We're Ready for a Hunter Revolution

I’d love to see the days of the comatose show hunter behind us, and I think we’re going to see that happen sooner rather than later. There’s a feeling in our industry that I’ve not experienced before— trainers, owners, riders and judges are realizing that where we’ve ended up isn’t really where we wanted to go.

So, I’ve decided to step up and candidly discuss our show hunter sport. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s time for us to really lay the cards on the table, see what hand we’ve been dealt, and then start a new game.

I’ve been involved in the hunter/jumper sport for more than 30 years, from the days when our classic Thoroughbreds dominated the scene to today, when they are basically an anomaly in a show ring full of warmbloods.

Personally, I’d like to see the hunters continue to evolve back to more of the lighter types, with the Thoroughbred influencing their jump and movement. About 20 years ago, our show hunters became completely different than they started out being in the mid-20th century, and that evolution has fundamentally changed how we do what we do today.

As a United States Hunter Jumper Association clinician, I’m hoping to help guide our sport back to the days when our show hunters were rewarded for boldness and brilliance. During a recent judges’ clinic in southern California, we had a lively classroom discussion about this topic.

We want to encourage the judges—new ones as well as experienced ones—to remember how important it is to reward expression. A major part of having a great hunter round is when your horse is doing what he loves and expressing that sentiment.

We Do Know
I’m going to be frank. As judges, we know when a horse that has been over-medicated or over-prepared comes into the ring. It’s actually the first thing we notice. Usually, they’re glassy-eyed or just not alert. Often, they’re slow to react to their surroundings or the aids, and that’s not safe for the horse or the rider.

I’m a professional. I know everyone’s under pressure to produce winners, but we owe it to our horses—and to the sport—to do a better job of training our horses and riders.

Maybe we need to take a step back and teach our clients to ride rather than having them simply learn to show. I see so many people who have no business showing because they don’t ride well enough yet. Our pros are under a lot of pressure to make the money, make clients happy and make them look good. It’s hard to tell clients that they’re not ready to go to a horse show.

But as professionals, we owe it to our clients to educate them about the sport and horses, and I think we need to say up front that this is a sport that takes years to master. That’s why riding a hunter or jumper is so incredibly rewarding—because it’s challenging, and it’s important to master the basics before you compete. Even the quietest horse won’t help a rider who just doesn’t know how to ride.

Concurrently, we’ve seen a recent upswing in substances given to horses specifically as quieting agents, including magnesium sulfate, Dexamethasone and Carolina Gold. Many of you have probably now heard that Carolina Gold and the amino-acid GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) have been deemed prohibited substances by the United States Equestrian Federation and the Fédération Equestre Internationale. There have been excellent articles written about the dangers of such drugs, including one by Dr. Stephen Soule regarding Carolina Gold that was published in this magazine’s April issue.

Drugs are not the way to go, but I’m certainly not condoning the other primary way to quiet horses, “lunging ’til dead,” which I think is just as detrimental. It’s a vicious cycle; horses that get lunged get too fit and have to be lunged even more. So what is the answer? It’s a combination of better horsemanship and finetuning our judging system.

I’d love to see more horses out of their stalls, hand walking, hand grazing, allowed to mentally unwind instead of becoming physically exhausted. I know it’s easier said than done with the demands already imposed on our grooms, but altering the way we run our businesses is a big part of the solution.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t just sit in a judge’s box. I’m still in the thick of things with breeding and training young horses, taking clients to shows and giving lessons to novice children and timid adults. I understand the importance of safety and making sure horses are quiet and properly prepared for their jobs. But I have never condoned drug use. There are other ways!

Be a Horseman
I once had a really great grand prix jumper prospect that was too careful and too spooky. He scared himself when he rubbed a rail. By the time he got to 1.45m, he was so worried that it wasn’t fun for him or for me.

So, I put aluminum shoes on him and sent him into the hunter ring. He took the biggest breath and went, “Wow; this is awesome.” He was Regular Working reserve champion in his first outing.

We had some retraining up front, but I took the time to do it properly. I didn’t rely on the lunge line to be his training tool. In the end, he became a top junior hunter and has enjoyed a long and fruitful career. But I chose to take the proper steps and not rush him. Instead of drugs and lunging, we figured out what worked for him.

We never rode this horse in the ring in the morning. We found from showing him in the jumpers that he did his best when he went to the ring and hung out for 45 minutes before his turn. He would take it all in and relax. He still shows, and we still use this same routine. He does his best because he’s mentally relaxed and not exhausted or in a coma.

Each horse is different. You must find out who they are and what will make their performance the best. Today’s horsemen need to return to individualized programs for their horses. In the old days this was more common and it wasn’t a cookie-cutter approach to training that often occurs today.

Just because you’ve started a lot of young horses doesn’t mean that you have the key to success all mapped out. Once in a while, you’re going to get one who needs a different program, and you’ll do best by that horse to adapt to his needs. Yes, it may take more time, but by doing the right thing for each horse he’ll have a longer and more successful career.

Continuing Education
Altering the way we judge hunters is an ongoing discussion in our USHJA Judges’ Clinics. I think that trainers and professionals believe we want dead quiet, comatose horses when in fact it’s not the case. Having this discussion out in the open is a big step. It’s basically putting into writing what the judges are feeling and broadcasting our wishes.

Judges want to see more enthusiasm and liveliness in our show hunters. But I also want to be clear that I’m not saying these horses in the adult amateur hunters, for instance, should land off a jump and buck. That’s manners. They’re not going to be rewarded for poor manners. It’s important to remember that the amount and type of enthusiasm we see and score is all relative to the job the horse is doing. You’re always judging the class or division in front of you.

In the High Performance Hunters, those who are a little more seasoned, we like to see more brilliance of pace and expression. The enthusiasm is also a factor here. For a junior or amateur-owner hunter, at this point in their careers we want to see a horse who still has enthusiasm for the job. We love to see a horse figuring out the jumps a little, eager to go down the line, even if maybe he doesn’t have the help that a pro would give him. So maybe he jumps big out of a line and shakes his head and plays on landing; that’s great. We expect that. If they love their job after years in the show ring, more power to them!

As you go down the levels, you’re looking for a horse who can take care of himself. You don’t want a comatose horse who can’t help his rider!

On the other hand, manners are important. I’m a little harder on one that plays too hard and might unseat his adult or child rider. Their job is to cope with things that come up but still take care of their riders. Self-preservation can never be underrated, either.

I believe consistent judging will change the goals we set for our horses. It’s all about continuing education for our judges, professionals, owners and riders. At a recent judges’ clinic, we watched a video of Rumba and John French winning the 2009 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. He cared so much about every jump. There were probably three or four times where after the jump he shook his head with enthusiasm. That was something I hadn’t noticed when I was judging the Finals, and it really hit me how much that horse loved what he was doing. That outcome has to be our goal. The sport is about making our horses happy and not about making people look good!

Keep that thought in mind as you go about your business. At the end of the day, if we’re doing the right thing for the horses, then everything else is going to fall into place.

This editorial was originally published as a press release on www.ushja.org on June 18th, 2012

Julie Winkel owns and operates Maplewood Stables Inc., in Reno, Nevada, and has been a USEF-licensed hunter, equitation, hunter-breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She’s presided over the top shows in the country, including the USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals in 2009 and 2011, the ASPCA Maclay and USEF Medal Finals, and the fall indoor shows. She’s on the USHJA Board of Directors, several committees and task forces, and is a USHJA Certified Trainer.