What can I do to place higher in my ‘hunter over fence’ classes?

jumping horse and riderQuestion: I can’t seem to place well in the hunter classes, even the small ones. When I enter, I try to start slowly and not get too anxious about the whole course. I try to let the judge see that I am not nervous. My horse has a hunter build and movement as I place well in the ‘hunter-under-saddle’ classes. What could I do to improve this?

Answer from April Reeves: Many beginner and intermediate riders in the hunter divisions blow their placings before they get to the first fence.

Don’t sit around and wait idly with your horse’s head down and sleeping. You need to enter the arena fully awake and ready to work. If you are near the end of the go-round, and there are 25 horses in front of you, go for a walk. Stay active.

When you enter, your first circle to the fence will either make or break you. You can’t start slow and build your speed as you go. You need to start at the right pace and have enough impulsion to carry you through the entire course, and you need to have the speed, canter and impulsion you will use through the entire course within the first one to two strides. You don’t need to show the judge you are ‘composed’ by starting slowly. You need to show them that you know what you are doing in there, and that you can keep your horse consistent from the very second you enter. You also need to get the appropriate pace for the course. This will vary according to the height of the fences, the type of course it is, and the length of your horse’s stride.

If you don’t practice an entry circle at home, work on it until you get the pace down consistently.

Warm up your horse carefully at a show. Do not overdo your warm up exercises. You should be getting the horse soft and supple and elastic, not hot and tired. I tell my students to do your homework at home. The show ring is the place where you show the world how much you have done, not what you need to do (other than training shows and green classes).

Another few items you may be doing to keep you from pinning (as I do not know what happens during the entire ride), are the following:

The ability to ride a soft three-point seat (where only your legs and crotch are in contact with the horse, allowing freedom of the back; you are NOT sitting deep) and half-seat/two-point properly through the course. You will ride better and have a better feel for where the jump is through your seat’s ‘soft’ contact with the saddle. It gives you the ‘information’ you need because you can feel what the horse is doing, giving you a fighting chance to indiscreetly correct anything while staying off his back (don’t get caught correcting in hunter).

Get rid of your crest release and learn to use an automatic release, where there is a straight line from the bit to your elbow. Riders get lazy and too comfortable with the crest release. It also shows an amateur approach to your ‘equine’ education. Spend the time to learn how to follow your horse’s mouth with your hands, and use them independently. Learn to balance without the use of the horse’s neck for support. Become an equitation rider in order to ride hunter classes.

Turn out you and your horse impeccably. Braid well, and if you can’t braid, practice and learn it until your fingers hurt. Polish his feet, clip everything, clean all equipment, feed him enough groceries to produce the ‘bloom’ you need to stand out.

Are your flying changes smooth? If not, this is another thing to practice perfectly until it’s perfect.

Are you cornering properly; not taking turns too sharply or cutting corners?

Are you entering each fence in a straight line?

Does the horse enter and exit his fence evenly? He should be equidistant from the point of take-off to the landing point. This is absolutely vital for a hunter.

Are you keeping your horse nicely on the bit through the entire course? Don’t let your hands slip the reins; keep them closed and don’t fumble with with reins once through the course.

Many other things go into total scores for placing in the top 4. How your horse forms his fences; does he have nice tidy lift on the front, good bascule, and nice clearance but not too high? Or does he “crack his back” or flatten out? How is his cadence and rhythm? These are all questions that you may want to have a professional look at. Find someone who really knows the ‘hunter world’ and have them critique you.

These are a few things you may want to have another look at. Hunters should have a consistent, even pace through the entire course, and that includes the circle.

If you have no way to find someone quickly, I do critique photos and video for people. If you allow me to post it, I will do it for free. If you would like to keep the information private, I do charge a fee. You can contact me at: info@horsemansu.com. Good luck with this and I hope you do well in 2009.

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