December 7, 2010
There’s more to starting a hunter than jumping fences.
Horses like to jump. It comes naturally to them, and watching a great horse negotiate a hunter course is a beautiful thing. You can count off the horse’s rhythm in your head, 1, 2, 1, 2,. It never changes. Each fence fits perfectly into his stride as he stretches out his neck and pulls his knees up to his nose in perfect form, then canters away as if it were completely effortless.
A lot of work goes into creating that flawless final package. It takes a skilled rider and plenty of patience to instill and maintain a horse’s confidence over fences.
The American Quarter Horse Journal talked to AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lainie DeBoer of Forest Lake, Minnesota, about what to look for in a hunter prospect and what to do to make sure your horse is set up to excel over fences.“Hunter classes” are those in which the horse is judged on his form going over jumps, such as AQHA’s hunter hack and working hunter classes.
A hunter really needs to be structurally sound because jumping is so physically taxing on a horse. You can deal with a lot of physical problems down the road if the horse doesn’t have a nice, solid conformation.
Look for a nice, long neck that comes out of his shoulder long and low, a short back and a lower-slung hock, straight legs and good feet.
You want a horse that’s attractive, has great conformation, sweepiness of the gait and a good attitude and work ethic. That’s why I love American Quarter Horses – they have great minds, and they’re nice to work with.
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Balance and Rhythm
A hunter needs to have a really balanced gait. Whether it’s a walk, trot or canter, there’s a balance and a rhythm that he needs to have. He needs to be broke, but not so broke that he doesn’t accept your hand. A hunter’s gait must be in front of your leg at all times to have enough power to get across a jump. You want him to pull a little bit so you can communicate in a split second if you need to adjust to fit in a jump.
You want your horse to have three gears at the canter: slow, medium and then a little more of an extended canter. You want that because you need adjustability over the jumps. You need to be able to open and close his stride. A horse needs to be able to canter comfortably in a balanced rhythm at the slow, medium and extended canter.
Quality of the Canter
The canter is such a large part of what makes a hunter course appealing to the judge. The ideal canter is slow, sweepy and, most importantly, rhythmic. You want a horse that has a natural balance along with a crisp and even stride. A horse that carries his stride consistently allows you to rate the distance to take off.
A hunter has to look around a course and over the jumps like he is interested in what is coming next. Expression is a large part of what needs to come across to a judge to make a successful course. Expression comes in several forms.
- Ears forward, looking alert
- Body relaxed
- Forward stride
- Neck stretched long and low, nose slightly out
When he approaches the jumps, you want him to “stalk” the jump with his head and neck. You don’t want your hunter looking robotic; you want his stride to explode in the air. What a hunter does is very athletic, and it has to come across as such. A good hunter shows an enormous amount of expression throughout the course and, in the end, should look like he loves what he is doing.
Hunters have to be sound to jump their best. A horse that is unsound will start to unravel through a course of jumps and eventually learn to jump poorly. If you had a sore back, knee or ankle, how hard would it be to jump a hurdle? Try eight in a row. Would you do it well? Now add 1,000 pounds and try it. If your horse is not sound, he will not last long as a hunter.
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To work on balance, rhythm and adjustability, do a lot of lengthening and collecting. Lengthen down the long sides of the arena and then collect around the ends. Do lots of changes of direction and circles. Work him over rails on the ground.
A good exercise is putting rails on the ground in a circle, evenly spaced out. You can start with one rail on a circle and then add another. Try to put in the same number of strides between rails while maintaining a consistent track to each rail. Your horse really needs to balance himself up or the circle gets away from you, and you get a little trapped.
Make sure you work this exercise off both leads. Horses always have one side that is stronger than the other. Work his strong lead first for a little bit. Then switch the circle to his harder lead and get to know what aids help him best. Never over-do the weak lead or he will get frustrated. Always go back to the strong lead so he finishes the exercise feeling confident.
Put rails on the ground seven strides apart on the quarter line. Then ride it in eight strides and nine strides. You’re working on adjusting the length of your horse’s stride, getting to know the gas pedal. On course, you need to know how much pressure to apply to adjust the stride forward or backward.
Riding the poles puts your horse in an environment that is controlled while getting to know the aids that work for him. Stay in the middle of the poles and then open and close your horse’s stride between the poles. Make sure to keep him straight. If he runs out of room or gets unbalanced, he will shift in the air or at the base of the pole. Force him to stay straight, and he will learn to sit on his hock to find his balance. When you go to jump, he will rate himself better at takeoff.
The best advice I ever got was from Olympian Laura Kraut. She told me that if your horse cannot canter over a course of rails on the ground correctly, what makes you think it will get any better when you raise the poles in the air and make a jump? A horse will tell you a lot about what you will face on course just by simple rails on the ground.
Learn about taking the next step, study habits and your final exam, all coming up in Part 2!