Previously I have discussed Western horses, and I'll be covering flat saddle English horses tomorrow, yet mounts well suited for those disciplines are far more specialized than one of the current (and perennial) favorite classes of many in show ring circles -- the Hunter.
One reason why Hunt Seat classes are so popular, particularly within the Arabian breed, is because the frame and movement asked for is so naturally easy for the horses. They don’t have to work with such extreme confines, limitations and collection as does the Western horse, nor are they required to push the limits of elevation, impulsion and action we see in English horses.
I look for an athletic yet subdued horse who isn’t necessarily lazy, an animal with a good reach (length of stride) who can both cover ground as well as move fluidly. Hunter horses should give the impression that they could easily navigate a course of fences as well as gallop down a country lane; bright ears, a long nicely arched neck and outstanding use of hock makes for a sharp entry in the Arabian world of Hunter Pleasure (not unlike that which you would see in the Morgan, Saddlebred, Andalusian and National Show Horse breeds, albeit slightly -- or NOT so slightly -- less fancy).
Something I wanted to briefly touch on here, I am focusing this post on the Arabian breed, which are my specialty. In Stock breeds, such as the Quarter Horse, Appaloosa or Paint, there exists no specific division called Hunter Pleasure...they only offer Hunter Under Saddle. With Arabians, we have both, however, our HUS ‘classes’ are actually one part of the Hunter division, where entries also compete in an Over Fences section in order to determine the winners. That said, let’s get back to describing our ideal Hunter as well as what our options are with him.
For today’s competitive show ring, bigger horses tend to occupy the winner’s circle most frequently, though smaller horses can do fine as long as they have the needed length of stride, suspension of gait and “wow” factor necessary to stand out in a crowd. If I am searching for a show ring flat Hunter to compete at the National level, however, my preference will be for a horse which stands between 15-15.2 hands and up, but make sure he’s flashy enough to stand out in those 30+ horse classes! Paramount in a Hunter Pleasure horse is also a relaxed, happy attitude and the ability to perform with ease and fluidity coupled with impeccable manners and a desire to please.
These days, owners of Hunter-type Arabian horses also have the option of entering the Sport Horse division, though a number of differences do exist. First, what we call our “main ring” Hunter Pleasure classes are judged by those folks carded by USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) to judge most divisions in the Arabian show ring. Sport Horse classes, however, will be adjudicated by judges with exclusive experience in the traditional Sport Horse venues of Dressage and Hunter/Jumper (which is not to say that some Arabian judges do not or cannot have experience in these areas, some do and they regularly officiate in the Arabian Sport Horse ring). Therefore, a horse which may be a tremendously competitive Hunter Pleasure horse could conceivably ‘get the gate’ if shown as a Hunter-type entry in the Sport Horse Under Saddle classes, since most are bold, round kneed movers, which is a distinct no-no to Open Hunter savvy judges. They look more for a ‘daisy cutter’ long, low, flat-kneed moving animal and I suggest showing the more fancy horses as Dressage-type rather than Hunter-type since that choice is given to the exhibitor.
Also, something to consider is bit choice, though Junior Horse and Futurity entries are shown in snaffles, most of today’s Hunter Pleasure horses wear the kimberwicke, which is not an acceptable bit in the Sport Horse ring. They must either be ridden in a snaffle, or a pelham which can be cumbersome and difficult to handle for relatively inexperienced riders.
Ultimately our goal is Tulsa in October (or Sport Horse Nationals in September which is held in either Nampa, Idaho or Lexington, Kentucky). Therefore, we will begin our quest for roses by selecting shows which give us both points for qualifications as well as an idea of how competitive our horse will be against the best in the country come Nationals time.
When planning a show season, I look for the most bang for my (or my clients’) buck. Meaning, I want to exhibit a Nationals bound horse just enough to gain him experience (if he’s a greenie or a baby) and get him qualified, but not burn him out by over showing him.
When picking qualifiers for each Region we plan to compete at, my first choices are generally those shows which attract the most horses of the best quality, such as Whittier Lions at Pomona, CA, in January for Region I (held in late May or early June), the February Scottsdale, AZ show for Region VII (held in mid-late April), Nor Cal during April in Rancho Murieta, CA for Region III (held in early to mid-July and Santa Barbara over Memorial Day weekend (which doubles as another Nationals qualifier like Regionals since the Pacific Slopes Championships are also held during this show) for Region II in late June. That’s basically four (five counting Slopes) opportunities to qualify for Regional competition and four Regional shows. Chances are, by that point if my ‘Nationals bound’ horses are suited for competition at that level, they should be qualified and perhaps adorned with multiple Regional titles. Then, after at least a month off, with the Futurity horses I’ll target the Santa Barbara Fall show for one last tune-up before heading to the big time.
Keep in mind that how many Regions we plan to take any particular horse to largely depends on a few factors, such as how well he handles the show ring environment as well as how quickly he becomes qualified. Some horses need the extra exposure, while some are natural born stars!
Most importantly, as long as showing remains fun, your Junior Horse should go on to have a long, successful career, and that’s the whole point.