Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hunter Derbies

Hunter derbies have become increasingly popular in recent years. They challenge horses to step outside of the usual hunter box and display more bravery, athleticism and handiness. This allows for some jumpers to participate, too. For the uninitiated, the judging and course plan can be somewhat of a mystery, so today we'll be looking at how these classes are run and judged.

Hunter derbies can vary slightly in format. We're going to focus on how the derbies are done in Canada (specifically for the Canadian Hunter Derby Series), so while things should be similar elsewhere, make sure that you check the class specifications and rules in your area before forming your plan. In the US, hunter derbies may include multiple rounds with different specifications for each.

The hunter derby is usually run in a larger ring than that used for your typical hunter class. Sometimes the class takes place in a jumper ring and sometimes it's put in an enlarged hunter ring. The course will be longer than most hunter courses, more on par with a hunter classic, but with options both in terms of height and in terms of approaches. The jumps should be very natural-looking and usually include things like hay bales, wood piles, coops, walls, natural rails and extra-filled hunter jumps.

Additional tests may be asked for, like walking or trotting a jump, dismounting, opening or closing a gate, etc. Any of these tests will be specified on the course diagram.

I've included two different course plans from this year below so that you can get an idea of what a hunter derby course might look like. You can see that the high-performance options are all labelled as such, but the handiness options are to be identified by the rider alone. If you're worried about keeping track of all the options while you walk the course, you can usually pick up a copy of the course diagram from the show office at some point on the day of the class.

The score for each horse is composed of three parts: the hunter score, the high-performance score, and the handy score. We'll take a look at what each score means and how you might try to increase each one.

Hunter Score

This is what your score would be if the derby were a normal hunter round. The judge is looking for consistency, rhythm, jumping form, way of going, manners, good distances, etc. Horses who show some expression after the jumps aren't usually overly penalized for it in a derby.

Essentially, you want to keep a similar feel as you would have in a regular hunter class while still being able to negotiate the derby course and keep a bit more pace.

The hunter score is usually a score out of 100. A score in the 70's is good with some minor mistakes, while a score in the 80's or higher is very good.

High-Performance Score

The high-performance score is a score out of 10, used to give the horse bonus points for jumping the high-performance options. These options are usually three to six inches higher than the other jumps, or might occasionally be a difficult natural option like a bank. There will likely be five high-performance options, each worth two points.

Each time you successfully navigate a high-performance option, you add two points to your high-performance score. Knocking down one of these options would not result in those points being added, and the judge would lower your hunter score down into the 40's for the knockdown.

Not risking the high-performance options would not lower the hunter score, but would also mean not getting any of those 10 bonus points, so the risk needs to be weighed against the potential benefits.

Handy Score

The handy score is also out of 10, and how these points are assigned is at the discretion of the judge. Many judges seem to designate certain areas of the course for a point each, such that a horse who takes all the handy options will receive a handy score of 10, a horse who takes half will receive a score of 5, and one that takes no handy options will receive a score of 0.

It can be useful to go later in the class in order to get a feel for which approaches seem to be rewarded, and to see certain options being tried that you hadn't thought of.

Handy options can include any of the following, and more:
  • Handy approach to the first jump (doing a rollback turn, cantering straight from the ingate, etc.)
  • Direct routes between jumps
  • Hand galloping long, straight distances
  • Inside turns and rollbacks
  • Taking jumps on an angle
  • Choosing short approaches
  • Handy exit after jumping the last jump (can include landing and turning, cantering straight to the out-gate and walking out - but only if you don't need to stay in for your score, etc.)
Keep in mind that any of these options needs to be done smoothly. Poor execution can affect your hunter score and even mean not getting the handy points for that particular option. Tight turns should be smooth and hunter-like, regardless of the size of the turn.

I've drawn out the path on one of the course diagrams that produced a near-perfect handy score of 9 during that class to show where all the options were that day. I suspect, based on watching other rounds, that the judge was looking for a left rollback off the last oxer for the final handy point:

The top horses will usually return to jog for ribbons under saddle, and will finish with a victory gallop!


  1. Thanks for this great summary. It's nice to see Derbies making a comeback!