Dazzling at Horse Shows Across the Nation

English disciplines such as dressage, eventing and show jumping are all deeply rooted in traditions that tell the story of their history. The modern show hunter has strong ties to traditions as well due to its fox hunting origins. While keeping many of the appreciated traits of original field hunters, it has evolved into something decidedly different. Historically, hunters have been overshadowed at hunter jumper horse shows by the glitz and glamour of show jumping with the big night classes under the lights and much larger prize money offered. In contrast, the hunter ring’s subjectivity combined with muted decor and golf clap enthusiasm is more in line with a performance of Swan Lake compared to a Yankees playoff game. This “second fiddle” status continued with growing disparity until nearly 10 years ago when the hunter world had a major jumpstart: the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby. Since the explosion of derbies throughout the country, the entire hunter industry has been rewarded with not only new fans and avid followers, media publicity and sponsorships but a chance to shine in the spotlight and earn back a very exciting and deserved place in the horse industry. The hunter derby has changed show hunters the way a spring rain shower changes a thirsty flower garden — refreshes, rejuvenates and showcases the very best of the individual.

“The International Hunter Derbies have elevated the sport and really made the hunters more exciting for the spectators. Horse shows are able to showcase the derby classes and make them highlights of a show schedule.”
— Liza Boyd,
Winner of Over 30 USHJA International Hunter Derbies, 3-Time USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals Champion & Platinum Performance® Client since 2005

Tradition with a Twist

The cornerstone of the contemporary show hunter stems from Europe when aristocratic huntsmen rode horses across the countryside tracking game, usually with scent dogs to facilitate the sport. These original hunter horses galloped for miles over all different types of terrain, jumping obstacles that came up along the way that included ditches, walls, brush, fences and creeks. The field hunter horse displayed certain desired traits — a calm demeanor, smooth gaits and a steady way of going combined with an all-important clean and efficient jumping style — all of which are still valued in the modern show hunter. But since its fox hunting beginnings, the sport of showing hunters has become much more refined and competitive. The modern hunter is very specialized in the type of work he is asked to do in the show ring. There are several additional characteristics sought out in a good hunter today, in addition to all of the original desirable qualities. As specialists, they should have correct conformation and be good movers with cadence and balance throughout the gaits. They need to be athletic and keen yet still easy-going with a graceful presence and effortless style and manners. Now not only must they jump in a clean and efficient way, but they must be brilliant while doing so and the higher the jump, the more excellence is expected.

One of the most beloved things about riding hunters is that it can literally appeal to anyone. It can be an excellent starting point and foundation for someone just learning how to ride and jump, or for some adults coming out of the “gap years” and getting back into the sport. It is a very amateur-friendly sport, for all ages, down to young children on hunter ponies. Anyone can learn to jump over smaller fences and gain confidence knowing there is always “one hole up” through 4’ high fences that hunter riders can aspire to; riders can continue to climb the ranks as their skill level develops or as they become more comfortable with their horse and master a certain fence height or division. Accomplished riders can compete against peers for championships at shows and ride for year-end awards. Showing in the hunter divisions can create a solid basic riding position to segue into other hunt seat disciplines like equitation and show jumping. And absolutely anyone can appreciate a seasoned professional riding art personified, as a graceful, shiny hunter in braids canters around a course creating the illusion that everything is, in fact, effortless. The modernization of the hunter brought out the best in simplicity, accessibility and the sheer joy of horseback riding to so many. But with that came a bit of a glass ceiling for some professionals and talented riders craving more challenge from their beloved sport. The typical side-diagonal-side-diagonal that has become the dedicated course for hunters certainly has its place, but it became increasingly obvious that both horses and riders alike needed a way to show off their brilliance and athletic capability.

Enter the Hunter Derby

In the early 2000s, concepts were exchanged by the USHJA High Performance Committee with the goal of breathing new life into showing hunters. General interest was dwindling, and it had become a not particularly spectator-friendly sport for someone outside of the hunter world to understand or appreciate. What decades earlier had consisted of impressive, interesting jumps in both height and style on huge expanses of grass had been simplified to repeatable courses in much smaller arenas. The USHJA International Hunter Derby concept began with the idea to bring back some of the things that had made hunters special in days gone by. The objectives were simple, yet lofty: bring the hunters up to the international level, increase public attention and sponsorships, make the hunters spectator-friendly and bring more of the original tradition and essential riding principals back to the show ring.

In 2008, the USHJA launched the first International Hunter Derby Series. These new Hunter Derby classes were able to truly highlight the High Performance Hunters, hunters that show at fence heights of 3’6” inches and higher. These elite equine athletes could demonstrate their skill and courage at a higher level of difficulty with new questions being asked on course and on a larger scale, and riders were rewarded with significant prize money for a job well done. Fences were set big with higher options and the inclusion of a handy round for riders to show more pace and athleticism over obstacles typically encountered while galloping in the open field. Since its inception, over 70 qualifying derbies are now offered at horse shows throughout the country, with no less than $10,000 purses and up to $50,000 or more at certain venues. For a decade, the Hunter Derby Program has continued to be incredibly well-received and continues to gain popularity. It certainly filled a gap for the good of the sport and spurred a renaissance for the show hunter.

“It’s incredible to see the impact that the USHJA International Hunter Derby program is having on the Hunter discipline, and it’s exciting to see the renewed energy and excitement it has created for the sport,” said Mary Babick, president of the USHJA. “It has even created new opportunities for horses that may be best suited to do the derbies versus a typical hunter class, so it’s broadening the sport at the same time that it’s lifting it up. We love to see how, as we’ve implemented the derby concept at other levels, it is building excitement with some of our youngest members. It was certainly the spark the sport needed.”

  • Kelli Cruciotti and Monterrey

    Photo by Shawn McMillen

  • Victoria Colvin and Cuba

    Photo by Tricia Booker/USHJA

The Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship

In 2009, the USHJA introduced the first USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship where professional whiz John French rode Rumba to victory and earned the lion’s share of the $100,000 inaugural purse. This has grown immensely with the total payout at the 2017 Championship coming to $268,550 in prize money. The Championship continues to be the culmination for International Hunter Derby participants. The 2018 Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship will return to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, on August 16-18. All horses enrolled in the USHJA International Hunter Derby Program that have earned at least $500 in recognized Derby Classes will receive an invitation to compete at the Championship.

The Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship runs over three days. Following an Official Jog for soundness on the first day, the Championship format consists of two main rounds: the Classic Hunter Style Round and the Handy Hunter Round. All qualified horses will compete in the first round of competition, the Classic Hunter Style Round. The Classic Round will have a minimum of 10 obstacles with heights set between 3’6” and 4’, with no more than 50 percent set at 3’6” in height. The course must include four higher height fence options set between 4’3” and 4’9” on a track with a similar degree of difficulty. This course must also include at least one in and out, a bending line, a line with an unrelated distance and a fence with a long approach. Fences are to be reminiscent of those seen on the hunt field and may include natural post and rail, stone walls, coops, aiken, white board fences or gates, hedges, oxers, brushes, logs and natural foliage. Banks and ditches are also allowed. There are six judges who give a numerical base score out of 100 based on quality, movement, jumping style, manners and general way of going. Pace and brilliance are to be rewarded, and bonus scores are given as 1 additional point for each higher fence option jumped.

Following the Classic Hunter Style Round, horse and rider combinations are divided based on scores from the first round into Section A, Section B or Derby Challenge competitors that will all go on to tackle a Handy Hunter Round. Section A consists of the top 20 scoring horse and rider combinations plus ties. Section B consists of the top 20 Tier II riders, those competitors that are not standing 40th or higher based on the past Three-Year Rider Money Won List. Finally, the Derby Challenge is open to anyone that did not qualify for either Section A or Section B after the Classic Round.

The Handy Hunter Round has some similarities to the first round in that numerical scoring is used by the judges, similar types of fences and fence heights are used, as well as what the horse is judged on: quality and movement, jumping style, manners and way of going. Pace and brilliance are definitely rewarded, and there are four high option fences to earn bonus points. The handy course is different in that it is to be kept tidy where rollbacks, tight turn options and creative approaches to fences are favored. The handy course may ask for transitions to a walk, halt or demonstrate backing the horse and then continuing the course. Pen type obstacles are seen, as well as walking or trotting fences. Judges can award up to 10 points for handiness. The Handy Hunter Round is a fan favorite to watch as it exemplifies ways that the hunter horse was originally careful, useful, brave and fun to ride. Final placings in all tiers are based off of composite scores from both the Classic Hunter Style Rounds and the Handy Hunter Rounds and are combined to crown a champion.

Derby Championship

USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship Format & Prize Money Payout

The Full Circle Hunter

Change is always hard, particularly when history and tradition are involved. But there is no doubt that the USHJA International Hunter Derby Program was genius in the simplicity to get hunters back to what everyone loved about them originally, with a modern twist. And derbies continue to evolve. In 2010, the USHJA added a National Hunter Derby (then called National Hunter Classic), which is similar in concept to the International Hunter Derby, but fences are lowered to 3’ with the high options set up to 3’5”, which can help both horses and riders gain experience in Derby competition at both a lower fence height and modified difficulty level. The Pony Hunter Derby Series was started in 2017 to cater to younger competitors. Each program offers a unique challenge to participating horses and riders. The 2018 changes include a new star system that designates the difficulty level, as well as a new format option for qualifiers called “hunt and go,” which brings the excitement akin to a power and speed class in the jumper ring. After the Classic Round, the horse and rider stays in the ring and immediately goes into the Handy Round without exiting the arena. There are several benefits to this format; a main one being that young riders or those new to riding in derbies will have the opportunity to try out a Handy Round without having to get called back for it by rankings.

Besides prize money continuing to increase which motivates top riders and owners to participate, the Hunter Derby Program has accomplished what it set out to do: revive the hunters, appeal to more people, rediscover the roots of the sport and bring back riding principals with a lot of collateral fun. The excitement of the crowd is palpable. Presenters are in formal attire donning dresses or tuxedos. Riders are turned out to the nines with shadbellies, white breeches and the occasional red U.S. Team jacket. Lucky charms are braided into manes and quarter marks brushed onto shiny haunches. The golf claps and soft whistles are upgraded to Oohs! and Aahs!, as fans from all backgrounds are on the edge of their seats, saturated with the contagious enthusiasm of watching top athletes showing off their very best and leaving inhibitions at the ingate. That’s the Hunter Derby — a fresh spin on a classic.

Scott Stewart, aboard Playbook, won the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship

Platinum “Goes Green” During Platinum Performance/USHJA Hunter Week

In 2017, Platinum Performance partnered with the USHJA for the title sponsorship of the Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championships. The Green Hunter Incentive Program is designed to encourage the development of green horses and is open to horses eligible to compete in the Green Hunters, and, as of 2018, at the 3’, 3’3”, 3’6” and 3’9” heights.

This annual grand finale for green hunters is the kickoff to the 2018 Platinum Performance/USHJA Hunter Week held August 14-18 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, and runs just prior to the Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship. The competition is held over three days and consists of a first and second round where eligible horses will compete over two different courses suitable for Green Hunters. The final Championship Round brings back the top 30 horse and rider combinations plus ties with the highest combined scores from the first and second rounds. The scores from the first rounds will not carry over and the top 30 start with a clean slate in the Championship Round. With the addition of the 3’6” and 3’9” championships in 2018, these horses competing at the higher fence heights will only compete over a single course, from which the top 30 horses are called back for the Championship Round. It is a very welcoming and exciting event for green horses and inviting to all riders as professionals, amateurs and juniors are all welcome to compete.

“I think (the Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship) is awesome to highlight the young horses. It makes it worthwhile for the owners to bring them along,” said Scott Stewart of Flemington, New Jersey, and winner of the 2017 Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championship with Playbook.

Emily Smith, MS, Platinum Performance®
  • by Emily Smith, MS, Platinum Performance®

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