By Didi Hornberger
This month's Breed Highlight deals with both breed, and type. A hunter is a hunter is a hunter, right? Well, no - not exactly.
Some fox-hunters show. Some show hunters fox-hunt. Both should be able to jump at least a small fence. But there, the similarity in their respective "jobs" ,their equipment, their rider's attire, and their abilities abruptly ends.
In times past, virtually all A- rated show hunters were Thoroughbreds, or of Thoroughbred type. Dark solid colors and grays were preferred; spots of any kind or "yellow horses" were almost universally ignored, no matter what their talents. "Louder-colored horses were looked upon by show judges as "inferior", most likely in the tradition that a pure Thoroughbred "could not be" a loud color. Modern equine genetics and DNA testing has finally laid that notion to rest. Although the loud-colored horse in the show hunter ring is still the exception rather than the rule, if he moves correctly, folds correctly in the air, and can make those 8 fences in perfect stride with no stops, knockdowns, or touches, he has a chance of placing in the ribbons, among some fierce competition. These days, show hunters tend to be more Warmblood type than Thoroughbred type – it's a "temperament thing", since the Warmblood generally tends to be more "settled" and tractable, in his overall attitude than the Thoroughbred. However, the good Thoroughbreds still compete.
The show ring hunter is a "peacock". The way he moves over the ground is primary to his qualifications – a long, low, ground-covering stride with a swinging shoulder, and a low head and neck set are paramount, if one expects to place well here. Show hunter divisions are usually comprised of 3 classes – two over-fences classes and one "flat", or hack class. That beautiful movement is supposed to win him the hack class; conversely the best "movers" don't always make for the best form over fences. Regardless, the show ring hunter is ideally expected to move like "a knife going thru butter". He is also expected to never stop at a fence, cause a knockdown or a rub, and be able to motor around a course of 8 fences with the precision of a well-oiled machine, taking every fence in good form and hitting every planned stride in between, "perfectly". He is also supposed to present as nearly a "flawless" appearance as possible. "Honor scars" which are worm proudly by field hunters will not win the show hunter any kudos. The show hunter's coat should gleam; his mane braids (and tail braids, if used) should be tiny and perfectly placed with no hair out of place, and his show-ring rounds are expected to present a "push-button" appearance of perfection. (Speaking "ideally".) Hunters showing at indoor shows need not worry about "terrain" – they compete on flat, even surfaces over specified "natural type" fences such as coops, post and rails, hanging gates, brush, roll-backs, faux stone and brick walls, natural-colored rails, and etc. Hunters competing at outdoor shows may or may not compete on even surfaces, however even when competing on an outdoor grass course with a couple of rolling surfaces, they still don't have to worry about navigating holes, rocks trees, lumpy cornfields, macadam road surfaces, and the like.
The field hunter's primary requirements have more to do with ability than with looks; therefore he may be any type of horse or pony which can get the job done, safely and competently for his rider. "Getting the job done" requires the ability to keep up with the field, (unless he is with the "hill-topper" group or a staff horse) negotiate any type of terrain or footing competently, (including hard roads, rocks, ravines, trees, open meadows, frozen creeks and other water crossings, mud, ice and snow, rutted back country lanes, cornfields, gravel roads, Mall parking lots, (yeah – that happens from time to time in our modern day world, as well as chasing fox into suburban garages!) and in short, any and every possible type of footing which he could possibly encounter while out hunting. He should also be agile and competent white doing it. He is expected to "stand" (still!) at "check," (while hounds are working) or for his rider to re-mount him when necessary, NEVER to kick a hound or another horse, and to be under complete control at all times. He should be steady, tough and robust, and able to withstand the inevitable knocks, bumps, bruises, minor injuries, and sometimes falls which happen in the hunt field. He should be immune to the distractions of "bolting rabbits", "bursting pheasants", "cur dogs" (domestic pets), startled deer and other wildlife, vehicles, or anything else he may encounter in outdoor hunting territory. He should be capable of jumping at least a 3-foot fence, and of "staying sane" at all times in the high excitement in a crush of galloping horses, and he should have BRAKES whenever he is called on, to stop quickly. It also helps if he happens to be good-natured, and enjoys his job. He needs a good sound foot, strong legs, and an amenable brain. Riding safely at speed, the ability to stay under control, and attitude all play a vital role for the field hunter. The type of fences he could encounter in the field run from low stone walls to brush, to coops in fence lines to rail fences, logs, railroad timber obstacles, and other "natural boundaries" found in hunting territories. It matters not whether he looks like a peacock or a plow horse, so long as he can do the job, do it well, and bring his rider safely home at the end of the day.
So. What business would a field hunter have in a show ring, and why on earth would anyone risk the possibility of damaging their elite show hunter in the hunt field? Can the two distinct types actually compete against each other in the same classes?
Normally they cannot, because their "job requirements" are very different, even though they seem to be engaged in exactly the same type of activity. However, both types of hunters sometimes face off against each other when one of the large indoor shows holds a "Hunt Night" competition, which is open only to "field hunters" whose owners/riders belong to a recognized hunt. This is a competition for bona fide field hunters only, and field hunters (both riders and horses) must "qualify" to compete by having hunted in the field a specified number of times, (sometimes from 3 - 6 times) during the pervious hunting season. Each Hunt Night entry is required to be certified by the Master of Foxhounds from its own hunt, in order to compete. Fences for Hunt Night are usually limited to 3 feet in height or less, and are comprised of very simple "natural outdoor type" fences, and courses are uncomplicated and straightforward, such as a figure 8 course over 8 natural fences. There is a reason for the "simplistic" setup for Hunt Night classes. Field hunters are not normally expected to be accustomed to performing in an indoor setting, with close-proximity spectators, lighting, arena walls, the hollow amplified voices of announcers, and no hounds. Performing indoors can be a daunting event for a horse who is used to working in wide open spaces, hacking past hunt followers in cars, listening for the sound of hounds and a hunting horn, and observing nature. These classes basically require a "hunting pace", correct lead changes on the turns, and clean fences. Rider turnout must be consistent with each entry's respective hunt requirements. "Brilliance", (in the form of over-jumped fences or an extremely fast pace) is penalized, as are refusals, rails down, or bad behavior. Hunt Night competitions can on occasion be quite "entertaining" to spectators, since one never knows quite what to expect when a field hunter is faced with an indoor competition! In any event, a considerable number of the "peacock hunters" will take their dainty tootsies out with a recognized hunt, only enough times to complete the "qualifying requirement" to be able to compete in a Hunt Night competition. Only there, will one often see the show hunters competing with the field hunters, for Hunt Night honors.
Some field hunters are fine with unaccustomed indoor surroundings, couldn't care less, and simply go where they are pointed and do the job. However, here the "peacocks" usually have an unfair advantage against their "country cousins", since the show hunters are very accustomed to all of the sights and sounds involved in an indoor setting. And, after all – Hunt Night competition is SUPPOSED to be about the "bona fide field hunter" – the horse who has been following hounds outdoors for one or more full seasons in all kinds of weather over all kinds of ground, often travelling at speed within a large group of other horses, enduring all sorts of natural hazards along the way. Nevertheless, it can be quite thrilling to watch the "fancy hunters" compete against the "real" field hunters, and the competitions are always colorful, entertaining, and sometimes hold some humorous surprises! The more plebian field hunters do hold their own here, and they are fun to watch since you will often observe among them more patterned colors, bigger feet and heads, some hairier fetlocks, and some real "hunting sense" underneath their rougher exteriors.Yes – there are also pure Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods which hunt, regularly and do an excellent good job. But the mix of "field hunters" is always more colorful and far more varied in type and looks, than the show hunters.
So. Basically, any horse or pony which is fit, sound, mannerly, and up to the job can be a field hunter, although he needs to be of a type which can stay up with a galloping field, (or as a staff horse, is up to going many extra miles in a day's hunt, to look after the hounds) remain reasonably calm in the event of a "Tally Ho!", and carry his rider safely through a long day of outdoor hunting, in often rough territory. "Looks" are immaterial to his job, and his way of moving are important only in the areas of agility and aptitude. Fox hunting can be a rough sport, and it is expected that the hide of a seasoned field hunter will not always be without blemish. Although purebred horses of many different breeds can and do hunt, a "field hunter" is still considered to be a "type" of horse, rather than a specific breed.
A show hunter is expected only to do a very narrow job – that of negotiating a set number of fences in an arena setting with uncomplicated footing, and to move well enough to place in the hack classes repeatedly throughout a show season, so that he can garner sufficient show points to win a Hunter Championship. This is still a tall order, even within his narrow job focus. The show hunter is also expected to look beautiful, and as "perfect" as possible, while he is doing it. The show hunter can be considered as "either" a breed, or a type, depending on the type of competition where he is being shown. You will see more Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods in the show hunter classes at a regular indoor hunter show than anything else, where the show hunter is considered a "type", since the show hunter classes are not "breed restrictive". (Even so, regular hunter judges are definitely looking for a Thoroughbred, or Warmblood "type" of horse, to be competing, and will usually penalize anything which does nor look, or move, like a Thoroughbred or a Warmblood.) However, there are some breeds such as the Quarter Horse, Morgan, and Arabian which sometimes include "breed specific" hunter classes at their own breed shows, which are limited to only their own breed. In which case, these other shows would be considered "breed restrictive", with their entries limited to just their own breed(s). In this case, the model hunter horse should be documented as a "QH hunter" at a QH show, a "Morgan hunter" at a Morgan show, and etc.
Most "English" hunting tack is rooted in tradition, and it has changed minimally over centuries. Field hunters correctly wear heavier strapwork (bridles, breastplates, martingales, etc.) consisting of "flat", plain-colored leather, with no embellishments. Braided or laced reins are considered useful for hard pullers or foul weather. Sewn-in headstalls and reins (as opposed to hook and stud, or buckle fasteners) were once considered safer for field hunting, although they made tack cleaning more difficult, since the bit could not be removed from the cheek pieces or the reins. Breastplates normally did not sport buckles on their branches, since buckles can be an area of weakness. Bridles include plain cavesson nosebands, and bits can be "anything you can hold your horse in", although the standard field hunting bits are usually Pelham's, full double hunting bridles with short curb cheeks and hunting bridoons, or more rarely, English snaffles. "Natural colored leather" on field hunting strapwork was considered "bad form", and could also be a safety issue if the leather was dry or brittle, so strapwork used to be darkened and "seasoned" with neat's-foot oil prior to use. These days much of the strapwork is already dark-colored, and pre-seasoned, when purchased. Breastplates fasten to your front saddle Dees with the short leather "withers straps" provided, and not with the small "safety snaps" – the snaps are weak, and can easily break. Martingales if used can be of any type, although the standing martingale is more commonly seen in the hunt field.
Cross (astride) saddles are of plain English hunting type, usually of the "forward seat" variety in brown leather, with a solid leather girth with buckles at each end. (Elastic-ended girths in the field can be another safety hazard, although some folks do use them.) Saddle pads are worn, to help absorb the horse's sweat from heavy exertion and prevent back sores. Hunting pads are shaped to conform to the English saddle, and are most often made of white synthetic fleece, although natural sheepskin pads are still sometimes used. (The natural sheepskin pads are difficult to clean and are prone to shrinkage, when made wet.) Ladies' sidesaddles (unless they are Victorian period costume, and not used for jumping) should have a leaping head and a lower pommel; most would also have a balance strap, and a single stirrup which is engineered, one way or another, for a "quick-release", should the lady part company with her horse. The single stirrup can be on either side of the saddle. While the majority of sidesaddles are "left-sided", there are a few right-sided ones, and there are even some sidesaddles in which the lower pommel can be changed, from the left side to the right side. Specially shaped Sidesaddle pads are commonly used for field hunting.
While leg wear for the field horse is not prohibited, things such as boots and/or bandages are seldom used in the field, unless it is for protection purposes from a wound or healing surface injury. Leg wear of any type can be a nuisance in muddy or soft footing, or in creek crossings. Field hunters do not wear "ear nets". Those are "jumper" equipment.
Show hunter tack definitely carries restrictions. Leg wear of any type is prohibited in regular hunter classes. Bits are restricted to Pelhams, Full hunting doubles, or snaffles. Martingales are prohibited in "Under Saddle" (no jumping) classes. When used over fences, martingales must be of the standing type. Show hunter strapwork is lighter in weight and made of narrower leather than field hunter equipment, and may have half-rounded leather embellishments and simple fancy stitching on the noseband, brow band, and reins. Bridle must be simple with a plain cavesson; any other type of noseband other than a plain cavesson is prohibited, as are "bit converters" for double reins. Braided or laced snaffle reins are permitted, although the curb rein on a double or Pelham bridle is usually of plain, flat leather, and is narrower than the snaffle rein. White saddle pads shaped to the English saddle are permitted. Ideally no more than one inch of pad should appear anywhere around the saddle's edge. No ear nets. Cross saddles are forward-seat style, of brown leather, with a plain leather girth. Sidesaddles must have a leaping head and a balance strap. Saddle pads are not used for sidesaddle show hunters.
For additional information and super photos of show hunters, their tack, rider attire, and etc., check out Wikipedia at:
And for a hilarious "romp" into the Irish countryside for a day
of rib-tickling field hunting, as real as if you were there yourself for
a 10-day sojourn of leaping mind-boggling hedgerows each day of the week
on a different (and unfamiliar!) Irish hunting horse, I highly recommend
trying to put your hands on a copy of "Don't Trample The
Dogs", by Michael Sinclair-Smith, published in 1984 by Anvil Press,
of British Columbia. You may be able to find a used copy from
Editor's note: The Sister Jane mystery series by Rita Mae Brown follows a huntmistress as she runs a hunt in Virginia. The first book in the series is Outfoxed.
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