Monday, March 27, 2017

The Hunters (a brief intro for those on the other side)

I was reminiscing over old blog posts and reliving last year's show season, when I noticed a trend of comments saying "great job! can you explain the hunters so I know what it means" or "cool! I think.... because I don't really understand what you guys do.."

And I remembered that I have always intended to do a "Hunters for Dummies" post, but never gotten around to it. 

Ideally you get to wear a shadbelly while jumping.  #goals.
So we're getting around to it.  I'll do my best to explain the sport, but please bear in mind that this pony-clubbing-former-eventer is by no means a sanctioned ambassador of the Hunter Ring. 

Hopefully my (reasonably) fresh eyes will be more helpful than my currently eroding vocabulary.

Let's start simple.  People often refer to Hunters and Jumpers together.  But once you set foot in H/J land, you realize that the Hunter ring and Jumper ring are very different places (usually on literal opposite sides of the show park).  For the purposes of this post, I'm focusing just on the Hunters. 

For anyone who lives really, really far away from H/J land - Jumpers are objective - make the time allowed, don't knock stuff down.  Hunters are subjective - jump the (easier) course assigned, get judged for how you look doing it. (think: ice skating).

What the Hunters mean for me, is that a ride that would have left me cheering in my youth (yay! No stops no rails!), is now something that I can beat myself up about (my canter sucked, we had a late change, and we left a stride out of the line...). 

Why I chose to do this to myself I don't know.  Maybe it's the perfectionist DQ lurking in me..and since I like jumping, but am too chicken to do XC anymore - the Hunters are where I belong....

The Goal:

When presenting a horse in the Hunters, the goal is to basically show that your horse is athletic, polite and safe.  All things that would make a lovely fox hunter out in the field. (though the number of show Hunters who have ever been fox hunting is a very, very tiny number that is very, very close to zero).

What that has come to mean is that successful Hunters complete their task in a relaxed, easy going manner, while showing brilliant (scopey, even, careful) jumping style, and covering the ground in an even, balanced rhythm. 

Exhibit A: Windsy
To translate further:  A competitive Hunter a) is pretty, b) moves well, c) has a big stride and slow step d) explodes into the air with a round jump, knees square (ideally touching it's nose) and ears forward e) looks EASY to ride f) shows no sign of irritation or anxiety.

So let's say you read that and say "hey! I have that horse (fyi, if you do you're sitting on a gold mine), how do I get one of those fancy Champion ribbons at a show?"

You enter a Division.  Divisions are comprised of 3 or 4 separate classes over fences at a given height and one flat class called the Under Saddle.

Your classes over fences will be a straight forward course of 8-10 jumps. Typically you figure eight around the ring (line, diagonal, line diagonal...) alternating related distances with single fences.  for some of the bigger divisions, the last class over fences with be a designated a "Handy" round which means you're supposed to show off how agile and adjustable your horse is.  Typically you see fewer related distances, options for inside turns, sometimes a hand gallop or trot fence gets thrown in. (it's as close to a jump off as the Hunters ever get..)

Traditional Hunter courses are not that technical, and the jumps tend to look similar enough that you expect the leaderboard to be decided by the subjective performance, rather than major faults like refusals or rails. 

USEF defines a Hunter "performance" as "an even hunting pace, manners, jumping style together with faults and way of moving over the course. Manners to be emphasized in Ladies and Amateur classes; brilliance in Corinthian and Formal Hunting Attire classes."

Not exactly a lot to go on.  But don't worry, the list of stuff you aren't supposed to do is nice and long:

1. The following faults are scored according to the judges opinion and depending on severity or division, may be considered minor or major faults.
a. Rubbing the jump
b. Swapping leads in a line or in front of a jump
c. Late lead changes
d. Spooking
e. Kicking up or out
f. Jumping out of form
g. Jumping off the center line of jump
h. Bucking and/or playing
i. Adding a stride in a line with a related distance
j. Eliminating a stride in a line with a related distance
k. Striking off on a wrong lead on the courtesy circle. (May be corrected with either a simple or flying change of lead)

2. The following are considered major faults.
a. Knockdown
b. Refusal
c. Refusal or stopping while on course
d. Crossing the track. A track is established once a horse has landed from a fence or completes a required test and follows the horse until the consecutive fence is jumped or the next test is executed. Upon completion of each consecutive fence or performance of the next test, the track is erased. Crossing a track between obstacles and/ or required tests shall constitute a disobedience and will be penalized by the judge(s). Exceptions 1.  A course diagram that requires a rider to cross his track. 2.  Snake or multiple panel jumps that are jumped consecutively.
e. Dangerous jumping
f. Addressing a jump - coming to a stop in front of a jump in order to show the jump to the horse.
g. Completely missing a lead change
h. Adding or eliminating a stride in an in and out.
i. Breaking stride, or Trotting while on course. (Exceptions-Where posted on the course diagram i.e. trot jumps, steep banks, etc, and also as outlined above in HU137.1k. Striking off on a wrong lead on the courtesy circle.)

So, you know -just don't do any of that stuff.

(we did almost all of that stuff)
Anyway, so you and everyone else in your division jump your rounds, and each class is pinned separately, so you collect a different ribbon for each. (or if you're me you collect a ribbon, then chipped/pulled/crosscantered your second course, so you don't collect another one...)

The final component of a full division is the Under Saddle class, which is a traditional rail class.  Everyone is in the ring at the same time, and asked to walk, trot and canter both directions.  It's basically a beauty pageant and horses are judged on their way of going and general impression.  Hunter judges like to see a big sweeping trot with daisy cutter movement (aka - a flat knee).  Again, horses should look relaxed and obedient (but Prairie taught me that you can look like a lunatic and still win with a big trot in front of the right judge....).

Tension with a side of nice trot.
When it's all said and done, a Champion and Reserve Champion are awarded extra ribbons (and sometimes a cooler!).  That designation is made by tallying up the results of all the results in each class of the division.  First place gets you 10 points, Second gets you 6 points, Third gets 4, Fourth gets 2, Fifth gets 1 and Sixth gets 1/2 a point. 

That point spread means that blue ribbons are worth their weight in GOLD.  If you can win a couple classes and blow the other ones, you're still doing better than the horse that is consistently third and fourth... (I think this is weird, and the point spread in Canada rewards consistency a bit more which I like).

So that's your basic "how to" on getting a cooler.

Like any discipline there is a ride range of levels and weird restrictions. 

The "Open" divisions tend to be mostly pro's and start with the Green and Young Hunters.  Young Hunters is a new thing, and restricts the divisions by age.  Horses 5 years and younger show at 3', 6 years and younger at 3'3" and 7 years and younger show 3'6". 

It's new, we'll see if it sticks, I hope it does.

Green Hunters just got a revamp, but similar to the Young Hunter divisions, it offers a place to show developing horses away from the big veterans on the circuit.  USEF has worked hard to elevate the Green Program and at a lot of the shows they are some of the most competitive classes in terms of numbers and quality of horses.

The Green program allows horses so spend two years showing at 3' and 3'3" before having to either move up to Green 3'6" or compete against the other more experienced 3'3" horses.  Horses also have one year to show in the Green 3'6" and another year to show in the Green 3'9" if they can.

Good form, nice expression, super polite.
Windsor showed last year in the Pre-Green 3'3".  The name Pre-Green has been replaced, and this year he could choose to spend a second year at Green 3'3", or move up to the Green 3'6". But basically, last year he was always showing against horses who were also in their first or second year at 3'3". 

If you're horse isn't eligible Green or Young, you get kicked into the general open divisions.  These start at 3' (split into Small and Large Hunter for under/over 16h), then move into the Performance Hunters which are offered at multiple heights and not restricted by age or experience.

If you have a real looker (with no popped splints or windpuffs) you can also enter the Conformation Hunters which places a higher emphasis on conformation (duh) and way of going.  Conformation divisions also have an in-hand class added to your over fences classes and Under Saddle.

Still with me?

Ammy's and Kids have their own divisions that start at 2'3" and go up to 3'6".  We also ride 4 courses over fences and parade around in an Under Saddle. 

Typically you see the open(/pro) divisions run on Wednesdays and Thursdays so that us ammy's can show on the weekend and kids don't have to miss too much school. 

You can start to see how if you have a horse who shows with a pro, then goes around with an ammy or kid on the weekend - it's pretty easy  to rack up a packed schedule - and we haven't talked about Derbies, Classics or if your horse also takes you in the Equitation ring...

One of the things that's been tough for my former Dressage/eventer brain to comprehend is the nature of numerical scores in the Hunter Ring.  Judges take notes during every round, and at the end of each course, they assign an overall score (0-100).  However, scores are not always announced (though they are for WCHR classes, derbies and medals), and you never get to go pick up your scorecard like you do after a dressage test.  While most judges will score the same round within a point or two, there seems to be less consistency than there is in Dressage for how you score a particular moment, which makes it hard to even compare your own personal scores from day to day. 

When I was riding Dressage, the first time I would score 70% on any given test always felt like an achievement, and like it was a pretty consistent benchmark of my ability.  Last summer I can distinctly remember Windsy getting a 92 for a lovely round up at Thunderbird, but knew in my head it was probably closer to an 88 from a majority of other judges, which sort of cheapened the score.

There is also the oddity of a judge not being able to assign the same score to more than one horse/rider pair in any class.  So, let's take Windsy's 92.  He could have gotten a 92 because the judge got excited by an earlier trip and threw out an exuberant 91 to someone else.  Then Windsy comes along and he thinks to himself, hmmm I like this a bit more than the horse we gave a 91 to... so I'll go 92 which still leaves some room for a 91.5 (or even a 91.25) if another horse splits the difference.

In that way, the scores lose a bit of their independent meaning as judge's focus on making sure the performances are ranked correctly more than the true independent legitimacy of any one score.

A little odd right? it's taken me some time to get used to, but I think I've acclimated enough that I'm no longer shocked by the process...

At it's heart, I really do like the core of what Show Hunters do. 

Be athletic.  Be polite.  And look lovely doing it. 

However, like any sport - there is a dark underbelly to achieving the most extreme interpretation of that goal.

The Hunter Ring has been berated for rewarding relaxation so much that it has encouraged a dead-head, sedated look where the horses are cantering soooooo sloooowly that whether or not they've actually been drugged, it's the look that wins.  The courses have also been dumbed down over the last couple of decades, and I've seen more than one hissy fit at shows if the course designer tried to shake things up a bit.

However, I think the pendulum is swinging the other way.   Judges are being encouraged to reward brilliance and forgive the horse for acting like a reasonable horse, if it say... shakes it's head after a fabulous jumping effort. 

I specifically recall that during one of Winds' derbies last summer, a (very competitive) horse on the circuit laid down a lovely, albeit SLOW trip where it barely centered up to each fence before heaving itself over (stylishly) and loping off on the other side.  I was sitting there thinking to myself that we were screwed if the judge threw a high score at that round. 

Much to my surprise it got a shockingly low score and the judges consistently rewarded horses showing more pace, brilliance and general expression.  (I will say this shift is most obvious in the derby ring where brilliance is specifically called for, but still.... things seem to be trending in a good direction).

So there's my basic, rambling Hunters 101.  What did I forget? And for those who have been doing this waaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyy longer than I have, what do you add when describing Hunter Land to people?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Slow Spring Start

As the close of Q1 looms large on the horizon, I realize that we haven't really done much. 

Winds ended up with about 5 weeks off during the holidays (not the worst thing that's ever happened), but more than the time off - there has been a slow (inconsistent) return to work and that's left us nowhere near ready for show season. 

But we are 100% ready for Leadline

We think that Winds' left front was nagging at him.  And that it might have been the culprit of the not-so-spectacular performance in Paso, as well as what was driving the moments of cross leads and seemingly random inconsistencies last summer. 

His symptoms never got objectively worse with work (and there was a LOT of work)..

They also seemed to crop up randomly (though usually in smaller arenas..), which made it really tricky to pinpoint. He wasn't always worse after two weeks of showing.  Sometimes it was day one.  Sometimes he was great the whole time.  Sometimes he was stiff at the end... I sliced and diced and tried to come up with constants that could predict the cross lead - but alas, no strong hypothesis.

The upside of the randomness, is that he never steadily got worse, and the flares stayed small and short lived.  But they were there, and that was always in the back of my head.

So, time off. 

And ooooh boy does he feel rested and strong.

In fact, he looks pretty awesome.  He's put a little weight on (probably more fat than muscle, but me too..) and it looks like he has sorta grown into himself over the last year. 

His butt is bigger, his shoulder is filled in, and he just looks more mature than he did when he walked off the trailer 16 months ago. 

On top of that he feels AMAZING.  His trot feels looser, his shoulder feels swing-ier, and like he's reaching through the bridle instead of leaning on it.

That said, it might be time to put a spur back on... my heel is working overtime trying to nudge him along.  oooof

So that's neat, I think we're on a good track, and now that we know he can feel like this, maybe we can figure out how to keep him here.

Sadly time off hasn't had the same transformative effect on me.  In November, I felt ready to step straight into the 3' ring.  Today I feel less capable (both mentally and physically) of that particular task, and am lacking the urgency I usually feel this time of year about tackling new goals.

I'm not sure what exactly that means - but it has me feeling less pressured about where we're going and what we'll be doing when we go there.  (though, knowing my tendencies, that will likely change as soon as I get a whiff of show season).

Our Spring schedule is looking quite a bit difference than last year.  Our first potential show isn't until the end of April, and it's possible we'll wait until May. 

If we make it to April, it'll be back to Thunderbird, for what will most certainly be a rather wet week.

Winds would do a very light schedule, maybe not even any full divisions... but it would be a road trip and check-in to see where we are at while taking advantage of nice big rings to do it in.

Stay tuned for more schooling updates as we inch closer to the back gate! 
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