Appreciating the Hunters

Nope, nope and more nope. Just a Monday’s reaction to reading a random op-ed piece about overhauling the hunters….

What if we left criticizing the hunter discipline so harshly alone for a change? 

Can anyone see the actual beauty in subjective judging and have an appreciation for the discipline? 

Does it matter if the hunter discipline is considered sport or an exhibition? If you really think about it, any which way we ride a horse is an exhibition, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an exhibitionist. Who cares? I’m not sure what to do with the word ‘Sport’. Who exactly needs the hunter discipline to be considered or labeled a sport? The USOC? Are we going to be pegged as hunter athletes now? I….uh…ok

Holly Shepherd riding a hunter (from her FB page)

It is amazing, challenging, and so rewarding when we finally get it right. It doesn’t need some sort of stamp of approval from the rest of the world, nor does it have to go back to its roots of the hunt field. I spent plenty of time in the hunt field, and frankly, I thought it mostly sucked. It was cold, there were holes everywhere, jumping in and out of fields is dangerous (especially with cows), and if you passed the Master because your arse of a horse hated hunting and cows too, you were grounded for life. You ended the day covered in mud, exhausted, tack ruined, and burrs in your horses’s tail. I would be incredibly shocked if I ever donned my melton again, but, others, I have to admit, love it. I come from a long line of feakishly hardy women who insist fox hunting is the only means of enjoyment on the back of a horse, and honestly, I don’t get it.

i am cold just looking at my mother gazing proudly at her hounds. In the snow.

But the show ring? The show ring I understand.  I can fully wrap my head around competing in the show ring, and it is very special. We do still have a few of those those venues and competitions which can bring the allure of special achievements of top hunter rounds into our minds. And as we speak, more are being created. If a beautiful horse jumping up over an oxer in perfect form, seemingly floating through the air with just the right amount of energy to lift itself effortlessly into the air and land like butter in the canter on the other side all the while containing the expression of pure contentment, doesn’t make you want to sell body parts to experience the same feeling, then I can’t help you.

No one is forcing every rider to perform in the hunter ring, after all. If you don’t like the hunter discipline there are forty five thousand other ways to ride a horse. Go Western. Ride sidesaddle, play polo, doesn’t matter. In the real world I personally don’t care for curling, even though it has caught on to be some sort of worldwide cult obsession. I truly believe in my heart of hearts, curling does not require you to be an actual athlete, is far from a sport, but I am also entertained by an occasional curling competition on the bar tv while I sip a Moosehead. Will I strap on some skates and grab the nearest broom? Never. Am I likely to be attracted to a weird looking Norwegian with his face two inches from the ice trying to gauge how fast the water is evaporating? Doubtful. Is it in the Olympics? Yes, last time I checked, it is still considered an Olympic sport. Good on curlers. I couldn’t watch that all day, as I am sure they want no part of watching a 2’9” hunter division at a local horse show. However, in the real world, some other poor sod will be attracted to curling, just no one I know and I do believe the hunters are safe from the Olympic rings.

Coming from the racing, eventing and fox hunting disciplines, I am the first to admit I didn’t fully understand it at first, having spent a good solid decade and a half  in a field riding with intense urgency combined with courage and luck. My actual event horse had an incredible desire to fly, and dreamt of being Pegasus most times. I was pretty comfortable winning competitions by using speed and helping him gain his wings. It worked for me.

Zebe flying

I don’t remember actually  sitting on a real show hunter until I was well into my 20’s, at a time when warmbloods were only being introduced into the country, let alone flooding the market as we know it today. I watched others in awe, and marveled at the control and precision. I remember thinking riding a hunter is extremely challenging. Every time I was sitting on a show hunter, it was leaving strides out, so, why were those people over there not leaving strides out? Is it me? Is it the horse? Why is this so hard? 

Turns out it was me. I had no clue how to control the energy in my body, and I needed help to learn about it. When the first person taught me how to take my leg off the horse without actually taking my leg off the horse so it could jump properly I was blown away. How come no one had ever mentioned this before?? The flood of underground knowledge was mind boggling….. but it was out there, I just had to go find it.  

When the horses are performing their absolute best in the hunter ring, and properly schooled to be balanced, it should not matter one little bit if you want to lean off to the left or right, or chuck the reins three strides in front of the fence, or whatever personal style you want to throw in the mix, because you are producing a beautiful hunter round, showcasing the special horse underneath you. The judges know what to do when they see it all come together. Adding a numerical score for the rider is wholly unnecessary at this point. Why are casual observers insulted by theatrics of hunter riders? If the horse doesn’t mind, I say go for it. You do you. It isn’t mean, or harmful to add your personal style to your ride. The huntsmen and fox chasers have a remarkable, and unforgettable style, too. I have seen it, and I am not sure why we need to celebrate how they manage to stay on the entire hunt, either, because with the addition of alcohol, it ain’t all pretty. Maybe I digress. The idea of detracting from a perfect hunter round because the rider is leaning to the left does not sit well with me. Who cares? Look at the horse more carefully, then, jeepers.

I, like others, realize there is an easy way to the blue or a hard way to the blue. I’m not that naïve, and this is my least favorite aspect of the hunters, and probably why it draws the harshest of critics. The easy way is short cut after short cut after short cut. The hard way is fail after fail after close second, followed by an expensive fail.

learning through trial and error is not the worst experience, and you do make friends along the way

However, if you hang in there, actually do all the hard work to stay in this industry for decade after decade, maybe commit to learning how to ride or train horse after horse after donkey after horse, you will gradually become an enlightened hunter rider and trainer. I don’t think anyone needs to have the knowledge delivered to them by Amazon. Get out there and freaking learn what you need to learn. At any age. Other horsemen will know if you choose the short cut, or are in it for the long haul. Trust me. 

Other countries and foreigners may mock us or refuse to copy us, but I am totally ok with the reaction. Go ahead and mock us. The horses they consider useless for the jumper ring? What would happen to them if we didn’t take them in to live happier lives in North America, reveling in their almost autistic mentalities, treating them like kings and learning to ride on them! Every day some owner exclaims out loud they cannot imagine their horse’s life as a jumper. Much too slow, much too quiet, no ambition to go fast in the ring. 

Not all hunters are tortured every day with lunge lines and pharmaceuticals. Some of them have no issues with being fat and slow. I am truly sorry we bear that cross others have made for us. A lot of hunters really have good lives here and are happy, healthy, have excellent nutrition, a personal chef to make bran mashes, a masseuse, chiropractor, animal communicator on call to determine the best turnout buddy or travel companion, a personal shoe stylist, hair stylist, wardrobe stylist, doctor, dentist, are covered by the best insurance, and even have winter homes and summer homes. Their lives are good. Really good. We will never lose the critics, unfortunately, but those who know they are not pharmacists themselves are proud of their work and results, and are hopefully nodding their heads in agreement.

I don’t look at someone like Scott Stewart earning a perfect score with Catch Me and think he must have taken short cut after short cut after short cut. I look at his round and think, wow, this is absolutely, without a doubt, stunning to watch. It takes my breath away, and leaves me wanting more. I watch his body control, I watch his hands, his legs, his movement – his partnership with that horse is absolutely unparalleled in my mind. That horse is extremely aware of where his front legs are, and his buoyancy to get them in such a remarkable boxy fashion is something he was born with. I mean come on, it is as if God made that himself.

I should either retire now (kidding) or, somehow, do better, understand horses better, seek out more lessons, more knowledge, more horsemanship skills if earning a perfect score is so important to me in my future. It isn’t, but if I were to ever earn a perfect score, I know it would come from a lifetime of learning, and some ability to communicate with the horse I am on.  I am confused why a perfect score would ever invalidate the competition and turn it into an exhibition? How does that even work? Who believes that?

In my mind, we already have given the hunters an overhaul. I mean several times, really. We have already introduced loads of divisions, opportunity, options, derbies on every level, hundreds of competitions, championships, finals, two national governing bodies to oversee it all, but the latest trend is to demoralize the hunter discipline even further by changing the judging?  With all this activity buzzing around us, it would seem peculiar to require yet another overhaul. I do not see the need for every hunter round under the sun to have two judges, or a combined numerical score but rather, I appreciate, and look forward to the mystique of simply being the winner that day in the company I compete with, in a class of peers. In fact, I may not want to know that my young hunter won with a score of 65, it would take away from the fact that he was the best score of the day in a class of other baby hunters learning how to grow up and be real hunters. When every single round has to be scored, it diminishes the beauty of the hunter ring. I don’t want to see the score cards, I know what I need to do better next time, and this is a process which has been so important to me, and makes me a rider and educator today. If every competitor received a score card, no trainer would ever be needed. Is that what you want?

Do I appreciate when special classes are numerically scored?? Of course! What an honor to witness a round for the history books, and allow ourselves to be inspired to be better equestrians in the future. It all contributes to the learning process, and if I have been listening correctly to the clichés regarding horses, I do believe it has been said a time or two that success with horses requires a lifetime of learning.  Riding horses well wasn’t gifted to me or any of my peers, we educated ourselves, and the next generation can seek out the education, too, if it really matters to those riders. It is almost as if people have taken laziness to a whole new level by demanding score cards from hunter judges. Enough is enough. I hope this never happens. I don’t see the crossroads, I see a future with lots of happy, healthy hunters competing in the environment we created especially for them. And good on you if you are with us.