Hunter horses are known for their elegance, grace, and appealing demeanor. Originating from fox hunting traditions in the United Kingdom, hunters now compete in show arenas around the world on the flat and over jumps.

Judges score hunters based on the ideal qualities of a fox hunting horse: having a smooth gait, a calm disposition, and an ideal jumping posture.

Riders carefully guide their mounts through jumping courses or ridden performances to give the horse the best opportunity to demonstrate skill and quality.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about the unique qualities of hunter horses, the competition formats, levels of competition, necessary equipment, and judging.

What is Show or Working Hunter?

Hunter horses demonstrate characteristics desirable for a fox hunting horse, including a ground-covering gait, bravery, and correct jumping posture. Show hunters primarily compete on the flat (no jumping), while working hunters perform over a course of rustic fences that resemble what they may encounter in the hunting field. [1]

History

Hunter has its roots in fox hunting tradition, where horses and riders crossed miles of open countryside in pursuit of a fox. [2] Hunters would have to navigate terrain and obstacles, such as jumping over fences, stone walls, or hedges. [2]

The ideal fox hunting horse was brave, well-trained and calm, and had a smooth, ground-covering gait that made for a pleasant long-distance ride.

Modern day hunter competitions test these attributes in horses without requiring vast expanses of countryside to gallop over. [2]

Hunter horses must demonstrate: [2]

  • A smooth and consistent pace
  • Good behavior
  • Correct jumping technique

Judges evaluate hunters both over fences and “on the flat” (no jumping) to select the horse with the best hunter attributes. [2]

Hunter Sport Organizations

Show hunters do not have an international regulating body, so each individual country sets their own rules and regulations for show hunter competitions.

Show hunter competitions vary between countries in terms of the types of classes offered, scoring, and presentation of the horse and rider. However, the basic principles of having a horse suitable for fox hunting are consistent between countries.

Countries that commonly hold show hunter competitions, and their respective governing organizations, include: [1][3][4][5][6]

Hunter Competitions

There are two main types of hunter competitions: Show Hunters and Working Hunters. Many hunter competitions offer components of both types of classes. For example, Working Hunter is most common in the United States and Canada, but shows often require a “flat phase” resembling Show Hunter as part of the competition.

Show Hunter

Show hunters typically perform on the flat only, without any jumping phases. The traditional Show Hunter competitions are most common in the United Kingdom and Australia, however other countries also include a component of flatwork in their Working Hunter competitions.

During Show Hunter competitions, the horses and riders demonstrate the horse’s gaits to the judges. Judges may also ask for lengthened gaits, such as a lengthened trot or hand gallop. [4]

Judges rank the combinations based on: [4]

  • The horse’s behavior
  • The quality of the horse
  • Overall appearance

Horses should be obedient and move freely with ground-covering paces and light contact in the bridle. [4]

Usually all of the horse and rider combinations entered in the class perform at the same time. [4] In large classes, the judges may divide the class into smaller groups for safety reasons. [4]

In the United Kingdom, it is common for each horse and rider combination to also give an “individual show” of up to 1 minute long, demonstrating the required gaits. [1]

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Working Hunter

Working hunters compete over a course of eight or more fences. [4] The fences typically have a rustic appearance, resembling the walls, hedges, or fences that a fox hunting horse would encounter in the countryside. [4] Judges score the horses based on their suitability as a fox hunting mount.

Horse and rider combinations can receive a lower score for the following errors: [4]

  • Rubbing or knocking a pole
  • Swapping canter leads in a line or in front of a jump
  • Spooking or refusing at a fence
  • Adding or leaving out a stride in a line of fences
  • Jumping with poor form
  • Bucking, playing, or other unusual behaviors
  • Failing to change the canter lead at an appropriate time
  • Trotting on course where not required by the course design

The judge ranks the horse and rider combinations based on a subjective score, taking into consideration any errors during the performance. After all the riders complete the course, the class receives ribbons based on the judge’s ranking. [4]

There are several types of working hunter classes with different goals and expectations, including: [3][4]

  • Working Hunter: a traditional hunter course with no additional requirements
  • Handy Hunter: these classes aim to simulate rugged terrain that a hunting horse may have to navigate in a real hunt. Courses can include “in and outs” (two jumps spaced with one or two strides between them), bending lines, rollback turns, opening a gate while mounted, trotting over an obstacle, and others
  • Hunter Classic: a more challenging course that often has prize money available to the winners
  • Hunter Derby: a challenging course with more fences over a longer distance, that may include natural obstacles such as banks, hedges, or upright walls. There are often “options” within the course where riders can choose to jump a more complex fence to earn more points
  • Hunter Hack: a class where riders primarily show their horses on the flat, then jump one or two fences in the arena individually

After each hunter class, the riders must jog their horses, or bring them into the arena in-hand at the trot. [3] The rider must remove the horse’s saddle and martingale for the jog, so that the judge can evaluate the horse’s soundness effectively. [3] Horses that are not serviceably sound are not eligible to receive placings in the class. [3]

Hunter Breeding

Some competitions offer Hunter Breeding classes, which judge the entries based on their quality, conformation, and suitability as a breeding animal to produce future hunter horses. [4] Competitors show their horses in-hand (on a leadline) using a bridle or halter. [4]

Shows may offer Hunter Breeding divisions for all ages of horses, from foals to aged stallions. Common divisions include: [4]

  • Foals
  • Yearlings
  • Two-year-olds
  • Three-year-olds
  • Mares
  • Broodmares with a foal at foot
  • Stallions
  • Stallion with progeny

Judges examine several aspects of the horses to determine their suitability as a hunting horse. Characteristics examined include: [4]

Ladies Side Saddle

Some shows may offer ladies side saddle classes as part of their hunter competition offerings. [4] Only adult women may compete in ladies side saddle. [4]

Side saddle riders compete on the flat, in a working hunter class of at least 3 feet in height, and in a hunter hack-style competition. [4] Judges primarily score the horse and rider combinations based on the horse’s training and demeanor, soundness, and performance. [4]

There is also a portion of the score dedicated to the overall appearance of the horse and rider’s attire. [4] Side saddle riders must wear a habit, or a long coat, in a black or dark blue. [4]

The breeches must be the same color as the habit. Riders also wear a vest and a hunting stock, a collar pinned with a safety pin. [4]

Judges also look for several traditional items as part of the horse and rider’s appointment (attire and tack). These include: [4]

  • Rain gloves: white or light-colored gloves carried under the saddle flap, with the gloves only just visible
  • Sandwich case: the sandwich case must include a plain, white-meat sandwich without the crusts, wrapped in wax paper
  • Flask: the flask is usually a combined piece of equipment with the sandwich case. The flask must contain sherry or tea

Hunter Level

The different levels of hunter competition vary between countries. However, most countries offer specific classes based on:

  • Type of horse (e.g., horse versus pony)
  • Age and skill of the rider
  • Age and skill of the horse

Common divisions (a series of classes) offered at shows include: [3][4]

  • Pre-Green Hunter: horses in their first or second year of showing 3′ 0″ (1.00 m) or higher
  • Green Hunter: horses in their first or second year of showing 3′ 6″ (1.15 m) or higher
  • Young Hunter: based on the horse’s age
  • Pony Hunter: classes exclusively for ponies, with the related distances adjusted for pony strides
  • Junior Hunter: for riders under 18 years of age
  • Children’s Hunter: for riders under 18 years of age who have not competed over 3′ 3″ (1.00 m)
  • Adult Amateur Hunter: for adult riders who are not professional equestrians
  • Open Hunter: for any level of horse and rider

There is also variation based on the prestige and size of the show, for example a national show has higher expectations than a local level show. [4]

Hunter Equipment

Hunter horses and riders wear the traditional attire and equipment used by fox hunters. The consistent appearance between riders and horses allows the judges to focus on the performance without distractions.

Horse Equipment

Hunters wear an English jumping-style saddle, bridle, and girth. [4] Under the saddle, riders use a white saddle-shaped pad or a sheepskin. [3] The horse cannot wear any boots or bandages on their legs during competition. [3]

Some riders may choose to wear a standing martingale, running martingale, or breastplate for the jumping phases. [4]

There are several restrictions on the type of bits that riders can use for hunter horses. Only snaffles, pelhams, and double bridles are permissible for hunter competition. [4] Gags, three ring bits, and many other types of leverage bits are illegal. [4]

Additionally, nosebands must be a plain cavesson without a drop, flash, or figure-eight component. [4]

Rider Attire

Riders wear traditional hunting attire including a dark hunting coat, a white shirt with a collar, and white or cream-colored breeches. [4] Dark-colored boots are preferred, but paddock boots with half chaps are permissible for some classes. [4]

All riders must wear protective headgear with an appropriately tightened chin strap. [4] Riders may carry a short whip in one hand. [4]

Hunter Horses

Hunter horses can be any breed, shape, and size. However, most high-level hunter horses in North America are warmblood breeds. [7]

Characteristics of Hunter Horses

Hunter horses must have a good jumping form, ground-covering movement, and a calm demeanor. [8]

Good jumping form means the horse tightly tucks their knees over the fence, with the forearms held parallel to the ground and even with each other. [8] Horses that jump with loose lower limbs, or who do not bring their knees up high enough (“hanging” a leg) are penalized in competitions. [8]

On the flat, hunters should have free-flowing and ground-covering movement. [8] Judges often describe the ideal movement of a hunter as “daisy cutting“, having such minimal knee action and lift with each step that the horse would knock down daisies. [8]

Finally, the horses must be brave enough to challenge the rustic obstacles they face in the hunter arena. [8] They must be able to handle the busy and noisy horse show environment with grace and ease, without becoming excitable or anxious. [8]

Managing Hunter Horses

Owners and trainers of hunter horses strive to optimize the health and wellness programs for their horses, to ensure peak performance during competition.

Hunter competition teams are built of qualified industry professionals, including veterinarians, farriers, exercise and training experts, physiotherapists, and nutritionists to ensure that the horses are feeling their best on show day.

Want to know if your hunter’s diet is missing anything? Submit your horse’s information for a free evaluation and consult with our qualified equine nutritionists to formulate the best feeding plan for your team.

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References

  1. Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain Handbook 2024. Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain. 2024.
  2. Hunter/Jumper 101 :: USHJA. United States Hunter Jumper Association.
  3. Section G: Hunter, Jumper, Equitation and Hack. Equestrian Canada. 2024.
  4. Chapter HU: Hunter Division. United States Equestrian Federation.
  5. Show Horse. Equestrian Australia.
  6. About Show Hunter | ESNZ. Equestrian Sports New Zealand. 2017.
  7. Leading Sire Rankings. US Equestrian.
  8. Korotkin, A., What Makes a Good Hunter?. Horse Journals. 2012.