Unpopular Opinions: H/J edition

Y’all know I love me a good discussion post, and a podcast I listened to earlier this week definitely provided plenty of fodder… I’ve been thinking about it all week. Most of you probably know that I grew up in the h/j world, splitting about half and half between the hunters and the jumpers. I was always a fan of a good hunter, and indeed Sadie was bred to be a hunter. I give this background mostly to say that I’ve been in that world, I think I have a decent understanding of it, and I’m not here to just criticize it and be a dick. I genuinely want the sport to improve, because I do think it has a lot of value and good things going for it, even if I’m no longer a participant.

scenes from a different life

Anyway, on to the podcast in question. It was an episode of Heels Down Happy Hour, and they had Hope Glynn on to talk about things that could be improved when it comes to h/j. She had several points I agree with completely – especially the idea of making all jumper classes under 1m into Optimum Time (yes, omg yes, I’ve been saying this for years) and changing the judging/licensing structure for hunter judges.

The part I really want to talk about though, starts at around 44 minutes and you only need to listen for a few minutes to get the gist of it.

Basically the points she makes are that the demand for quiet, safe, low level amateur horses is so high that it drives up the prices beyond what a lot of people can afford – totally agree with this part. Hunters are SO expensive, at every level. She also says that horses end up lunged too much and medicated too much in order to make a borderline unsuitable horse into a quieter and safer and sounder one – agree with this part as well (I have never in my life seen anything in a sharps container at an event, which was kind of shocking coming from h/j where those things were full a couple days into a show). She also makes the observation that the majority of people at horse shows, the ones that really pay the bills, are the low level childrens and amateur riders, and their horses are being so used up so quickly from all the lunging and meds that they’re having to buy new ones every few years, which becomes even more exorbitant. Yep, I’ve seen that a lot too. Totally with her on her thoughts of some of the biggest issues.

Where she loses me, 100% and unequivocally, is in the proposed solution. Particularly “find a safe tranquilizer” that can be legalized to give to these horses so that they don’t have to get lunged as much or given as many other medications. I admire the fact that she’s ballsy enough to say this out loud – she’s certainly not the first that’s said it, but still it’s a controversial opinion. I just couldn’t help but massively massively massively cringe at it though. Especially because one of the big reasons I left that world is because I was so disheartened at what went on behind the scenes with regards to medication and the constant attempt to make horses into robots. If you’ve ever seen one dropped by a bad mag shot, it’s not something you easily forget. Not everyone is doing it, for sure, but most of them are very quick to reach for a liquid solution (there’s literally the term “liquid lunge”, y’all).

My real issue with this proposed solution is that it doesn’t actually fix anything. It slaps a band-aid over top of some much deeper issues. Not to mention that IMO it’s not safe AT ALL. Please do not jump tranquilized horses. Good god. And I say that as someone who grew up riding with a very Ace-happy trainer and I FOR SURE have done it many times in the days before I really understood what it meant or what it was. These days you could not pay me to jump a tranquilized horse, I’m sorry. I like my neck in one piece thanks, not to mention that it seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Anyway, rant over… back to the deeper issues.

As Hope mentions, part of the problem here is that many of these young fancy warmbloods are just plain unsuitable for the job of low level amateur/kids horse. They’re big and athletic and fancy. If the judging rewards big and fancy robots, then big and fancy robots are what people will bring to the ring. So, if we’re willing to say that all jumper classes under a meter should be Optimum Time, what are we likewise willing to change about the structure or standards of low level hunter classes? Would these people not be safer on less athletic, less fancy, perhaps smaller horses?

Here’s where we get to my probably very unpopular opinion. How about, let’s say, in the 2’9″ and under amateur and children’s classes, we have different standards of judging? Much like dressage tests start easier and get progressively harder, with different frames and carriage at the lower levels vs upper levels, why should a 2’6″ amateur hunter class have the same standards as a 3’6″ open class?

For example – for under 3′, why count strides? Allow people to add strides with zero impact on their score. Let the shorter strided horses safely and comfortably do the add, if that’s what makes a more appropriate picture. Gunning it for the 5 makes no sense if the horse could safely and easily do 6, and they shouldn’t score any lower because of it. This would also make it a lot easier for smaller horses or “honies” – many of which are much more size appropriate for kids and small adults.

Allow simple changes without massively impacting the score. I’m sorry but a well-executed simple change is MUCH better and safer and more correct than the floppy, crooked, front-to-back change (aka what every other discipline calls a “hunter change”, hate to break it to you) that you see so often as the kid or amateur tries desperately not to miss a lead change because they know it’ll most likely mean they’re out of the ribbons. If your priority is safe and proper riding and a well-schooled horse, then a good, quick, nicely executed simple change is perfectly fine. Take a couple points off if you want to, but certainly don’t drop the score to an automatic 55. Plus this would open up the market a lot (horses without a 100% perfect flying change could actually have a place in their world) and likely make some more affordable low level ones.

Also, at this level and for the children/adult crowd, should we really be expecting horses to jump out of their skin? Should we reward the horse that the rider can barely cling to? Is that an appropriate mount? Why not the horse that jumps consistently tidy with its knees and has a bascule congruent to fence size instead – isn’t that one actually the better horse in this particular scenario? I think in these classes that’s the that type should be rewarded more, because it’s more suitable, and leave the more extravagant knees-to-chin ones for the pros and the higher divisions.

And last but not least, please for the love of god can we stop expecting horses to plod around like a robots? A few tail swishes here, some ear flicks there… if the horse isn’t actually being naughty or rude, let it be. They’re living creatures with thoughts and emotions and reactions, trying to strive for an automaton is just unrealistic and leads down some seriously dark paths in the quest to achieve it. Aside from the obviously much worse issues of LTD (lunge to death) and drugging, have we stopped to consider how ridiculous it is that most people add weight via fake tails to make the horse’s tail be more still? It’s… an absolutely absurd concept that hints at the much deeper issue. They’re HORSES, for god’s sake, we shouldn’t punish them for acting like it.

Basically my thoughts are: instead of trying to find a “safe” tranquilizer to drug unsuitable horses to meet an incredibly difficult standard, maybe instead we should change the standard to actually suit the horses and the riders.

Hope talks about how there has been almost no growth in the hunter world over the years, and I think there are a lot of reasons why. For myself I know it was a combination of cost and all the crap going on behind the scenes that I just couldn’t stomach. Imagine if someone like me, with a cheap but extremely safe and suitable horse, could actually come in and stand a chance at doing well at the national level. That’s what eventing offered me, and that’s why it ultimately lured me away. A “quick fix” thing like making tranquilizers legal isn’t going to fix that kind of issue. It might keep some people around longer with their unsuitable horses, but I don’t think it’s going to bring people in and grow the sport. Making it more accessible and easier for the average, middle class person to actually be able to compete and do well… that’s what’s going to make the difference, and in order to get to that point, there are some big overhauls that need to be made from the ground up. In my opinion, anyway, of course.

hats off to the only hunter trainer I’ve ever really loved, who always did it the right way

It seems like these types of conversations are going on in a lot of equestrian sports right now, with many of us having to step back and start to reconsider how we do things. What are your thoughts? What changes do you think would help make all equestrian sports more accessible? And for the hunters in particular – what changes would you like to see? How would you feel about changing the drug rules to allow tranquilizers? What would help make horses more affordable again for the lower ch/ad divisions? What would help keep the horses from having to be so heavily medicated or lunged? If you’re someone that’s been lured away from that world like I have, tell us why you left. Or if you’re someone in that world now, tell us what your biggest struggles are and what would help keep you actively participating in the sport long-term.

57 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinions: H/J edition

  1. Full disclosure: I have never been in the hunter world and don’t know a thing about it, but as for your comments about drugging, accessibility, etc. — BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. I am SO GLAD you posted about this! I listened to this too and not being a hunter I have to stay in my lane a bit but I draw the line at horse welfare. I’m sorry but WTAF is this lady smoking!

      Like you, I agree with the rest of her points. What I can’t understand is why her solution is DRUGS and not finding more suitable mounts for these adults! WHY do they need to ride big fancy warmbloods? Why can’t they ride nice QHs, paints, appies, Morgan’s etc who have way more appropriate movement and temperament for these riders.

      Why is the solution not to have the riders become better riders before showing at this level?

      I can’t believe in 2021 people are legitimately advocating for drugging horses so rich people can ride them around safely.

      I was shocked Heels Down gave her that platform. Beyond gross.

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      1. Agree with most of your points, although to be fair a lot of trainers and riders share her opinion, most just aren’t bold enough to say it so publicly. It’s not one I agree with at all but it’s worth the discussion that it’s generating, at least. Having stood both inside h/j and now in another sport, the culture is very different.

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      2. It would be delightful if a nice Appendix QH or other stock breed mix could pin in the h/j stuff. But the breeding of those horses for the breed shows is so wonky their 17hh horses can barely get over a 2’6″ jump and most don’t stay sound past 6yo. That is a WHOLE other conversation……..

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          1. I sometimes think it’d be worthwhile to start a breeding program that focuses on producing a QH that COULD do well at rated h/j shows. I love the QH brain and athleticism, but the ones bred to show are so broken and are the opposite type that does well over fences (they tend to be built very downhill and also have teeny tiny feet). Alas, I have breeding PTSD………

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            1. Imagine how the market would morph to suit if we made it more possible for horses like that to succeed and be popular/in demand. People will find what will sell, and people will breed what everyone is wanting to find. We’d get some of those dollars back in the American horse market too!

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        1. But did you listen at the beginning when she said her new business model is bringing over sales horses from Europe? It’s part of her business (and I’m sure lots of other trainers) to sell amateurs these fancy expensive horses that they can’t ride. Could they make as much money selling people safe but less fancy off breeds for the hunters? Probably not.

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          1. Yup. I know it’s very much of benefit to her to bring in fancy unsuitable horses and tranq them to make them work. I get why she’s saying what she’s saying, and it’s the same reason why a lot of pros agree with her. But then she kind of contradicts herself with other issues she raises… a lot of the issues are ones created by her exact business model. But drugs are the easy answer I guess…

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      3. I know Hope personally. She is a fabulous trainer and her horses have always come first. She is saying the quiet part out loud. A lot of people who can afford these high powered horses, don’t have the skill for them… thus, we may need an alternative solution to make the ride safe. I think she is brave to even discuss the topic. If you check out her Instagram you will see she advocates for safety vests in the Hunter ring. A novel position for the Hunter world. It is really a question of the chicken or the egg?

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  2. I’m very torn on this. I grew up riding and showing Quarter Horses where not even bute is legal (I showed AQHA, NRHA aka reining and some 4-H when I was young). I now show hunters and foxhunt, so I think I have a pretty well-rounded perspective. I do think that there is something to be said for taking the edge off at a horse show and I think it’s awful that so many of these horses are lunged for literal hours. The h/j shows are scary places for a horse. Lots of flags and banners and people and concrete and speakers and food trucks and golf carts etc. etc. etc. A plains animal is basically dropped into a circus and expected to act like it’s normal, and I don’t think that is very fair to the horse. Sure, after years of showing many of them become acclimated and are fine.
    I frequently give a green horse 1/2 cc of ace at it’s first few foxhunts. I choose to hunt break my horses in a field with no jumping and give them many great experiences. All but one have become solid and safe hunt horses. I’d happily do the same thing for a show hunter. Take a green horse to a few shows and give a tiny bit of ace to go around small courses and acclimate them to the circus.
    I agree, it shouldn’t be the norm for the entirety of the horse’s career. That begs another conversation about forcing a horse to do a job that it maybe just doesn’t love. Like the one horse I had that failed miserably at foxhunting, he LOVES him a hunter round in a ring!
    I’d be lying if I said I researched this, but I’ve been told that the NCHA (cutting) now allows a tiny amount of ace to show up in tests at shows and that has reduced the number of circles the horses are loped before showing (I’ve never seen a cutter lunge their horse, they lope endless circles). I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing that for the hunters, but not as a way to make the horse actually quiet. To me it’s more like having a glass of wine before I show bc I’m nervous.

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    1. To be fair, all horse shows are scary places for horses. H/J shows aren’t unique in their atmosphere, but other sports aren’t asking for tranquilizers so I have to wonder why that is. What is it about the horses or the riders or the job they’re being asked to do (or how they’re being trained/prepared to do said job) that would necessitate drugs? You also don’t see LTD in other English sports either, very very very rarely anyway. So my question is what is it about h/j that makes tranquilizing seem helpful or necessary when it isn’t for others?

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      1. Oh, I think rated h/j shows are WAY scarier than a lot of other kinds of shows. Of course, the fact that hunters are supposed to be chubby machines with no emotions doesn’t help. I agree there is room for improvement on the judging and trends for how the horses go. As someone who actually foxhunts, the current standard of hunters is laughable. I’m also not out there cleaning house….. I don’t do jumpers so I can’t speak to that side of the show at all. And I’m not a proponent of tranqs as a standard. I fully understand that if allowed they would absolutely be abused, hence my statement of being torn.

        This is just my perception, but 3DEvents are smaller as in fewer horses in a small space for weeks at a time and tend to be close to open spaces bc of cross country. This is why I like showing at Texas Rose, I can get my horses out more and calm their brain. GSWEC is so much scarier to a green horse. The reining/cowhorse/cutting type events are less scary bc the horse can move out more in their actual event, the breed tends to be less flappable, and when they can focus on the cow and not the circus it tends to calm them down. And, like I said, cutters are allowed to give a tiny dose of ace. I’ve been away from AQHA for a long time and we all know those “pleasure” horses aren’t very fun to watch. I know there are a lot of drugging issues there, but I don’t know specifics.

        Of all the showing I’ve done, the rated h/j is the most circus like with all the “stuff” going on. Crazy warmup rings. Multiple rings going at the same time. Lots of ppl who just don’t know anything about horses (family members/parents/etc). My AQHA showing experience was just a lot less crazy. I took Jaguar to the AQHYA World Championships 1500 miles from home when he was 5 and he was totally fine. Zero drugs and no (or not very much) lunging. And I showed by myself. My parents weren’t there.

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        1. For my own green horses there’s not much worse than multiple dressage rings, showjumping, three warmups, and cross country surrounding/running right past all of it simultaneously (it’s always fun to see the baby horses scatter when a horse on XC comes blazing past warmup). Or having to ride thoroughbreds on rings that are set on a racetrack with no defined warmup. Or the venue with a TRAIN that comes blazing past the entire property every half hour. Lol. The h/j people would flip their lid.

          If it was more affordable to take horses to shows, maybe people would be able to do a better job of prepping them. Bring them along and just let them hang out. Wait for the warmups to empty at the end of the day and bring them in to hack. Stand around outside the rings and let them absorb everything. Ease them into the crowds and the hubbub, no tranquilizers required. If this really is such a problem in h/j then maybe there should be a way to make it easier and cheaper to bring non-compete horses to get these early miles.

          However, to be clear this isn’t the situation that Hope was advocating tranqs for. She wanted it to quiet down and flatten out the young athletic warmbloods so that the kid or amateur can actually ride it without having to lunge it for an hour first. That’s a symptom of a different problem.

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          1. I wholeheartedly agree with you! Affordability, both time and dollars, is definitely a huge contributor. I take my greenies to as many unrated shows as I can for that reason. But we all know those can be terrifying in other wasy. 😉 And I also agree that wanting a tranq to quiet and flatten a young horse for a kid or ammie to ride is terrible. My perspective is really more focused on my young horses and them having good experiences.
            Side note, I had a barrel horse when I was a kid (like 7 or 8 years old) that was an off the track Quarter Horse. Most rodeos we went to were arenas on a racetrack. The horse was like 18yo when I got him and was STILL a nutball when he figured out he was on the track!

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            1. I have to disagree with the sentiment that rated h/j shows are scarier.

              The unrated shows I’ve gone to are plenty scary and overwhelming considering one we regularly attend is quite literally a horse show smack dab in middle of a Fall Fair – complete with farmers markets, tractor parades, chainsaw competitions (which is actually kiddy corner to the Dressage ring), a carnival, Draft horse competitions (complete with pulling wagons), rodeo, petting zoos, a colt starting competition, a dog show, nightly bands/shows and HOARDS of people. It is sensory OVERLOAD and the horses are exposed to 75% of it.

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              1. I used to show at an AQHA show that was in the middle of a State Fair. One year they ran a demolition derby next to the horse show. It was terrible. But, in my experience, the rated h/j shows are generally spookier and in a more confined/less natural environment than others I’ve frequented.

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          2. Horse trials are imo 100 times scarier for babies than any other show (except driving shows -yikes lol).

            This is why we all take our babies to hunter or dressage shows lol

            My horses don’t enter an event until I know they can handle 300 horses in a small space with many of them galloping full tilt right beside the dressage ring.

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            1. My horse lost his marbles when he saw the neighbor take his pony cart out and smartly drive his cute welsh pony down the dirt road. My horse kept whinnying and tried to run over there to “rescue” said pony from the demon apparatus that was following it. LOL if I had a horse to English translator I’m sure he would have been yelling “Hey – something is behind you! Do you need help? It looks scary!”

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    2. You have a choice to drink the wine, the horse does not. The horse has no say in how it feels after, we can’t pretend to know. It’s also a 1200lb animal and it’s 100% not safe to ride a drugged horse despite people doing it all the time.

      It’s ridiculous to think you need to ace green horses. Training is the solution to all of this. Drugs are the easy short cut way. It’s horrible horsemanship.

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    3. Unfortunately, I was never “in” on if the horses were tested for drugs, but every time I would go work an NRHA Futurity when I worked for a reining trainer, I asked why we were drugging them, and they replied it’s not REALLY drugging – it’s a mix to slow their mind but not their feet so they can still perform. I never saw it done, but they would also “nerve” the tail so the horse couldn’t swish in competition because it “looked better” when their tails didn’t swish cause they were annoyed at the trainer using too much spur. These were two huge issues why I couldn’t stay any longer than I did, and why I do not want to go back, despite really still loving reining. Just like Amanda said, Eventing drew me to it because it doesn’t have that.

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      1. The tail nerving is the dumbest thing EVER. It happens a ton in the stock breed world. I remember when I was showing in the 90s some trainers would do it to a horse who even held it’s tail out just a little! After the tail had been drugged so many times it no longer was straight, that was how you eventually knew it “needed” it’s tail drugged/nerved.

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  3. It makes total sense that the lower level classes should be judged at a lower level. Allowing simple changes would completely open up the sales market AND get more people into the show ring. Which, isn’t the point of horse shows to make money off more competitors? Make. them. more. amateur. friendly.

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    1. Honestly, there are plenty of lower level horses that can do a lead change just fine. IMO, the limiter is more the need to get a certain number of strides down the lines. But sure, they could be more lenient on both. Well done simple changes are actually supporting the learning that is going on at that level, re-balance after the line, then the corner, then proceed. Running through a corner on the wrong lead because they can’t get the change is doing nothing to help the rider learn/progress

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  4. I don’t understand why drugging horses isn’t a radical idea in the H/J world but standardizing scoring, making judges cards available to competitors, and adjusting expectations to the level of the division ARE radical ideas. Hunters only seem to cater to one type of rider: The one who is there to gather satin. Imagine the benefit those that are looking to improve and see progress would get if they had some way to actually measure their progress? Let the rider who is TERRIFIED of 3′ have a way of really succeeding in the 2’6″ that isn’t tied to having the fanciest horse.

    I am sure people will push back with “well that’s what equitation is for”, but it can be WILDLY hard as an adult to find a full division of 2’6″ equitation. And even then, there is no transparent judging or quantitative metrics with which to judge yourself outside of what ribbon you get.

    I could go on. I LOVED the hunters as a junior, and I would play in them now for fun between events. But I ride a horse who would be laughed out of the hunter arena. Any judges card with May on it would likely see the words “unsuitable” or something similar. So I don’t bother. I love eventing now, and I wish I could love hunters again.

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    1. I think it depends on what part of the country you’re in and what level of rating you’re looking for. Near me, the 2’6” Adult Hunters, Equitation and Jumpers are often some of the biggest divisions of local unrated and A rated shows 🤷‍♀️

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  5. AMEN. Now THESE are solutions I can get behind! Love all your points. I grew up doing the rated hunters in Ontario on my trusty 15HH QH, who was super fancy in his own right and safe as they come. We could never make the lines without galloping and taking a flier, so we never placed. Never ever in the ribbons. Which I didn’t really care at the time, but looking back I cringe thinking about how I sort of looked down on my reliable pony who could hack along a highway on the buckle and easily clear 4′ with me clinging on bareback like a wild monkey…and coveting my friends big fancy Warmbloods who ALWAYS won but had to ride supervised and have 5 pro rides a week. And I totally agree about jumping a tranqed horse….what kind of a sport would allow kids to pilot around 1200 pound drunk horses? Things need to change, and fast.

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    1. I don’t understand the obsession with strides between fences. This is a new’ish thing, right? Like why does it matter if a 15hh horse takes an extra step down a line than a 17hh horse? Isn’t it safer and prettier!?

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      1. I rode hunters (long stirrups, so nothing “fancy”) in 2009-2012, and both trainers I had told me “it will be better if you do a quiet 5-stride line than a flying 4-stride here”. They made it sound like part of riding hunters was knowing when a 4-stride line should actually be ridden in 5. I never quite got the hang of it and was happy if we managed to ride quietly in however many strides!

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        1. I did the few shows that I could as a junior in 1984-1989. Strides were a thing then. But rather than being told to gun it, I was told to ride the add and that it most likely meant I wouldn’t place. Strides became a thing when the outside course disappeared.

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          1. Strides are important, but it does depend on the level. For example, at 2’ and 2’3” you can definitely win by consistently and properly adding a stride into all the lines (at A shows, I’ve personally done that and won).

            Some shows (including A shows) change the distance in the lines for lower fence heights. For example, at 2’6” a 4-stride line might be set at 54-56’ and at 3’ the same line would be set at 60’. Not ALL shows do this, which I wish they would, but some do.

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      2. Yeah, I never got this either. I also rode a 15hh at the time, and luckily he could make the “set” strides without galloping…at 2’6″. But, you still had to push him to “stretch” for it a bit…adding would have been easier and less scary for this weeny rider. But yeah, I thought the goal was a pretty round…not understanding how asking a small horse to rush the lines, or a very tall one to pitter-patter around the ring to suit a standard 12′ stride measurement really constitutes a visually pleasing round.

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  6. I started English riding in the hunter world. I rode my friend’s teenaged Arabian, 14.3 hands, very well-trained: she’s the definition of “anyone-can-ride” and has packed around everything from small children at a summer camp (where she was a “camp favorite horse”) to my friend’s 85YO non-horsey father. At the time I rode her she had some hock issues (fusion and early arthritis) that meant she was limited to about 2’3″ and would occasionally take the long spot into a fence, but she had lovely flying changes (correct ones, not “hunter changes”). She was great for 18YO me in the long stirrups. Yet, she could be the quietest horse in the ring and I’d never win: because the judges saw “Arabian” and immediately dismissed her. I think I took one blue ribbon on her in 3 years of showing, in an equitation on the flat class.

    In college I started riding with a local trainer, and leased a warmblood mare for a summer (still in the Long Stirrups, mind you, I still wasn’t good enough for the Amateur hunters! Not to mention this was the mare’s first season back after a suspensory injury so the trainer wanted to keep the jumps small to make sure she could handle them physically). I still didn’t do great because this mare was very high-energy and was a successful 3’6″ jumper (not hunter!) prior to her injury. To my trainer’s credit, not once did she suggest drugs: we played with different bits and extra lessons. I also don’t recall lunging her for more than a few minutes. To my knowledge that trainer only drugged horses for the first schooling session back after an injury: the horse was cleared sound but high-energy due to stall rest. Trainer would ride the horse (NOT a student) and it would be a short flat schooling only. Even this appalled me at the time, until a similar situation arose with the same friend mentioned above: her younger horse was stall-rested for A YEAR with an injury, is very high-energy naturally anyway, and friend (who is also a vet) gave this horse a little Ace before her first couple rides back (flat and walking only!) so she wouldn’t have a stupid moment and injure herself again. In that particular situation, I understood. And I was glad it was my friend riding the horse instead of me.

    I left the hunters after college. I left because I was tired of being judged for my horse’s breed (when it wasn’t my horse in the first place! Friend was generously offering me her horse to ride. For free. I couldn’t be picky and I certainly couldn’t afford a lease on a fancy warmblood for more than the 3 months I did it.). I left because I didn’t like that one error lost you the class. I left because it wasn’t a good environment for someone just learning and on a major budget: ONE show would set me back $350 just in class fees, plus hauling to get the horse there and my trainer’s fees. I also left because the horse was taking the long spot more and more (thus costing me the class) and getting to the point where she just physically couldn’t jump that much. So we switched to dressage: easier on her joints (we only did Training level), something new for me to learn, You could come back from one little mistake and still succeed, and fewer (note, not “none”!) judges automatically discounted me because I rode an Arabian. It was also a whole lot cheaper: even a USEF rated show is closer to $200 in fees, and for years I actually showed without a trainer so I hauled my own horse and didn’t pay trainer fees. There’s also a lot more regional/unrated shows nearby that cost even less.

    Around the same time I discovered competitive trail riding, where nobody gives a rat’s ass what breed your horse is or what tack you use: all judging is on how well-conditioned your horse is and how well they navigate natural trail obstacles. No drugs are allowed at all: even MSM in a joint supplement is prohibited! It aligns with my personal principles very well and as a result I’ve been quite successful. There’s also no money in it at all: first prize is usually a bucket, or a brush, or whatever.

    I’ve very recently returned to jumping but I specifically sought out an eventing trainer: because I want nothing to do with the “behind the scenes” of the hunter/jumper world, and I don’t trust the h/j trainers in my area not to look at me and say “You ride an Arabian and don’t want to show, I don’t have time for you”. The eventing guy was totally open to me, and I hope will welcome me with open arms (I haven’t been able to set up a lesson due to weather!).

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  7. Amanda, I have been wanting someone to talk about this since I listened last week and was absolutely baffled, so thank you so much! I tried to mostly stay out of it because it’s not my discipline, but I have a ton of thoughts about it. I currently board my horse at a barn where the in-house trainer aces *everything* at certain shows, including her absolutely perfect lesson ponies, and it both baffles me and enrages me. This is at open shows where the classes are literally $10 each, why on earth would a person do this? (Same trainer also charges clients $500+ for these shows, but that is an entirely different conversation…) Your clients need to learn how to ride horses away from home, and the open show level is perfect place to do that! Thankfully I do not train with her AND she knows that if a needle ever goes in my horses neck I will be loaded up and gone in less than 24 hours, but it’s still something that I despise.

    To your point about judging, we had an open show judge for one of our recent shows, and I really like the perspective she applied to the judging. She judged each horse that came in the ring based on their type. For example, if she had a hony or even a Hafflinger type and a big TB or warmblood in the same class, she didn’t want the hony to get the same strides as the bigger horses. She even applied this to the flat classes–a less “nice” less well bred horse was fully capable of pinning over the fancier horses if it was performing very well for its type. This type of judging is something I really would like to see more at the A, B, and C show level.

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    1. That open show judge deserves her own trophy!! I actually stopped going to our open shows around here: because every single judge expected every horse to move like a western-pleasure trained quarter horse (even in the “English” classes!). It’s no fun to show when you place last in every class because your Arabian does not and never will move like a quarter horse. I’m not one of those for whom “winning is everything”, but when you see other riders make obvious errors and STILL place above you, it sucks the fun out of it. All I ask for is fairness, and if you’re going to run an open show, you can’t expect everything to be a quarter horse.

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  8. I’ve never shown in rated hunters and probably never will because of the $$$. But I have seen the kind of judging you’re talking about at our local schooling shows, and I really appreciate it. Granted, most of these judges are probably not licensed and no one is bringing their big fancy warmbloods to these shows, but the classes seem to be pinned based on polished and best executed rounds, even if you don’t “get all the strides” or do a simple change instead of a flying. I understand that there are occasions when tranqing a horse may be necessary for safety, but I absolutely do not condone drugging just for the sake of winning. Most lower level ammys and juniors do not need the big fancy warmbloods that may be too difficult for them to ride, but unfortunately it seems like that is where the money is, so trainers/owners will do whatever it takes to get their client in the ring and win.

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  9. Well…. the elephant in the room is FEES!!! I wanted to show at an “A” show last fall with a green hunter/derby prospect and only show in one class. I may have even scratched the class just to have her on the show grounds and get her feet wet in the real world. I had to pay $350 for a stall and around $315 in sundry fees to USHJA, USEF, schooling fees, ground fees, office fees, drug fees and then a $150 class fee. I had to pay for a stall!! Mind you, I live 15 minutes from the showgrounds. I even called the show secretary and asked for an exception. “No way Jose.” There was a time where you could pay a day/grounds fee if you were just there for the day and wanted to tie at your trailer. Get my point? I am trying to get my derby prospect out to some shows without any pressure and I will have to shell out about a thousand dollars just to get her on the show grounds. I do not ride with a trainer, but if I did, there are additional expenses including daily groom fees, daily trainer fees, stall set-up fees…

    The “B” rated shows do not pick your pocket quite as bad, but not far off. Most trainers in my area of California will not even go to “B” shows anymore, so you are on your own if you want to pay for a less expensive show experience. That is the real ugly truth. If a trainer has a client that will pay 2-3k every weekend to show, then the trainer will drug every horse/pony to death to give them a good trip. Let’s be real. A lot of riders in the hunter world choose to be in the hunter world because they do not have strong riding skills and are looking for that quiet merry-go round type of experience. They want the pretty ribbons and are willing to do whatever it takes, at the expense of the horse/pony to get the results expected from spending that kind of money.

    Marnye Langer. longtime horse show promoter and equestrian on the West Coast just posted an opinion piece on this very topic in the COTH. Entries are down everywhere, new people aren’t coming into the sport and the hunters are becoming a dying interest in the show world. I have seen it all. I have shown halter horses (lost cause), stock horses (no longer exist really), cutting horses, (huge reduction in entries) and now h/j world. I was really hoping the derbies were going to be my new exciting event and I am already discouraged with what USHJA is doing to the assn. in less than 10+ years of it’s existence. USHJA was suppose to save the hunter world. They are now proposing a rule change (312.1) requiring show promoters to pay out the the majority of prize money to the top Derbies and chump change to the lower level derbies. I just sent a message to Mary Babick (USHJA) and Bill Moroney (USEF) on that very topic. I am developing a derby horse and may only win chump change while I take her up the levels and may never get to the big derbies for the bigger bucks if USHJA has anything to do with it.

    I have great respect for Hope Glynn. She is a dynamic trainer and rider. I have attended her clinics and she really loves and cares about horses. But, drugs aren’t the answer. This is a cause and affect situation.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have loved the hunter world and have won my share of pretty ribbons. I just don’t like paying $400 for every $5 ribbon I carry out of the show ring. Consequently, I don’t go to many shows anymore, which means entries are down, costs go up for the show promoter, and fees go up accordingly because no one is showing anymore. I use to show 2-3 times a month with 15-20+ in every class from May thru October. Now, you might see 8 horses in a class. There use to be row after row of stalls filled with horses and the comings and goings of the grooms and horses. The atmosphere was so electric. Now, maybe half the barns are filled. It is really sad. I have 3 major showgrounds within 15 minutes of my ranch. I actually bought my ranch because of it’s proximity to all those showgrounds. Now, I may hit 3 shows a year. It kills me not to be out there. The fees have just taken the fun out of showing. I’d rather take a trip to Europe… than contribute to someone else’s trip to Europe.

    BTW, I do not drug my horses or even lunge them at a show. I “ride” them and get them dead broke and safe or I do not take them to a show. And I ride OTTBs exclusively. Another topic for another day.

    Phew! I need to stop drinking coffee or switch to decaf. 🙂

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    1. 100% all of this. I’ve never shown rated and never will (most likely) because I’ll never be able to afford it. Honestly, even going out to the quality local circuits isn’t “cheap” in my area (mid-Atlantic) in the grand scheme of things–by the time I pay to haul my horse (easily $100 or more to go 20 miles round trip), pay my trainer’s fees, plus the show fees…it’s easily a $300 or more day. Which is so cheap compared to a rated show but…most people won’t be able to budget 2-3 of those a month, on top of lessons, board, etc.

      There’s just a mindset that charging premium fees for everything in the h/j world is the norm, and from what I’ve seen, it’s trickled into the lower levels. That includes the price of horses as well–it’s pretty common to spend well into the 5-figures for a horse that can be competitive at 2’6″ or 3″ even at our unrated circuits, or the regional rated shows. It’s mind-boggling to me just how much this narrows who can compete. I feel fortunate to be at a point where I think I have a fair amount of disposable income to dedicate to riding (two decent incomes, no kids) and I still feel priced out. I just don’t see how a discipline that basically requires a 2-3K a month commitment just to be locally competitive can survive over the long term, much less grow.

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    2. Fees are definitely a big part of a larger overall discussion when it comes to the hunters. That one has been tackled a lot lately, especially with all the WEC drama. It’s one of many pieces of the the puzzle, IMO.

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  10. I’ve been out of the game for quite awhile, but the lower divisions were originally meant to be judged the way you suggest. Adding was okay if it was done smoothly. Yes, a flying change would probably beat a simple change, but it wasn’t supposed to be a deal breaker. And the consistent childrens hunter used to beat the better jumper if it had the smoother round. I’m sad it’s all changed. Truly. I’ve been fortunate to have nice horses through the years, but as a junior I just got lucky. My “fancy” junior hunter (who did bring a six figure offer at one point, but I didn’t sell him) was an appendix quarter horse I spent the lowest five figures on. And he LOVED his job, That horse would give a little head shake or tail swish, especially after jumping a ten through a one stride. (That was his FAVORITE!) And back then (in the 90’s) it was acceptable and even rewarded. I miss that.
    I really do enjoy the hunters. I like the challenge of striving for that magical canter that never changes and all the jumps showing up perfectly out of stride. (Not that I ever really achieved that… but I like the challenge of it!)
    Sorry, I got rambling… back on topic. I think things went astray when they started introducing all the low level classes at the highest level shows. Which sounds like I’m against that, which I am not. But everything just kind of wound up exactly the same which it shouldn’t be. Growing up, the riders showing lower than 3′ didn’t go to the A shows. They did the weekend shows and the one days. Once they got to 3′ they did some of the bigger shows. And at 3’6″, that’s when they were “real riders”. I don’t think that’s the answer to fixing things. I like that families can horse show together these days, the beginner kids with their advanced riding parents (or vice versa). But the expectations from the judges should for sure be different.
    I’ve ridden plenty of aced horses in my time (because let’s be real, I do a LOT of rehabbing…). I’m sure that’s why Pammon fell this summer though. He couldn’t get out of his own way when he stumbled because of the ace. So no, I don’t jump on it. Yikes. And I very much don’t want to show a horse on it! I don’t think you could say people can’t ride fancy horses at the lower levels. Plus it’s a great place for the older ones to still get to do a job, But seriously… bring back the quarter horse crosses for that job! I always have an eye out for my next appendix horse to do in the hunters. I haven’t found him yet, but I know he’s out there somewhere.

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    1. I’m really kind of surprised that SOME QH breeders haven’t picked up on the need for nice, quiet horses for the lower level h/j market. It would be fantastic if the NSBA h/j stuff takes off and creates a bit of a crossover market that would encourage breeders to breed for a more uphill horse than they breed for now. I, too, love me a good QH.

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  11. I always think of the novel, The Monday Horses, when I hear about drugging at horse shows. Sure a kid’s book but a good slice of what it was like to ride in A rated shows with horses flying higher than a kites due to drugs.. That was my first taste of A rated and my last taste. The book soured me on it. I did small C shows growing up and actually watched a guy inject his horse as he rode my on the way to the ring. FOR A C SHOW at a fair ground. Again. OVER for me. I was kind of lost till I found eventing. My barn is a hunter barn and they do shows (just local ones) but i haven’t gotten on board due to my fat buckskin and knowing we cant make the strides (nor do a flying change). I would rather take lessons and event when I can. Not saying that happens at these shows but it seems crazy the cost for even local shows. Thanks Amanda for writing all that. Very interesting and more reason for me NOT to show again (unless there is a CC course near by ).

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    1. I loved all of Jean S Doty’s horse books! I’ve been recently re-introduced to A level hunter and rated dressage shows as a groom and I’m really not liking what I see for the most part. Lots and lots of lunging, and buckets of that Perfect prep stuff.

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  12. OMG – I’m in the hunter world – it’s the discipline (along with equitation) that I most connect with, and my first thought listening to Hope Glynn, before reading your post, was why wasn’t the solution rider-based or judging-based? The solution is the ‘easy’ fix of drugging a horse rather than determining if we are using the right standards to judge or if our riders can actually ride just a bit?

    You are dead correct on the judging standards. Why does a 2’3″ hunter need to have a 12′ stride? If they can nicely add, why should that extra stride be counted against them? One of my most recent show experiences was on just such a beast and he was really a special sort. Took care of his person without the hint bad behaviour, did all his changes, jumped cute enough for the height, but by golly, he had to add a stride. Why should my choice be to buy something that needs to be drugged or LTD just because I might be able to afford it and it can get down the lines in the right step? It’s crazy making.

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  13. As a current hunter rider who goes to A shows, I think the answers BEGIN with changes to offering standardized lower levels with specific guidance on how those levels are judged. I’d also like to see scores given for more rounds, with score sheets available (like in Dressage and Reining, both subjective disciplines).

    While I agree with Hope that medication rules don’t need to be the same for a 2’6” Hunter as for a Grand Prix Jumper, I do NOT agree with legalizing any sort of tranquilizer. We already do have legal calming drugs — magnesium, perfect prep… etc.

    This is where I’m sure to get disagreement, but hunters isn’t for every rider and isn’t for every horse. That’s why we have various disciplines and horses bred for those disciplines. If you want to branch out, try something new, I encourage that! I think it’s awesome to see different breeds doing different sports, but to say that part of the problem is that a Western Pleasure Paint or Dressage Arabian doesn’t do very well in hunters is wrong.

    I dont expect my Westphalian to do well at Reining. Or Endurance Riding. Could we do it? Sure! If I wanted to, I would. But I wouldn’t be upset when we didn’t place very well.

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    1. I hear you! I like to try lots of different things, and I expect the same of my horse: give it a try. That does not mean she’s going to be winning championships in every discipline. But there is no reason a sound horse can’t give the lowest level of any discipline a try.

      That said, I also do my best to set her up for success. Knowing my individual horse’s personality, I know she won’t do well in hunters: she’s quick and likes to “attack” jumps. But she can turn on a dime. You know what that lends itself to? Jumpers! So between the two, with this particular horse, I’d head to the jumper ring over the hunter ring.

      I don’t think breed is part of the problem, but I do think that judges having “breed bias” IS part of the problem. Especially at the entry levels, who cares if you have a QH or an Arab or a Warmblood or a pony? So instead of continuously pinning the Warmbloods just because they’re the “typical hunter”, how about we judge the horses as individuals. This alludes to the changing of the judging standards you mentioned. One of the reasons I left hunters was because I felt looked-down-upon for my horse’s breed, by both the judges and the other competitors.

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  14. Lots of really really good points here, and I really wish a lot of this would catch on. I was pleasantly surprised when my leaser picked up some nice ribbons in the 2’6″ish level hunters down in Ocala; that judge definitely must’ve been judging mainly on manners because lord knows my horse moves like a sewing machine and jumps anything under 3’3″ like a drunk llama (though with a lovely attitude).
    I think a lot too about the expectations clients place on their trainers. If they have an enormous budget and the trainer is promising them a blue ribbon, that trainer is going to do anything and everything (including buying the unsuitable horse and then drugging it down) to deliver on that promise to keep the money flowing. There’s such a status game tied up in it. Makes me grateful to work with a set of pros that put the emphasis on suitability and safety first – it’s not something I take for granted, but I wish I could take it for granted.

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  15. Such a thoughtful post. I come from a breed that is prone to lunging, but I cannot say I have ever seen anyone perform injections on site, nor is the dropbox full. Not to say is doesn’t happen but…

    I also agree that in many disciplines, but hunters especially that horses should be allowed to have an opinion or not be a robot. If something crazy is going on outside the ring, I find it even more strange if a horse doesn’t flick an ear. How can they keep you out of trouble outside of an arena if they don’t even acknowledge the end of the world?

    But just changing judging standards and permitting breeds/types to be judged against ideal for their type with “levels” (ie dressage thought process) would be a good start into allowing a better entry and hopefully better suited horses for clients.

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