USHJA Eliminates Handwalking Prior to International Derby Competition

New rule disallows hand walking prior to USHJA International Hunter Derby competition.

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By PIPER KLEMM

I will be honest. I overlooked a rule change this year. 

I read the proposed rule changes. I read the Know Before You Show (which if you haven’t read, I highly recommend. There are many fantastic rule changes (and some confusing one still) are there for this year). It wasn’t until I walked in to cover and photograph my first USHJA International Hunter Derby this year that I noticed something different. The horses were not hand walking prior to the class. I found the rule on this page of the USHJA website about USHJA International Derby Competition. 

In this document clarifying the rule specifications: 

2023 International Hunter Derby Class Specifications from the USHJA website. 

I didn’t find any announcements or any documents that specifically let competitors know ahead of time searching the USHJA website, google, or social media. I suppose they don’t technically view it as a “rule change” although to me, after fifteen years of allowing it, simply making it a footnote seems like an oversight. 

This is a great rule change-for time, schedule, the horses, and the intended purpose of this competition. I applaud USHJA for making it. I have written in this publication that I think hand walking USHJA International Derby horses is ridiculous-if we are mimicking the hunt field with this class, it bears no resemblance to that intention. If we are hunting for the most brave horse in the field, it does not reflect that intention. If we want to see horses with supreme training, trust, and performance, it does not reflect that intention either. 

The hand walking time allowed in 2022 for USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals in the Rolex Stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park was for 45 minutes. As long as the hand walk was available, everyone with even the most brave horses was going to do it anyway, since when you have it, you cannot let someone else get the competitive advantage (perceived or real). 

“The USHJA system is a great pipeline to develop horses in this country. From their early years in the Sallie B. Wheeler Championships to the Young Hunter divisions to the Green Hunter divisions and incentive and USHJA National Derbies, horses are produced to the highest level of performance, which is the USHJA International Hunter Derby. The horses who have come up the ranks methodically are ready to go in and jump around,” top Derby rider Nick Haness tells The Plaid Horse.

Tara Metzner mentioned how for many big competitions riders and trainers prepare horses for where they do not see the jumps. “My feelings are that “handwalking” is probably unnecessary.”

Golden Rule and Stephanie Danhakl at 2021 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. Photo: Heather N. Photography.

Not all professionals agree, with Marisa Metzger bringing up on Facebook inclusivity in the higher ranks, “if they are trying to encourage more participating, why make the classes less inviting.” 

To this I would posit that in the jumper ring at, say Wellington, the fences are bigger, wider, and the courses are more technical at every level of the sport than ever. And entries are larger than ever. Giving people a challenge competition versus a perfectionism competition might just make the hunters more interesting again. Additionally, even “only” 30 in an International Derby can take 5+ hours. More than that and it’s probably not a good reflection of the quality and difficulty of competition, and it’s long and boring for competitors and spectators alike. 

Is this a good change for improvement of our sport? I believe so. Has the USHJA over the last two decades created a system for horses to grow up to bravely contest big and thrilling competition? I believe so. Should it have been much easier to find and potentially in prize lists additionally for the first year? I also believe so. 

Cannon Creek and Hunt Tosh winning USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. Photo: Heather N. Photography.