Should a Rail Be -15 Points in the Hunters?

BY Piper Klemm

I am here to argue for a rail being scored as -15 points off your score in the hunters and not an automatic base score of 45 points out of 100, as it currently stands in common convention. 

How Did We Get Here?

Hunters are currently (mostly) scored on a numerical system. This has evolved in recent years—original hunter judging simply ordered the class with no explanation. With numbers has come official scoring for certain major faults: 45 for rail, 40 for the first refusal or circle on course, 30 for a second refusal or circle on course. Those are baselines—if there is more than one horse with a rail in a class, you might see a 44 or a 46. In huge divisions, you might see a 45.5 and other decimal placings to correctly order what is going on, all based off of that 45 score for a rail. 

Rounds without major faults general score in any range from the 60s to the 90s. With the exception of top horse shows and divisions, the majority of judging by the numbers is the base of our sport’s pyramid, which means practically that judges are comparing errors. What is worse? Adding up the first line or cantering the trot jump? Is picking up the wrong lead at the start of a course worse than a swap? Is this horse competing off a quality maximum of a 90 and that horse a 75? But when faced with a rail in an otherwise solid round, a 45 is simply given to the round with no more consideration. 

While we come from roots in the hunt field, to which we credit most of our rules, we also struggle with the fact that at some point we equated slow with safe, which is certainly not the case out in the country. Basically, we relate to the hunt field when people feel like it, but when it becomes inconvenient, we bail. Remember when you could ask people to mount and dismount and open a gate in a hunter derby? Yup, we bailed on that one. 

So, asking the seasoned competitors who have a foxhunting background, most of them would say that a rail is 45 because hitting something in the hunt field is a hazard. Either it’s a solid coop and you might have a rotational fall or it’s something you can knock down and create a hazard for the entire hunt field jumping behind you. Neither are ideal. Your horse needs to be surefooted across varied terrain and then pick its feet up when it gets to the base of the fence. 

In the Equitation divisions, over time the judge has determined whether a rail was the rider’s fault or horse’s fault and scored accordingly. In a shift toward transparency and horse welfare, the current rulebook has a -4 minimum deduction for a rail on an Equitation course. This has a negative effect, but not necessarily a damning one—we saw several riders at the 2022 USEF Medal Finals with rails in the first round advance to the second round and ultimately win ribbons. 

Where Are We Now? 

From the time these rules were created, the jumps fall much more easily. We use safety cups so that the jumps (very) easily come down. This is awesome for safety reasons. This has decreased rotational falls, I would imagine (I don’t have data). This has kept horses and riders upright in many cases that solid cups might not have. 

Additionally, rails often weigh less than they used to, jumps are more mobile, and we see set-ups that favor constant taking down and rebuilding for flat classes, tractor drags, and watering trucks. Which is great, but also means that they more easily fall when a horse rubs them. 

When I judge local shows, I see rails in all divisions. When I watch top shows, I also see rails in all divisions. It’s something that doesn’t change across the board due to experience of the rider, quality of the horse, or jump height. It is frankly good to see—the jumps are safe and the jumps come down. The question is: Should this be scored as a major error?

Additionally, if having a rail is the worst thing a horse can do in the show ring second to refusing, are we training them to snap their legs up at the expense of something else? 

What Would This Mean? 

Top Hunter Divisions: 

At Devon, Harrisburg, Washington, and the National, the mode average of winning score is an 88 across all divisions. Capital Challenge is generally higher than this and WEF produces many top scores with larger divisions to have more fractional scores. 

If we take that 88 as the winning score at face value and subtract 15 for a rail, that makes the score a 73. The horse will be effectively knocked out of a ribbon in that company, but will be placed above those with missed changes, spooking depending on severity, trotting, and other errors. The horse with a rail will still not be getting a ribbon at these shows and would have effectively no change. 

Typical Hunter Divisions: 

If we take the “average” hunter division across the board of divisions, locations, etc, many classes are won with an 84-86. If the division has 5 horses and the 86 with a rail becomes a 71, that horse is still beating those with other major errors and might move from 5th to 4th. When it comes down to tricolors, every placing can be significant. Should we be rewarding what would have been a rub a decade or two ago over mistakes that would have still been huge mistakes a decade or two ago? This would have some minor changes in smaller sized divisions and divisions with more spreads in points. Of course, this is assuming it’s a rub that causes the rail, not a more significant error. If the horse chips or has some error that causes the rail, the base score of say 65-68 will bring the total to the low 50s, and would be a low ribbon or out of the ribbons regardless.

Local Show, Young Horse, or Lower Level Hunter Divisions: 

If you think that many of these classes are won with say an 80 or an 82 and there might be big range in scoring (missed lead changes, trotting, swapping, shifting or spooking), an otherwise very winning trip of an 82 would dropped to a 67, which could still be in the hunt with any of these other mistakes depending on the severity. This is where we could see the largest change—hypothetically, we could still see horses in these divisions with a rail win the class if they were far enough ahead of the rest of the competition. I have watched some classes where I feel that that would be the appropriate placing. 

Hunter Derbies: 

If you watch enough hunter derbies, you will quickly see that there is often a dramatic difference between a low option and a high option. So, you can see the riders calculate. Risk the high option for only 1 additional point to potentially knock it and get an automatic 45? Or not. 

I believe that a -15 point rail would make hunter derby competition more exciting as more people will take the risk for high options thinking about their +4 bonus points as a -15 risk as opposed to a 12th place risk in the Handy round. Same as top competition, an 88 would become a 73, which is a much more acceptable risk to entertain the crowd, stay in the prize money, and depending on the field size maybe even advance to the second round with the high option points. 

What Else?

What are the unexpected consequences of a new rule? We have to consider all possible outcomes.

Will this encourage people to make horses more quiet and comatose in the ring? I believe it will not, because as we’ve shown, the horse with a rail is still pretty effectively knocked out of winning competition. Most people will still be trying to win and not have rails. To subtract 15 points is still punitive, just not as punitive as an automatic 45. 

What about a rail propped up in the cup? Technically a rail sitting up on the cup counts as being out of the cup. It would continue to count as such in this new system and result in a -15 point deduction. 

What about less versus more dramatic rails? A light rub behind that results in a rail rolling out of the cups versus a horse that punches the rail out in front? I would say this is a judgment call and -15 would be the minimum for a rail. If the judge felt it was more severe, or another error contributed to the rail (e.g. chipping), the horse would have a lower base score before subtracting the 15 points. 

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