring, or lowballing, a great trip from a quality horse makes them look bad, and they know that. So, it rarely happens.

So, should you go?

It can be great fun to go to a really top-notch horse show just to get the experience, to see your hunter idols, and to mingle with the rich and famous. But it’s your trainer’s job to manage your expectations and give you a realistic understanding of how well you might place in that situation – because the experience itself is going to be very expensive. If you only want to spend money if you place well you should probably stick with the local show circuits.