The biggest difference between hunters and jumpers is the way they are judged. Expert horsemen judge hunters subjectively on the basis of their style and movement, conformation (in some classes), and overall picture, as well as on the quality of the rounds themselves. In the jumper divisions, judging is entirely objective, based on faults incurred for refusals, runouts, rails down, falls, and seconds over the optimum time. Quite simply, the difference between first and second in a hunter round is a personal judgment; in the jumper round, the fastest clean round always wins--regardless of style. Hunter classes were originally designed to test the qualities necessary in a field hunter: excellent manners, efficient and comfortable gaits, and a good, safe jumping style. They represent the more artistic side of the industry and thus attract more "artsy" horsepeople. Jumper classes are the "spills-and-thrills" side of the industry, requiring boldness and athleticism in both horses and riders-and more of a "jock" mentality.
Because of its straightforward scoring system, show jumping is usually easier for beginners to appreciate. To do the hunters, you have to be interested in the very detailed, artistic process of producing good performances, and you have to be interested in competing for your own satisfaction. (A lovely round in your eyes may not always be a lovely round in the judge's eyes!) Lower-level show hunter classes were once considered the best jumping-off point for either sport. Nowadays, starting off in the jumpers is also a very viable option because the jumper divisions include classes for even the lowest-level beginner riders.
The equitation division--which, like the hunters, is judged subjectively, but on the basis of rider performance rather than the horse's--is also a good starting-off point. Although, sadly, some people see equitation as an end in itself, it was designed to instill a solid foundation and interest in riders, enabling them to successfully go on into the hunters and jumpers.
A misconception has arisen that the jumpers require less carefully honed skills and style than do the hunters. People new to the sport may think, "All you need to do is get over the jumps and go fast." But the jumpers require horses that are as good, if not better, and riders at least equally sophisticated. At the top levels of either sport, it's artistry that prevails.
Of the two, only show-jumping is an Olympic sport. Growing television exposure and prize money have drawn more attention to jumpers over the past few decades, but hunter classes continue to thrive. Today, more than five national Hunter Classic competitions offer $25,000 or more in prize money.
For more detailed information about these two sports, visit the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association at www.ushja.org. A variety of books have also been written on the subject. In my opinion, George Morris' Hunter Seat Equitation is the best book of all. I also recommend all of Gordon Wright's works, including Learning to Ride, Hunt, and Show.
This article first appeared in the July 1999 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.