Dakota Examines What Is Acceptable In Hunter Under Saddle Today
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AQHA Director of Judges Alex Ross says that Multiple World Champion Hot Ones Only is presenting an acceptable head set in this picture. Photo © Shane Rux
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As a hunter under saddle exhibitor, I have noticed a lot of industry chatter questioning how our hunter under saddle horses are to be presented in the show pen. Trainers and exhibitors are asking for clarification on how the horses are judged. What is an acceptable headset? Are their headsets too high; too low? Are they traveling too fast or too slow? Do all horses need to be 16.2H or taller to be competitive? Should we be emulating the guidelines for other associations that focus specifically on hunters and jumpers? In the end, are we giving in to the fact that we are really riding Wenglish horses (Western + English=Wenglish)?

In order to help de-mystify many of these misconceptions, I contacted some of the industry’s leaders to help bring clarity to these questions. My first stop was with AQHA Senior Director of Judges, Alex Ross who prefaced this discussion by addressing the purpose of the modern-day hunter under saddle class and how it was developed.

According to Ross, an English Task force was organized in 2009 consisting of leading exhibitors (open and amateur) as well as owners and breeders of hunter under saddle horses. A sub-committee was formed to develop a purpose for every English class. In hunter under saddle, the purpose is as follows:

466B. (a) The purpose of the hunter under saddle horse is to present or exhibit a horse with a bright, alert expression, whose gaits show potential of being a working hunter. Therefore, its gait must be free-flowing, ground covering and athletic.

For some, creating a “purpose” in the rule book has seemingly added to the confusion through the introduction of the simple term “Working Hunter.” Getting right to the point, Mr. Ross clarified that while the Task Force felt that the horse’s way of going should simulate that of a working hunter, he believes our industry recognizes that horses shown in AQHA competition will be slightly different than a typical working hunter horse. Simply stated, “We are looking for our hunter under saddle horses to demonstrate the characteristics listed in the rules for a working hunter, i.e., long, low strides, reaching forward with ease, and lengthening instead of “quickening” strides for proper cadence,” Ross said. (pictured left)

Head carriage is another topic of discussion in our industry to which Mr. Ross directed that, “There are parameters set in the rule book addressing this matter.” (The rulebook states that, “the poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers to allow proper impulsion”). However Ross adds, “Extremes in either direction should be penalized.” He adds that he believes that, “The majority of judges can recognize the positive characteristics we should reward in a hunter under saddle class."

In addition to Mr. Ross’ clarifications, I spoke with industry leaders who weighed in on the subject of hunter under saddle. All concurred on most of the same matters of importance, namely form to function movement is the key to a successful hunter under saddle horse.

Sandy Vaughn: Multiple Congress and World Champion Exhibitor and Trainer

”The process starts with the exhibitor as the judges can only judge what is being put in front of them. We have come a long way, but we have a ways to go (not a long way).

Movement: The industry needs to be committed to showing horses more naturally with the emphasis on movement. “If a horse is a good mover and is properly engaged they will be rewarded in a class regardless of the horse’s size,” Vaughn says.

Head Carriage/Expression: Vaughn doesn’t believe that there can necessarily be an “exact rule” on head carriage and expression because it is “form to function." However, she feels that the tip of the ear should not be below the wither.

Additional Points of interest: After movement, head carriage and expression, Vaughn believes that many other things can be forgiven. Size should not be a factor as long as the horse is free moving. For many horses, it is still difficult for some to make the transition of lifting its shoulders when starting to jump.

Charlie Cole: AQHA Judge, Trainer of World Champions in Multiple Disciplines

“We need to stop comparing our horses to other memberships or associations,” Cole insists. “Quarter Horses are a breed which is the most versatile and trainable horse in the world. I am tired of hearing that our horses should go like horses in other organizations. We have a higher expectation for obedience than most. I have sent many horses to show on Hunter/Jumper circuits and the regular feedback I get is that they are amazed at their level of training and ease to ride.”

Movement – Cole always looks at this first followed by the horse’s way of going and expression. “I look for a free flowing trot with a canter that is true and moving forward where the horse looks balanced and happy.”

Headset: “Some horses look better nosed out; some above level, others slightly below level. I’ve felt for years that the rulebook should be changed to say, 'Tip of the ears should be no lower than the withers.' Maybe that will be my new mission."

Additional Points: Cole believes that, “The canter has improved tremendously. In the 90’s, it seemed like if they could trot and were 16.2 or bigger, they would win the class. Many of these horses were poor movers and not nice horses. In the 2000’s, many of our top hunt seat horses were also our top hunter horses. I believe this is still the case, but unfortunately our hunter division has become very small and there isn’t support. Jumping is great for mind and body!”

Brent Tincher: AQHA Judge, and Trainer of multiple World Champion Hunter Under Saddle Horses

”I enjoy seeing a horse shown in a natural free moving 12’ stride at the canter in hunter under saddle by lengthening; not changing speed. I like a horse to swing its leg and have enough step to potentially get over a fence, and make the distances in between,” Tincher says. He also believes it is hard for a true hunter under saddle horses to cross over and make a great equitation horse because of the shortening of stride.

Movement: “This is most important.”

Head Set: Like Vaughn, Tincher has a problem with defining the rule because he feels the head set should be “conformation based."

Additional comments: Tincher does not believe in calling for an extension at the canter, or a hand gallop. “Horses should already be going forward naturally."

Scott DeHelian: “R” USEF Judge and “A” Circuit Competitor and Trainer. AQHA Special Event Judge with Multiple Top Ten Placings at the All American Quarter Horse Congress over fences.

DeHelian feels that there is a difference between English Pleasure and Hunters under Saddle, but is respectful of AQHA’s current class designations. He is disappointed in the decline of entries in hunter classes at AQHA shows over the years, and believes that combining Hunter Under Saddle classes as part of a Hunter Champion Division (at shows where applicable) may service to increase numbers. “When I school my horses before jumping, I always school them low in order to loosen and stretch them.” DeHelian believes that the trot gait in hunter under saddle classes is “WONDERFUL” as an industry, but feels that the canter as a whole could “use improvement” – i.e. a more free-moving canter.

Movement: DeHelian believes that the emphasis on movement should always come first.

Head Set: DeHelian thinks that we should worry about headsets after our horses achieve freer movement and go from there.

Additional Comments: “If you watch the guys winning the hunters, and watch them school on the flat, their shoulders are always up which gives them more spring or natural impulsion.”

Dawn Baker: Congress Masters Hunter Under Saddle Champion and Trainer

Baker suggests that exhibitors need not get hung up on the size of the horse, but be more concerned about whether a horse can move with fluid motion like a “big horse”. She clarifies that “If a big horse can go slower naturally – more props to them!” 

Movement:The best mover should always take precedence,” Baker says.

Head carriage: Baker believes that AQHA horses are bred to carry their heads lower conformationally, and notes that some horses would have a difficult time carrying their heads up. She also believes that headset should follow conformation and comfort although it should be positioned by the tip of the ear no lower than the wither.

Additional Comments: When asked about her thoughts about special event judges judging hunter under saddle, she feels that they do an excellent job as a whole, but that many tend to emphasize the trot gait.

Carla Wennberg: Multiple World Championship Official, Trainer and AAAA-rated AQHA Judge

According to Wennberg, “I prefer our AQHA horses to go in balance on the flat, and not on the forehand. Too low a neck puts a horse onto its forehand to where the front end is heavier and the horse appears to pull themselves along – rather than push. The balance of all gaits should be from back to front with the front end lighter!!!”

Movement: “My job as a judge is to find the horses with good movement and balance.”

Head Carriage: “A horse should carry their head according to conformation. It is truly form to function.”

Additional Points Of Interest: “I like to see three good gaits, and forward moving horses, intended for the purpose of flatwork before fences. Uphill balance and forward…this does not mean fast!”

In Summary:

• Sandra Vaughn put it best; the process starts with the exhibitor as the judge can only judge what is being put in front of them.

• Each professional noted independently of the others that the most important aspect of hunter under saddle is good movement.

• While the rulebook may need future clarification of specific verbiage on headset (i.e. poll vs. tip of ear) the general consensus was that height of the headset should be dictated by conformation or form to function.

• All professionals felt that we should not try to emulate other organizations, and as Mr. Ross said, “Our horses should demonstrate the characteristics of working hunters."

• Size of the horse does not matter so long as horses are able to lengthen their stride naturally.

• We should take pride in the versatility and obedience of our breed.

Although there may be some difference in overall placings at any show under different officials, it is remarkable how when polled independently that everyone utilized the same logic. The consistency of responses is a great testimonial to the guidance and direction of AQHA. I would like to thank all of the esteemed professionals, and especially Alex Ross for taking the time to contribute to this very “hot topic”! I’d also like to thank Dawn Clason, AQHA Judge and NSBA Secretary who offered to take our questions and article to the NSBA committee and address them. See you, as always at the hunter under saddle pen.

CLICK HERE to see a slideshow of images that Executive Director of Judges Alex Ross said were good representations of acceptable headsets for the hunter under saddle class.

16 comments for this article Reverse Comment Order
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Added: August 11, 2014. 12:05 PM CDT
I think there is more to the story…..
Again as always Dakota I love your style of writing and I commend gohorseshow.com for addressing a "hot button" topic. I agree with Charlie Cole that there needs to be more clarity on the rule regarding the placement of the horses head in regards to the conformation of the horse, also stated by Sandy Vaughn, more form to function. I think that a more commonly used word "head set" is a misleading word. I personally like the word term "on the bit" or "in the riders hand", or “Shape of the topline” better, but that is my personal opinion. What I disagree with is we are missing a very large point that I see plaguing our Under Saddle. If the horses are to be judged on their ability to be a future hunter (even if they never jump a jump) the first thing to be considered is if they have the potential to canter on a 12 foot stride in order to achieve what is required to jump a line in a hunter class. When I watch an under saddle class I do not see the horses being shown according to the rules. The words I gravitate to in the Hunter Under Saddle rule are bright, alert expression, ground covering, free-flowing, athletic, reaching forward with ease, alert ears, and again the word flowing is listed twice. I see most horses “loping” around the ring at the canter, with very little expression and very little flow, and certainly not ground covering at the canter that would demonstrate the potential of being a working hunter. The word “manners” is also in the wording, which I agree whole-heartedly with, but my observation is I see it being considered first and foremost above movement by many judges. I will also agree with Charlie that the working hunter division has dropped dramatically in the past 5 years, especially when, according to AQHA it was one of the fastest growing divisions in that time frame. I believe it stems from the Under Saddle being shown/judged in such a manner that horses being shown cannot physically show length of stride and therefore are being trained in a manner that they are not comfortable with or is not natural to them. In most cases the canter is being manufactured to fit a horse that maybe has a big enough stride into a horse that can keep a speed in the pen that is relative to all the other horses cantering around. It’s like taking a square peg and fitting into a round hole. Charlie is correct that there have been hunter under saddle horses in the past 14 years (the year 2000) that have made top hunters. The problem is I can think of about a dozen (most of them being Highpoint, Leslie Lang, and Chuck Briggs) out of thousands of hunter under saddle horses in the period he refers to. I am a hunter trainer and it is upsetting to me that it is getting more and more difficult to find prospects for the AQHA working hunter, especially if they have been started in the Under Saddles. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the class in the first place? Either they are so afraid to canter they are never comfortable opening up their stride because they are never allowed or they just physically can’t do it. It’s muscle memory for the horses. If they have been trained, to what I consider “lope” around, since they are broke out as two’s how at 4 or 5 can you convince them it’s ok to go forward? The sad thing is we do have nice horses and great trainers., but they feel pressured to only show one way to try to emulate the top few that have really athletic horses. Charlie is right, I have ridden some beautifully trained Quarter Horses in my 25 year career, some of them were his. I am not asking for people to gallop around the ring and be out of control. We are not far off from achieving a happy medium. The canter has become extremely slow and if it were exhibited with more length of stride or forward motion to demonstrate the potential to negotiate a working hunter course we could solve a lot of problems with our shrinking hunter division.
Lainie DeBoer
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Added: August 10, 2014. 07:46 PM CDT
Thanks for posting this article!! Very good
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Added: August 10, 2014. 07:21 PM CDT
Judges say one thing and do something else
Too many times we read the rules and hear judges say one thing and do something else. Very good for those that pointed out the difference between what Alex Ross said, "Head carriage is another topic of discussion in our industry to which Mr. Ross directed that, “There are parameters set in the rule book addressing this matter.” (The rulebook states that, “the poll should be level with, or slightly above the withers to allow proper impulsion”). However Ross adds, “Extremes in either direction should be penalized.” He adds that he believes that, “The majority of judges can recognize the positive characteristics we should reward in a hunter under saddle class."
and what the trainers/judges said, which was not what Alex Ross said.
Have watched slow gated, drooped reins, not what I would consider a "English" forward moving animal, win classes, too many times. It is tiring to see animals that have been shown so much that they look dull and expressionless, win, repeatedly. I guess my idea of a beautiful animal that is happy in his/her job, is much different than the industries.
Sofa King Loud
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Added: May 30, 2012. 05:48 PM CDT
Charlie and others,

I don't think the commentors (including myself) are fixating on headset in lieu of movement, expression, etc. I think they are merely commenting on what the article provided by way of illustration - i.e. the "slideshow of images that Executive Director of Judges Alex Ross said were good representations of acceptable headsets for the hunter under saddle class" - all of which show "acceptable" headsets which do not appear to comply with the rule as written. Should the rule be changed? Perhaps. However, at present the rule is what it is, and the headsets presented as "acceptable" do not comply with the written rule, which could contribute to exhibitor confusion over what truly is "acceptable".

Please don't flame me - just making an objective comment!
Can't we all just get along???
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Added: May 12, 2012. 06:53 AM CDT
I LOVE where the AQHA HUS Horses are Today
I LOVE what Charlie Cole wrote about "we need to quit comparing the quarter horse to other memberships or associations". I TOTALLY AGREE.

I like where our quarter horses are at today with the hunter under saddle events. I like that the big typey horses can win in the HUS pen as well as the shorter ones.

As for head set, we need to think about the fact that breeders have been breeding for a level headset and a neck that ties low into the shoulder for a long time now. Many of my HUS horses will naturally have their head below their withers. My training practices do not force them into this frame. This is just how they are bred.

We need to remember that many hunter under saddle riders have no desire to jump and many of these horses will never see a fence. And, that's ok. Let people enjoy the event they want to compete in.

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Added: May 03, 2012. 08:59 PM CDT
Get over it!
Great article! So happy that movement is #1 and I really wish people would stop the complaining about head sets!!! If the horse is a good mover and is balanced who gives a crap where the head is! Many horses are bred to be tied in low and they are comfortable and moving correctly low, that is why we love our QH HUS horses!! Yes we can hold them up to approach a fence (which I have riden many low headed horses to a fence) In their approach you will lift and them up and adjust your stride as needed. But what I find most humorous is the people complaining about head set at the trot... Watch any quiet good fence horse, I don't care what breed, after their course and the trot for soundness... don't you see them stretching down to stretch their back after jumping. To me, that shows a quiet relaxed horse enjoying their job. As long as the horse is balanced and is a good mover, who cares where the head is! It depends on the horse and conformation!
Tired of negativity!!!
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Added: May 03, 2012. 07:52 PM CDT
I'll support your rule change Charlie
I am happy to see leaders in our industry emphasizing movement and expression over size and arbitrary headset rules. The horses in the examples look beautiful as shown, and would not have the same reach with their heads up higher because that is not how our QH's are built. I would fully support a rule change that articulated a headset that fit our horse's way of going over some arbitrary line that takes a ruler and a still photo to figure out.
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Added: May 03, 2012. 04:56 PM CDT
Can you not see all the good?
I find it interesting that all the negative comments only focus on the horses heads.. Ignoring that the horses are happy, expressful , on the bit and showing balance and are all excellent movers... seriously, it took a ruler to decide they were slightly below the withers.. Get a grip people!!!! Alex clearly said, The extremes are what we want to avoid" no horses in these pictures are extremely or even close to extremely low. Even person interviewed agreed , movement comes first. So start looking at movement and expression and stop focusing on heads, thats not what the judges are doing so why are you?
Charlie Cole
Who will be sending in a rule change for 2012.
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Added: May 03, 2012. 03:49 PM CDT
Disagree with "It Starts with the Exhibitor"
No way -- it starts with judges (who are also trainers) who STOP placing horses going around like they are carrying an apple under their chins. The examples are good, but they aren't level -- they are below level (I used a ruler, too!). Mr. Ross says "at or slightly ABOVE the withers and he is the Director of Judges. Those who commented after him are trainers (and some also judges) -- they all say up to an ear's length BELOW the withers. And, all agree that it depends somewhat on conformation. If the Director says what it should be, then judges say, "Oh, but wait....." See what I mean? Same as in western pleasure -- long as the "tropers" are earning points, it's not going to stop - even if there is a true three-beat lope - Lord know if he passes someone, he may as well just go on and head back to the stall. As long as the HUS horses who go 'round with heads down, face behind the vertical, and looking at the ground, that's what trainers will send their exhibitors into the arena riding.

I DO like that everyone agreed that good movement is most important. That was nice to read.
MoReda's mom
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Added: May 03, 2012. 02:43 PM CDT
hunter under saddle
maybe the judges should get glasses. those horses have their tips of the ears UNDER the withers. I used to like showing aqha until everything went out the door and looks fake and unnatural. and the judges don't go buy the rule book any way (on how the horse is to travel and look and who they know). Heck they horses are all class specific now, you used to be able to take one horse in everything and do well, now you have to have an english horse, a western horse, a halter horse, a showmanship horse, a trail horse ect. what happend to qh being versitile?? What happend to qh being natual looking? I am just 27 and have seen the difference. I am ashamed of how Quarter horses are now....
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