Let’s start with Hunter-Under-Saddle. This class is judged primarily on the horse’s way of going (movement), type or conformation, and last their manners.
For this class you will need a ‘scopey’ type of horse, meaning a horse who appears to have a great deal of space between his belly line and the ground. They appear leggy, regardless of their height.
They do not have any animation to their movement, or any unnecessary motion or high stepping. Their legs should swing and reach easily and freely, with their feet landing quietly, and not too high off the ground, or with any ‘floating’ style (such as found in the Arabian). The stride should have a nice length; not too short or extended. This applies to all gaits, with a round ‘scope’ to the canter. The horse should appear efficient and effortless. The walk should have energy, and be straight and smooth.
The trot is the same but strong, and the canter balanced and relaxed. The hand gallop should have cadence and a good stop. The back up should be soft and responsive, with appropriate flexion and give at the jaw and poll, and be straight.
There are many breeds that make up this class, and in the pony classes, these little equines are rare and valuable.
Mostly, you will find Thoroughbred crosses, Warmbloods, Appendix Quarter Horses, Arab crosses, and a few others. It is a ‘type’ not a breed.
‘Hunters under saddle’ should carry themselves low and long, with their necks level or slightly below the wither line, or have a gentle arch from the shoulder into a low headset. I like to ride with a headset just marginally in front of the vertical, but you need to watch how the judge places the classes, as I have seen great discrepancies in judging this class, especially in Open divisions. The Arabian divisions tend to ride a bit higher, due to their characteristic upright build.
A horse that is irritable or continually swishes his tail every time you apply aids will be penalized. Horses with a four beat canter or that breaks gait is eliminated.
You need a very obedient, happy horse for this class, as you will have to maintain very soft contact; not loose or draped rein, nor any pull or tightness. Your equipment is of course a hunt seat saddle and regular headstall with no noseband alteration (no drop, figure 8, or flash). Snaffle bits are preferred, in either eggbutt or full cheek, and pelhams and kimberwicks. Spurs and crops optional, but I suggest to leave the crop behind. No other equipment allowed (martingales, full bridles of 2 bits, bitless bridles).
You should learn to braid manes and tails properly. Nothing looks worse than a beautiful typey hunter with poor braids. Take the time to practice at home and get proficient at this, or hire someone who is good.
As far as type goes, they should be fairly pretty, be impeccably looked after, with good ‘bloom’ to their coats and flesh, good muscle definition, clean legs (helps) and good feet (helps again). They should have a nice length to their neck and a clean throatlatch. They should have a good swing and reach with the back leg, so look for a stifle joint that is below the sheath of a gelding.
A horse with ‘type’, movement, style, manners, and easy to look at is a winner all around. If your horse lacks a bit on the looks, but moves properly, make sure you are cleaned up and fitted extra well for this class. High heads and swishing tails in this class is an automatic ‘out’.
Hunter pleasure classes are judged on manners, obedience, consistency, movement and pretty, in that order. This horse should look like the kind of horse you could trust to go riding in the worst windstorm and he would continue on his merry way without a hitch.
They are ridden on either a soft contact or loose rein (as you will notice in the Quarter Horse classes). Their way of moving is the same as hunter under saddle, but because this is not the primary consideration, a horse with less movement has a chance if he is quiet and consistent. Many well broke, solid horses come out with ribbons over the sweeping movers.
If your horse has movement, type, style, looks, consistency and manners, both classes would appeal to you.
In both classes, watch that you don’t change your cadence and speed from the corners to the long side of the arena. Many horses in both classes tend to loose their placings because of this, even when everything else is working well. In training, work on consistency in circling and straight lines. Try to work your horse off the rail. I like to fide just slightly off the rail, so that I do not have to move in and out to pass other horses, thus interfering with my cadence and stride. Be careful not to ride too far off the rail though, or you will find yourself doing circles in the center. The judge needs to see your horse’s lovely trot. Never block the view of the judge. Try to keep an ample distance or space between you and the horses around you. Keep your head up and watch, to avoid becoming boxed in. It’s easy to see horses in front of you, but a bit trickier to watch the ones coming up behind you. I try to sneak a peek when I am just finishing a length and coming into the corner. I take a very quick glance to see where the ‘pack’ is.
One thing I look for in both classes is the tail. A horse that is supple and sound has a beautiful, even movement, side-to-side ‘soft flip’ with their tail. It shows the free swing of their hip and even muscling and balance on both sides. If your horse has a long tail and a nice swing to it, you may want to make the best of it by braiding it well and keeping it impeccably looked after.
Many people like these classes as they appear to be easy, but nothing is farther from the truth. There are some exceptionally nice moving pretty horses out there with the training to raise the competition even in the smaller shows.