When Judging Equitation, 'Let's Reward Good Riding!'

Equitation should be judged not by a cookie-cutter formula, but as the hybrid of hunter and jumper riding, says top trainer Missy Clark.
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Equitation should be judged not by a cookie-cutter formula, but as the hybrid of hunter and jumper riding, says top trainer Missy Clark.

Along with many jumpers and a few hunters, I train riders and horses for the junior equitation divisions; I trained 2001 Stablegate.com/ASPCA Maclay Finals winner Brian Walker (who also came second in that year's Eisers & Pessoa/AHSA Medal Finals and USET East Coast Talent Search. In 2000, three of the top Maclay Finals competitors were from my barn, and I co-trained Medal Finals and USET East Coast Talent Search winner Sarah Willeman. I'm a big proponent of equitation's importance in the hunter/jumper world--which is why I'm concerned that some judges aren't pinning the discipline as the hybrid of hunter and jumper riding (perhaps even more closely related to the jumpers than the hunters) that it's intended to be. Instead, they're judging equitation as if it were an end in itself, using a cookie-cutter formula derived strictly from the hunter ring-and in doing so, they're rewarding mediocre riding and hurting our sport.

Trainer Missy Clark | Photo by Mandy Lorraine

Trainer Missy Clark | Photo by Mandy Lorraine

Let me explain what I mean. My teaching goal is to give my students a base of correct, effective horsemanship. Their heels are down, they're in the front of the saddle, their reins are the correct length, and they're relaxed and going with-not behind-the motion of the horse. To me, this is a universal seat that that equips them to be good riders in either the hunter or jumper ring. They can produce a smooth, flowing hunter round-or a jumper round whose tighter turns and more technical distances require them to package their horses and take off from deeper spots.

Sure, there are differences in form between the hunter ring and the jumper ring, but those variations are minute. When you watch the best jumper riders--such as Peter Wylde, Ian Millar, or Beezie Madden--on a grand prix course, you see the same smooth continuity that you do in a good hunter round.(Want an example from the junior ranks? My student Sarah Willeman came third in the BET/AHSA National Individual Junior Jumper Championship and was on the winning team in the BET/AHSA Prix de States Team Championship the same week she won the Medal.)

My horses also benefit from a "hybrid" approach designed to be good training for either ring. When I was showing frequently, I schooled my own hunters and jumpers alike because the same flatwork and gymnastics that made my jumpers light and adjustable (including counter-canter for balancing and lateral work, such as half-pass, for suppling) worked for the hunters, too: For instance, if a hunter was a little quick off the ground, I could add a stride in the line and lighten him with the bend. After jumper-type schooling, my hunters found the side-diagonal-side-diagonal hunter courses a piece of cake. (And, contrary to some trainers' opinions, jumper-style schooling didn't "take the jump away" from my hunters!) Now, a similar program makes my students' equitation horses more ridable, increasing their options for coping in the ring if a line or distance doesn't work out according to plan.

So if equitation is about a good rider on a ridable horse, it makes sense that competitors should be judged on the overall quality of their performance in the ring, not on mechanical and arbitrary criteria for striding and distance.

Good riding means "rolling the dice a little harder": riding with more pace and taking the more difficult track around the course, taking more chances to produce an outstanding ride. As part of such a forward trip, the rider might find a deep spot at the base of an oxer as preparation for a tight landing turn. That's perfect, right? But plenty of judges (particularly those without much jumper-ring background) don't see it that way. They want X strides on the line and a takeoff X feet from the base of the fence and they mark down for anything else-whatever the quality of the round. They rewardposed riders on easy-to-stay-with flat jumpers (I criunge when I hear one of these described as "the perfect equitation horse") who play it safe by taking the long approaches and sitting down all the way around. That kind of judging encourages mediocrity.

So what could help bring the judging standards for equitation more consistently into line with the discipline's real goal? More active trainers in the judge's booth, for one thing-yet I know that most of my colleagues, like myself, just don't have enough hours in the day to get our judge's cards. Meanwhile, we need more good clinics, like the one held in 2001 in Palm Beach, for equitation-judge candidates: There, qualified judges scored and commented on a demo equitation class including George Morris (Olympic show-jumping veteran and author of Hunter Seat Equitation), Sydney Olympics jumper-squad alternate Todd Minikus, and top international jumper rider (and former junior equitation star) McLain Ward. Each rider tried to be more brilliant than the last over risky options like hand-galloping the long approach to an oxer or taking off deep to a fence to create an inside turn to the next line. And they got bonus points if they succeeded! That's the kind of good riding the equitation divisions need to encourage.

George won on the flat, by the way, and McLain won the jumping phase.

Top trainer Missy Clark has expanded from North Run, her longtime base in upstate New York, to include a new farm in Warren, Vt., near the Sugarbush show grounds. Missy's mother, Doris Clark, will continue to teach at North Run.

This article was updated from the September 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.