How does "Expression" affect judging in the hunter and equitation rings?

Kay Beard, ‘r’ Licensed Official

The question has been raised often in recent times regarding a horse showing expression in the Hunter and Equitation rings.  The good news is here has been a shift in perception around  judging hunters that allows for a demonstration of physical enthusiasm on course.  But let's explore this deeper in order to answer the question by first defining expression as it pertains to horses showing in the hunter and equitation disciplines. 

Expression shown by the horse in the Hunter and Equitation classes may come in a variety of forms -  positive or negative.  For example, a horse that has its ears pinned to his head, is wringing his tail, and showing a reluctance to go forward would be demonstrating negative forms of equine expression.  The horse is certainly “telling” spectators how it feels through its physical movements that are generally considered negatively charged motions. 

A positive form of expression may look like a horse purposefully marching into the show arena, with his ears at attention, and offering a willingness to move forward around the course.  With this explanation, it is important to differentiate forwardness and speed on course.  Judges are often looking for the horse showing interest in its task at hand, yet, not wanting to watch a horse that runs around the course with unnecessary speed. 

Undoubtedly, as with judging any subjective sport event, judge’s opinions will differ and they should.  Any official comes to the ring with their own set of experiences, preferences, and points of view.  These things all play a role in any individual’s perception of a performance.  While one judge may view a horse tracking the course with a forward pace, another may view that same round as the horse being quick.  However, almost any judge will differentiate between an enthusiastic pace and dangerous speed.   

With animal welfare considerations in mind, the USEF and USHJA have made an effort to educate judges to no longer penalize horses the show positive energy on course.  This may look like a horse with an energetic pace, a keen interest as he approaches each fence  making a great effort at a fence, and landing with a playful swing of its head.  In today's times, measures have been made to encourage allowance for this form of a horse's eager expression around a hunter course. 

In both Hunter and Equitation classes, the movement of the horse, with the inclusion of his athletic behavior or expression, must be rhythmical.  Manners and suitability are primary considerations for all divisions.  In other words, an athletic and energetic performance in a professional division may be rewarded.  While this same performance in a beginner riders class may be penalized should the judge sense that the rider could be in a compromising position.  Thus, the context of that same performance is a consideration when a judge pins a class. 

Getting back to the basics, a horse rushing toward fences or bounding away from fences is not a mannerism hunter judges should reward.  Here’s why. In the hunt field with uneven terrain and potentially limited traction, a horse must demonstrate proficiency at being sure footed. Moreover, a horse kicking out on course is never a behavior to reward as this action could result in injuring one of the hounds on the hunt field.  Bucking is also considered perilous as the horse could easily lose its footing and result in injuring himself or the rider. On the other hand, expression of a horse’s head and neck more laterally can be deemed a positive thing so long as it is not excessive. 

Next trainers, riders, spectators, and officials are now confronted with examining the word, excessive.  To reiterate, this is where the subjectivity of judging enters and judges will diverge on what is excessive in a person’s viewpoint.  Nonetheless, a judge should differentiate between an athletic performance and a precarious performance.                

Diane Carney, a notable licensed official in the industry, says, “ In our sport today an athletic hunter is appreciated, a horse with expression is appreciated, a good pace without tension in rhythm is appreciated.  That is ideal.  The brain and the body of the horse, along with the balance of the rider in sync galloping relaxed and really jumping beautiful jumps is a great performance.”  Ms. Carney goes on to add, “That is horse training, not just horse showing.”

An important point to consider for sure.

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