Saturday, August 8, 2009

The English Disciplines: Choosing The Right One For YOUR Horse

This is another older article, from quite a number of years back that I've brought out and dusted off for my readership here. Lots of pertinent good info, so enjoy. I'm posting the Western version tomorrow:

So you’ve got a new horse and all your friends have suggested that he “looks like an English horse”, now you want to compete on him. How do you know if your horse will make an acceptable English candidate or which division you should show him in?

If he’s a Quarter Horse or Paint horse, the answer is fairly simple -- but you’re going to want to make sure he’s suited conformationally, athletically and mentally to do well. When seeking a Hunter Under Saddle prospect in the stock breeds, trainers and exhibitors look for tall, long legged, long strided and low, long necked horses who fit the image of English. That more narrow and less stocky Thoroughbred-like look is very popular in the HUS arena. Traditional foundation-bred Quarter Horses can do fine under English tack, but they don’t often have the World-winning form or give the impression that they are made for the task.

You want to start with a horse who possesses a long well angulated shoulder and a neck that ties into the chest deeply, while allowing for ample natural carriage. He should be a fluid, free moving horse with a ground covering stride and good impulsion from his hindquarters who moves forward with confidence. Desired movement can be somewhat round and have just a hint of arrogance: He should be authoritative traveling around the ring! With these mental pictures created, you should be able to ascertain if you have a good HUS prospect.

When you have an Arabian or a Morgan, you have the choice of a myriad of English classes, but what you’ll be looking for in the ideal prospect isn’t much different. Under Hunter tack, you can compete in Hunter pleasure or venture into the Sport Horse Under Saddle classes. These horses must retain much the same frame and many similar qualities as the stock breed animals do, though a more arched neck and a lot more forward impulsion is a must in today’s show ring. Many winning Hunter horses these days also have higher, more round action than in the past and than their Quarter Horse counterparts do. The exception is the SHUS, as these judges are looking for more of an Open Hunter-type mover unless the horse is shown under Dressage appointments.

Depending on how your horse carries himself and on his motion, you have numerous Saddleseat options with these breeds as well. Country English pleasure horses are flat saddle mounts with good manners, a pleasant expression in the bridle and who have the appearance of being a good Saddleseat horse while not trotting over the moon. English pleasure animals are more animated and not as relaxed, higher stepping and ground covering with good speed while maintaining balance. There is also the Park division, which is for the ultimate athletes in Arabian and Morgan Saddleseat endeavors. They’re the fancy, brilliant high stepping horses shown in formal attire, the stars of the show.

For the ideal Saddleseat mount, you will want a horse who has low set hocks and carries them well under himself, has a compact back and powerful quarter to sit back and drive off and a good free shoulder. His neck should set high on that shoulder and he should possess a well hinged poll for easier bridling. He should also be able to be comfortable maintaining the necessary frame and level of collection desired in these divisions for long periods of time. If a horse isn’t built that way and you force him to carry himself, you’ll have an unhappy mount who is in pain, and you most certainly won’t be winning any classes.

Something that’s also fun about riding Saddleseat is that you have so many options in clothing. Unlike Hunters, where tradition reigns supreme and subdued, conservative colors are mandatory (ok, maybe not in all breeds...but I’m a traditionalist when it comes to attire), in the Saddleseat ranks you can be a little daring. Staples like your base suit should be a dark color, such as navy, but you can accent with light shirts, wild colored or patterned “day coats” and bright ties. For chestnut horses, I also like an understated beige with creme accents...but I've covered show ring attire more in depth earlier, and that's a topic I have been asked via email to delve into in even more detail.

My favorite Arabian-division class is the Show Hack event. The perfect show hack horse will be built similarly to a Country pleasure horse, without quite as much elevation as is necessary in English pleasure. Now split into English Show Hack and Sport Horse Show Hack, it’s the ultimate place to showcase the best trained horses in the breed. Exhibited mostly under Dressage tack (And in formal Dressage attire - shadbelly coat with tails, white breeches and a top hat - for the English version), the horses competing in this class are basically judged on the rail using the collection and extension principles of Dressage.

When showing in Morgan circles, you have the option of a Classic Pleasure class, too -- which is similar to AHA’s Country English pleasure section though an Amateur only division -- and Road Hack, similar to Show Hack, as some other breeds do. Conformation to look for will be nearly identical to that sought with an Arabian in the same divisions. The American Saddlebred on the other hand, and in part the National Show Horse (an Arabian/Saddlebred cross), have a somewhat different structure of classes, with Pleasure, Three Gaited and Five Gaited events to choose from. A Three Gaited class is what’s now referred to as Park in the Arabian breed, for the extreme high steppers. Five Gaited horses are equally as animated but also add in another dimension, called racking, both fast and slow, in addition to your typical walk, trot and canter. Conformationally speaking, you will likewise seek a high neck set, a deep, well laid back shoulder, a long nicely angulated hip with hocks set down for drive and a brightness in the bridle. In recent years there have been Hunter classes added to the Saddlebred and NSH roster as well and Show Hack is also offered for the NSH's, but you’ll find them looking vastly different from the Hunters you see in most other breeds, with no long, low daisy cutters in sight.

In the Appaloosa, Palomino and Pinto breeds, because they are based on coat colors or patterns as opposed to being dependent entirely on bloodlines, your options are either Hunter-seat or Saddleseat too, depending on what those bloodlines tell you. There are many pinto National Show Horses, and they, along with the Spotted Saddle Horses (basically a cross between ASB’s and TWH’s with pinto coat patterns) are mostly Saddleseat-type mounts in the show ring. Of course, you’ll have more than a few choices of Hunter-type overos, toveros or tobianos. If your preference is a dilute, you can find Palomino horses ranging from the Hunt seat style QH’s to the Golden Saddlebred, with a variety of animals to choose from in between. I have also seen a wide choice of Appaloosa’s, too, including a breathtaking chestnut Half-Saddlebred ridden Saddleseat style who had a lovely snowflake blanket and was highly competitive at ApHC shows.

I cannot stress enough that if a horse fits the conformational description of a division, he’s more than likely going to excel in that division. Just as a horse who doesn’t look the part is almost guaranteed failure.

There are some English divisions and events, however, which aren’t limited by the breed of horses allowed to compete. Open Hunter and Jumper circuits, as well as USDF sanctioned Dressage, offer all breeds a chance to participate against each other. While you can find Dressage and over fences classes at Arabian and other breed shows, it’s only in the Open ranks that you can truly find out if your horse can hold his own competing alongside the best of the best.

Ideal Dressage horses pretty much all need the same basic ingredients: A well set on neck, neither too high nor too low, a good shoulder angle which allows for freedom of movement, a short, strong back (particularly in relation to the size of the horse) and a slight slope to the croup with excellent gaskins and hocks for the necessary power. The only difference is when you get into the upper levels, which require a more “perfect” specimen. The physical ability to elevate, collect and extend with ease and a long, cadenced stride are imperative, no matter which level you’re looking to advance to. Frankly, all horses could benefit greatly from a little bit of Dressage foundation, from Standardbreds to Tennessee Walkers to Andalusians, but that does not mean all horses can be Grand Prix winners.

Some folks also don’t understand that there is a difference, at events which showcase over fences classes, between “Hunters” and “Jumpers”. A true Hunter will be judged on style, form and presence, while the sole quality Jumpers need to possess is the ability to quickly get around their course without refusing to take a fence, knocking down or otherwise disturbing a component of a jump. If your horse can win in a competitive flat Hunter class yet has dexterity, concentration and isn’t overly clumsy, he might just make a great Hunter over fences. In the event he’s simply got the ability to clear anything you point him at regardless of how he looks doing it, you may have a super Jumper candidate.

Even as the Open H/J and Dressage shows have become more popular in recent times for Arabians, Morgans and Quarter Horses -- among others -- the Thoroughbred and various Warmblood breeds still set the standards in those venues.

Now, with all the above breeds, divisions and classes we’ve tackled (no pun intended!) above, there are three basic distinct and very different types of saddles: Hunt seat, also known as forward seat; Saddleseat, also known as a flat saddle or cutback; and Dressage. The widest variation comes in Hunt seat saddles, which range from an all-purpose close contact you would expect to see in HUS or Hunter pleasure classes, to the deep seated jumping saddles where you’ve got deep knee rolls and an even deeper seat to help you stay in the saddle taking a fence. There are some English flat saddles better suited to keeping an equitation rider’s seat and legs in the proper place, while others offer a better position for purportedly getting more motion out of your horse by setting you further back on his loin (although I’m certainly not fond of this trend). Whichever saddle you choose for the class or division you ultimately pick for your horse, as long as it fits him properly and adheres to rule book specifications, you will be fine.

The same situation exists in bridles and bits, as many Hunter pleasure and Hunter under saddle horses wear kimberwickes, which are illegal in some other divisions such as the Arabian sport horse classes and Dressage. Open H/J exhibitors and judges tend to frown on them, as well, regardless of how popular they are with some trainers. Snaffles are the all-around most popular choice for the widest variety of English-type events, but both the majority of Saddleseat mounts as well as upper level Dressage horses are shown in a Weymouth, or full (sometimes called the double) bridle. More information on this topic will be included in future installments of Laying The Foundation, which will outline various bits and their proper usage. Just make sure you read those rulebooks and understand exactly what you need!


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