Reading Course Diagrams Part I: Hunters

Photo by Adam Hill.

BY TPH Staff

When you head down to the ring on show day at 7am to check in with your ring’s starter, you naturally (and sometimes nervously) drift over to the course board to see what the course designer has in store for you that day. 

After a few years of showing, you get the hang of how to interpret what’s presented – but to someone who is new to showing, what’s printed (and at the very least – legibly written) on that piece of paper can be overwhelming! 

In the first installment of our three-part series – “Reading Course Diagrams” – we will give you a guide on everything you can expect to find on a HUNTER course diagram, along with some helpful tips on deciphering striding numbers, and how to prevent the dreaded, “And Rider, you are unfortunately off course” announcement excusing you from the ring.

Keswick Horse Show Hunter Classic Course.

Let’s start with, “What elements are included on a hunter course diagram?”

At any well-managed, well-run show, these are elements you can expect to find on a hunter course diagram:

  • The show name and date – Tip: Make sure you’re not looking at Friday’s courses on Saturday morning. Or last week’s courses of a show at the same venue with a similar name (i.e. WEC 4 v. WEC 5).
  • The class name and number – Tip: It’s so important to make sure you are looking at the correct class. We know this sounds like common sense, but the 2nd trip for the low adults might not be the same 2nd trip that the amateur owners jumped earlier in the day.
  • The name of the ring – Tip: Don’t laugh – many rings at many venues share a fence line and have ingates in close proximity. It is highly likely they share a course board. Make sure you are looking at the courses for the correct ring you are showing in.
  • The name of the course designer
  • The shape of the ring, and sometimes even ring dimensions – Tip: You might see something on the course diagram such as “1” = 30’) – that is in reference to the “scale to size” of the ring.
  • All of the jumps set in the ring (whether they are part of your course or not) and if they are a vertical or an oxer
  • Where larger decorations/islands are set
  • Numbers on the take off side of the obstacles that are a part of your course – Tip: In rings where multiple classes go on the same day (i.e. open card warm up, 1st trip, 2nd trip, handy, 2nd round of the classic – and oh yes, a random medal trip thrown in), your quarter line or diagonal verticals will inevitably be jumped both ways. Make sure you are aware which direction you are to jump the first single in your trip. Many course designers will include arrows in the direction that the jumps are to be jumped on the course diagram.
  • The footage between jumps that are considered related distances for each height to be jumped over that course (footage will be different for the same course set at 2’6” for medium ponies versus the same course set at 3’ for a children’s hunter) – Tip: In long lines over 100’ that are considered unrelated, course designers will either not put a number, or simply type/write “Over 100’.” We will speak much more on “footage” later in this article.
  • If applicable, the dotted line designating a portion of the ring you must stay in before proceeding to the first jump. – Tip: Your time in the ring can end quite quickly if you don’t acknowledge the dotted line. That is considered off course and will result in no score/placing/ribbon.
  • If there are any option jumps – i.e. there could be a trot jump in a handy that you can trot in either direction, or there could be two jumps placed next to each other and you are allowed to jump either one
  • In the case of a handy, it will be noted if a jump is to be trotted, or handy galloped – or if a rider is to come down to a walk or halt anywhere on course
  • For derby courses, high options will be marked on the course diagram
  • In “hunt and go” derby formats, it will be noted where the “hunt” portion ends and where the “go” portion begins”
  • Where the ingate and outgate are located – Tip: You can absolutely be eliminated if you enter/exit the ring through the incorrect parts of the ring. That is considered “off course.”
2012 USHJA International Hunter Derby Course. Photo courtesy of USHJA.

Let’s talking striding…Rule of thumb for determining strides:  (X/Y) – 1 = number of strides desired between related jumps

X = footage posted on course diagram

Y = standard stride length for that sized animal as it relates to the jump height

  • i.e. small ponies, medium pony, large pony, horse
  • For horses, jump height will play a part in determining what Y will be. Lower jump heights will be set on a shorter stride size than higher jump heights.

-1 = 1 stride of the posted footage will be factored in and subtracted for the space used by the pony/horse for landing and takeoff in the related distance

Stride size that course designers use when mapping out their footage 

Small ponies: 9’6”-10’

Medium ponies: 10’6”-11’

Large ponies: 11’6”-12’

Horses*: 12’-13’ | *Jump height plays a major role in the stride size used for determining the footage between related jumps for horse divisions. Lower height = more conservative stride size to encourage a quiet, steady pace. Higher heights = more liberal stride size is used because horses jumping higher heights in the hunter ring tend to have a slightly larger stride and it’s ideal that a bolder, more brilliant paced is used when jumping around larger courses.


Medium Pony Hunter Over Fences (2’6”) class shows a line set at 63’: (63’/10’6” [or 10.5])-1 = 5 strides

USHJA 2’ Hunters Over Fences class shows a line set at 70’. You are on a young horse: (70’/11’)-1 = 5 strides

Low Children’s Hunter Over Fences (2’6”) class shows a line set at 59’: (59’/11’6” [or 11.5])-1 = 4 strides

High Performance Conformation Over Fences (3’9”) class shows a line set at 99’6”: (99’6” [or 99.5]/12’6” [or 12.5])-1 = 7 strides

What elements can affect the footage mapped out between related jumps?

Footage will be on the conservative side:

  • At local/schooling shows
  • In small rings
  • In indoor arenas where course designers know horses might be slightly backed off
  • When the footing is deeper than desired
  • Classes for young horses or ponies over low jumps
  • Lines are set on a definite uphill slope

Footage will be on the higher side of stride size standards:

  • In larger rings to encourage a more open, flowing stride
  • Lines are set on a downhill slope
  • At more prominent, prestigious show where a bold, brilliant pace is desired
Wellington International, WEF 8 Hunter Course.

Additional tips:

  • Always check your course diagram again right before you show to make sure the designer didn’t have to change anything due to scheduling, time constraints, the condition of the footing or a recent monsoon. 
  • To the prior point, the course designer is often one of the hardest working people at the horse show. Mistakes happen. They are human. After the first horse goes, they may realize they marked footage incorrectly on the course diagram. CHECK THE COURSE BOARD AGAIN RIGHT BEFORE YOU SHOW. Numbers may’ve been changed or scratched out and updated since you looked at the course diagram early in the morning.
  • Class instructions for a handy might not always be written near the jump on the course diagram. There could be a box in a corner of the course diagram that says (i.e.) “Trot 4 – Halt between 6 and 7 – Hand gallop 8.”
  • If you see something that’s amiss on the course diagram or the course itself, kindly mention it to the starter and they will contact the course designer to see if any corrections need to be made.

We hope this guide will help educate you on reading course diagrams and provides some insights on how course designers take the type/size of horse, jump height, ring conditions and type of class into consideration when mapping out their plans.