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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Derby (Not in KY!)

NOTE: I've been very frustrated, because I suddenly have about a dozen topics I'm itching to cover here, and the rest of my life temporarily took over. I have many volunteer commitments and unfortunately two of the biggest ones hit critical point in the last week and a half. But the 40-pg. directory/yearbook I had to create is at the printer's, and all the new Girl Scouts are placed in a troop, so I can finally get back to this post and the other two I also started! :-)

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I have to say, without a doubt, that the USHJA Hunter Derby was one of my most favorite things I've ever gotten to see in the horse world. I wish they had them here every weekend. Even though it was threatening to rain, and they had to move the event indoors, watching those top-notch horses go was just a BLAST. Despite years and years of watching hunters show, I finally feel like I really know what makes a good hunter horse now.

I know I mentioned some of the rules and such about the Hunter Derby in a past blog, but I would like to refer you to this post by a fellow blogger, which explains things ever so much better. In fact, I really wish I'd read her post before watching the class! Jennifer also took some great photos, which she has graciously allowed me to borrow as needed. Needless to say, I didn't get any myself...

Anyway, I was simply amazed at what happened before the class even started. The show allowed schooling in the ring after all the jumps were set up; no jumping, but walking, trotting and cantering around. I couldn't believe my eyes when the horses and riders started streaming in. I have never, ever ever seen this allowed before any class before. The riders frequently cantered the horses right up to the jumps, literally until their noses were touching them, and then stopped. There were also grooms leading some of the horses around and they, too, were led right up to the jumps until their noses touched. All the horses were encouraged to sniff and look at the fences.

Obviously the horses were being shown the jumps; I knew what was happening. What I didn't get was why this was allowed. Not being one to stifle questions, I asked two fellow bystanders, one of whom was a rider wearing a shadbelly and thus planning to ride in the class, why on earth this was going on. "They want this to be a good class without refusals so the horses are allowed to see the jumps and get familiar with the course," was the answer. Well, okay, but considering I *think* that it's against the rules to do too much "showing of the jumps" to jumpers before they start, or to ride your warm-up circle three laps around a hunter ring, I found this pretty darn interesting. I also had to wonder if "showing" horses jumps actually works - what do you guys think?

Here are the course maps for both rounds of the Hunter Derby:
And here's two photos I took of a simply enormous oxer that was the last jump on course (upper left corner of both maps). At least, the "high" side was enormous; the other half was regular height:

They had to squeeze the far end standards together a bit to narrow the width for the lower side. This jump was sufficiently intimidating that very few of the riders actually attempted the high side, despite the increase in points. Those that did try looked from the rear (my view) like they were jumping the moon and it was clearly a great effort.

The horses in this class, needless to say, were gaw-jus. Here's one entrant prior to going in the ring (had to get one of the greys, of course):
I wish I could have gotten a little better conformation shot, because one of the most fascinating aspects of this class for me was checking out the way the horses were made and the way they went. I have a confession: I've ridden H/J practically my whole life. Since about 1975 I've been a manic reader of "Practical Horseman," especially "Conformation Clinic" (remember when Champ Hough used to write it?). I have really gotten a lot out of the past year's worth of Clinics, with the new judge. I usually do well with my placings and have a decent grasp of what makes good conformation. I know that a jumping horse is supposed to round its back in a bascule over fences. I've been in and watched literally hundreds and hundreds of hunter classes. But it really wasn't until watching this class that I started putting all the pieces together and figuring out what, exactly, is the proper construction and way of going for a truly good hunter. Something finally just clicked!

The way I saw it, the best horses "poured themselves" over the fences. The whole jump looked effortless, one smooth motion of beautiful, elastic horse. Like I said, I don't know what it was about this class but I swear I really, truly saw it for the very first time. It was great!
Whew, talk about round! I'd like to feel that just once - over a lower fence. (Photo by Jennifer Buxton)
Some other things I noticed about these horses were:
- Great extension of their front legs at all gaits (the Conf. Clinic lady is always going on about length and angle of humerus - I GET it now!)
- A walk with a very swinging back and a lot of overstep
- A croup that tended to be a bit more level
- A naturally low neck and head set, completing a level topline
This lovely horse illustrates ALL of the above points (Photo by Jennifer Buxton)
If any of you are thinking, well, DUH, RiderWriter, I'm sorry for my ignorance! I'm just excited that at the ripe old age of 48 I'm really connecting the dots. The more you learn, the less you find out you know...

Regarding way of going, I discovered the judges did not care for the horse that was big-striding, knee-lifting and went very fast. They also didn't like a small horse that went with its nose poked out and was also very fast. Oddly, the other horse I noticed that carried his head far in front of the vertical really split the judge's opinion: one scored him 83, the other 60! Normally the scores were five points apart at the most. I myself wasn't wild about that horse. But get this: he was 5th in the nation in the standings heading into the Derby finals this year, and finished 9th there! So that was a bit confusing.

In general, though, I agreed with the scoring. My very favorite horse, who I thought was just the epitome of class and beauty, finished third (he'd gotten 6th at the Derby finals), so I was good with that. His owner rode him, and another entrant that also belonged to her. What, two horses in this class? How lucky is she? Well, this is how lucky - there were three more ridden by a pro. Yes, this girl - a teenager - owned five horses in this class. FIVE! Horses of this caliber don't exactly come cheap, so we're talking, what, a half million dollars worth of horseflesh, all belonging to one kid??? Sheesh. Yes, she was a very decent rider, she'd actually been in the Maclay finals (riding one of her Derby horses) but finished well out of the ribbons. I was floored...
The second round of the Derby featured this trot in-and-out combo:
The second trot jump is the low double-log thing in the very middle of photo, on the left.
You can also see the rustic rail fences forming the "wings" of this complex (look on course map again). I believe there were a couple of stops here, but not because of any fright factor; it was pilot error. Nonetheless, it would certainly give me pause riding up to these. I'm pretty sure I jumped similar back in the day on the outside 4-H courses, but now a stiff post-and-rail would make my knees knock. And definitely not on one of these back-cracking beauties - no question of where I'd wind up! :-)

So that's my little roundup of the Hunter Derby. I personally found it super-exciting to watch - I actually had cold chills. If you have the opportunity to view one of these classes, I highly recommend it.


  1. That's odd they allow them to school around then jumps like that. In the Hunter Derby's that my association puts on you are not allowed in the ring before (that also applies to Medals Finals and of course all jumper classes).

  2. So now I have to not just go to another Hunter Derby, but I have to go early enough to watch the warm up... Darn!

    I wonder if schooling in the ring is a normal part of the format or something specific to this one class. Hmmm...

  3. I love this event and am glad you enjoyed it too! Look forward to reading more about your adventures and maybe running into you some time Lousivlle Home Rental


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