A few nights ago, I attended the 109th annual Keswick Horse Show, which is something of a destination event for horsey and non-horsey people in the Charlottesville area, as it is one of the oldest shows in the United States, and was also recently designated as a Heritage Competition by the USEF. While I don’t make a habit of going to many Hunter competitions, this one holds a special place in my heart, and they also host a Hunter Derby as well as a Grand Prix, which makes things a little more interesting. It’s a fabulous old place with a tiny arena including trees that have been there for more than 100 years, and so it appeals to me a little more than the regular Hunter shows.
Like many Eventers, my knee-jerk reaction to hearing the word “Hunter” is one of slight distaste, and inevitably some eye-rolling. I’m not alone in finding the drug scandals associated with pony Hunters, the four hours of longeing before competition and the general prevalence of money over talent in the winners circle more than a little offensive. And then there’s the fact that they just are so….dull sometimes! Where’s the excitement that we all crave? The falls in the water, the wild explosions in Dressage?
However, I think we spend a little too much time thinking negatively about this discipline. I decided to use my trip to Keswick to watch and try to learn what the essence of a beautiful Hunter round could teach us as Eventers. Not only did I have no idea what made the difference between an 75 and an 85 in the Hunter Derby, but I could be spotted asking random people what the judging techniques were for the class. There was no doubt in my mind that I was lost in this crowd, but I was determined to take something away from the night. Here are some of the highlights.
Rhythm is your best friend. This is no secret in any discipline, but here in Hunter Land, it was absolutely King. Even small abberations in the perfect beat of repetitive canter rhythm were penalized, and the ability to take off and land from a jump in the exact same balance and speed was a prized skill. The effect is a polished, effortless looking jump round. Top Event riders will all tell you that the best way to make time on cross country is to have a good rhythm, and they will probably also mention that it’s your best chance to find a good distance to the jump. “Ride the rhythm, not the distance” is something I know you’ve all heard before.
Speaking of the perfect distance, it IS possible to get the perfect distance almost 95% of the time. Nothing was more obvious as a “blip” in a round than a rider missing their prime distance. If it was an underpowered long distance, it was a disaster, and if it was a picking short distance, the horse rapped the rails or even had one down. Most of these happened when riders lost their rhythm around the short turns in the Keswick arena. How many times have you had a show jumping round when you got your distance at every single jump? Yeah, I don’t get that perfect very often either.
Staying with the motion of the horse is imperative. Yes, we all make fun of Hunters for “lying on their horses’ necks,” sometimes for even strides after the jump. However, there was a clear distinction in the Keswick Hunter Derby between those who stayed with the motion, and those who threw their bodies over in an exaggerated fashion. I think sometimes as Eventers we get stuck too much in the defensive position, and we forget how to give to our horses and trust a little bit more with our bodies. It doesn’t mean you have to perch on your pommel, but it does mean you need to stop getting left behind and holding on with your reins.
Planning and focus is everything. To execute a perfect Hunter round, one has to be constantly aware of exactly what line to take, precisely how many strides to have, and in what direction you are landing for the next obstacle. Landing on the correct lead is an important factor, and therefore there can be no brain farts over any of the jumps. Each landing is directly related to the preparation for the next jump, and if you forget where you are, you lose points pretty quickly. While we Eventers tend to ride a bit more by the seat of our pants (which is sometimes necessary on XC!), nothing can replace the pure focus and preparation of a smooth, classy round of jumps that comes from that type of obsessive planning.
Have pride in the turnout of your horse. Every single horse in this class looked like it just walked off the horsey runway. Gleaming, polished, perfect braids. While the riders may have not done the grooming themselves (that’s a whole ‘nother matter), it was obvious that this was a prime objective. I can bet you that not a one of those horses has ever left their stall with a poop stain, even to school. There were still a few examples of gaudy accents to the tails the riders were wearing, but on the whole it was simple and classy. Every time I see somebody competing in lime green polos, a blue and pink saddle pad, a white and orange helmet and gloves to match the whole scenario, my eyeballs want to cry. I get it, we like our colors, but isn’t there a way to be a bit more sedate?
While I was hoping there would be more
wine thrills ‘n spills involved in my night at the Keswick Hunter Derby, I was certainly not disappointed with the quality of horses or riding. There are obviously aspects to each discipline that naturally garner sneers from the other disciplines, but I prefer to contemplate the ways in which we can all learn from one another. Not to sound too corny, but there’s always something more to learn.