Horse Shows, Horsemanship

What is the Difference Between Hunters and Jumpers?

At first glance, the differences between hunters and jumpers seem pretty minor, almost indistinguishable to the untrained eye. But to experienced equestrians, the differences between hunters and jumpers are as obvious as the differences between dressage and cross country.

To help clear things up for new or confused riders (or if you’re tired of explaining the differences to your non-horsey friends), here’s a definitive guide on the differences between hunters and jumpers.

The Differences Between Hunters and Jumpers

Hunters and jumpers do have one key factor in common: jumping. In both disciplines, horses and riders are asked to successfully navigate a course of obstacles. But that’s about where the similarities end. 

The key difference between hunters and jumpers is best summarized as subjectivity vs. objectivity. 

Hunters are judged subjectively, by a human. Judges place horse and rider pairs based on rider ability, horse ability, and style. 

Jumpers, however, are judged objectively, by a combination of time clock and faults. Riders need to hit or exceed the optimum time, with faults added to the round’s time. 

We’ll take a look at each discipline across 3 factors – how they’re judged, the types of obstacles encountered, horse and rider turnout, and whether or not it’s the discipline for you.

Bay horse and man in red hunt coat jump over a hedge
Image by pedbriggs on Pixabay

All About Hunters

Hunter classes, which may not necessarily be over fences, were developed to judge desirable qualities in field hunters (you know, with foxes and hounds). While the rider’s skill is important, hunter classes are all about the horse. The job of a rider in a hunter round is mostly to show off the horse. 

Horses are expected to have a look of quality and athleticism, excellent manners, an economical but stylish “way of going” (how the horse moves), and a safe, graceful jumping style.

Hunter classes are typically more subdued than jumping rounds, with the focus being on perfect position, hitting distances, and looking good doing it. Aspects like horse conformation and turnout (both horse and rider) are also considered.

Pony stops over a low hunter jump
Image by soulfirephotography_ on Pixabay

Riding a Hunter Course

Hunter courses typically consist of 8-12 obstacles. The course itself is basic, with simple diagonal and outside lines. The course is designed to show off the horse and rider, rather than testing them. 

Jumps pay homage to the foxhunting origin of the sport and are designed to look like natural obstacles. They’re typically in muted, natural colors like green, brown, white, or plain wood, and may be adorned with branches, greenery, hay bales, harvest decorations, or flowers. 

How Hunter Rounds are Scored

Hunter rounds are scored subjectively by a judge, but faults are penalized and detract from the overall score. 

Here’s what those numbers mean- 

A score in the 70’s is alright but mediocre. There was probably a fault or two in the round somewhere. 

A score in the 80’s is average to good. A strong round, but not perfect.

A score in the 90’s is very good. A competitive, above-average round, and a serious contender for the big ribbons. 

Hunter faults fall into one of two categories – major and minor

Major hunter faults include a fall, refusal, running out on a fence, going off course, kicking, adding a stride, trotting to change canter leads, cantering on the wrong lead, and knocking down a fence. 

Hunter fences are smaller and sturdier than jumper fences so a “hard rub”, when a horse hits a fence but does not knock it down, is also a major fault. 

Minor hunter faults include cutting corners, taking off too far or too short (meaning the takeoff spot has been incorrectly judged and the horse needs to stretch or shorten his jump to make it over the fence), pace adjustments, lead changes at the incorrect time, or poor jumping form. Evidence of tension or bad attitude, like pinning ears or swishing tails, is also considered a minor fault.

Rider in tan coat jumps a rustic jump
Image by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Hunter Turnout

Hunter classes are heavily steeped in tradition and are decidedly conservative (and pretty strict) when it comes to turnout of both horse and rider. 

Tack is brown leather and the bridle and saddle should be the same shade. Saddle pads should be clean, crisp white, and closely fitted to the outline of the saddle.  Only regular cavesson nosebands and simple snaffle bits are allowed. 

Breastplates and running martingales are not allowed, but a standing martingale is permissible.  Boots and wraps are not allowed because they’re not traditional, visually distracting, and can hide poor lower leg conformation.

Hunter riders must wear a black helmet, black (usually leather) gloves, and black field boots. Breeches should be tan, with a crisp, usually white show shirt and dark hunt coat, typically navy. If you wear a belt, it should match the color of your tack.

Braiding for Hunter Classes

Horses must be braided for hunter shows.

The exact number of braids will depend on the size and shape of the horse’s neck, but expect to do anywhere from 30-40 small, tight, flat braids with thread or yarn to match the color of the mane (not elastics). The forelock should be finished in a French braid.

Braiding the tail is optional, but nothing puts the finishing touch on a hunter more than a beautifully braided tail. If you choose not to braid the tail (it is very time-consuming), pull or trim the hairs on the dock for a clean, neat look. But be aware that once you have trimmed the tail hair, you won’t be able to braid the tail until the hairs grow back.

Woman rides a bay horse at a show
Image by Chadlad on Pixabay

Hunter Equitation

Hunter shows may also include equitation classes. These are unique in that it is the rider, not the horse, that’s being judged. 

A good way to remember the difference between hunter and equitation is that in hunter classes, the rider shows off the horse. In equitation classes, the horse shows off the rider. 

In equitation, the rider’s job is to “make it look easy”. Riders are judged on position, style, and quietness. Quietness doesn’t mean the way you talk to your horse (which you really, really shouldn’t do during a hunter round), but how quiet your hands, seat, and legs are. Fidgeting, readjusting, and excessive leg and rein aids will be heavily penalized in an equitation round. 

Judges are looking for a smooth, effortless round from the rider. 

Free jumping horse bascules over an obstacle
Image by mariepages on Pixabay

But just because the horse isn’t being judged, doesn’t mean he doesn’t matter.
A horse with a clunky, uneven stride, huge “back cracking” jumps or an exaggerated bascule (the rounded arc shape a horse should make with its body when jumping) can be difficult to ride, and even harder to look good while riding. 

Equitation horses can be shown in boots if necessary, and courses may be a bit more technical than a hunter course to test the rider’s decision-making and adaptability, including elements like trot jumps or rollbacks.

Many aspiring showjumpers start off in hunter equitation to gain a solid foundation before trying more challenging jumper courses. Since the horse is less important in equitation, it’s a great introduction that doesn’t require a fancy (read: expensive) horse, although higher-level horse/rider pairs may specialize in equitation.

Grey horse in flash noseband takes a small jump
Image by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Are Hunters Right For You?

Classic, stylish, artistic, graceful… if any of these words appeal to you, hunter may just be the right equine discipline for you. Alternatively, if you’re new to over-fences or are looking to develop a strong jumping foundation, hunters could be an ideal place to start.

If you’re blessed with a nice-looking horse with good conformation and good movement who carries himself well, you may just be sitting on a fine hunter prospect, as well. 

Grey show jumper and rider in navy coat jump a large jump
Image by TheOtherKev on Pixabay

All About Jumpers

Chances are, even your non-horsey friends know what showjumping is. 

Of the two disciplines, it’s the only one that is an Olympic sport. International showjumping competitions are often broadcast on TV, and some top-notch showjumpers are almost household names. And with good reason – it’s a pretty exciting sport! 

Unlike hunters, jumpers are judged objectively using a combination of time and faults. 

Horse and rider pairs must clear the course within the time allowed, or risk being penalized for every second over the allowable time. Time faults are doled out for falls, refusals, going off course, or knocking down a rail. 

Riding a Jumper Course

Compared to a hunter course, showjumper jumps are higher, wider, and come down more easily. Distances are tougher, combinations are tighter, and courses are designed to test athleticism and trust, rather than show off style and skill. 

bay horse jumps a horse designed to look like a butterfly
Image by TesaPhotography on Pixabay

Jumps are big, bright, flashy, and creative. While hunter jumps may be made of wood, jumps in a jumper round are usually lightweight plastic poles and often set in shallow jump cups so that they fall when brushed. 

Obstacles can also include water and ditch jumps, as well as jumps that are longer than they are tall, to test the horse’s scope and distance. Larger shows may include hills and ditches as part of the course, such as the infamous “Devil’s Dyke” at Spruce Meadows

The courses themselves, as well as being timed, are designed to test the horse and rider. Expect deliberately ‘awkward’ distances, diagonals and winding lines, figure eights, sharp turns, and tight lead changes. 

brave horse jumps into water
Image by Westfale on Pixabay

While the jumps must be taken in a specific order, the exact flow of the course is up to the rider, which is why riders will be allowed to walk the course before jumping it. 

For example, you may have the choice to take a wide turn and set the horse up nicely for a jump which will take more time but increases the likelihood of jumping clear. Or, you can take a turn tight to save time, although it may increase the likelihood of knocking a rail if the horse has to jump diagonally. 

Decisions like this mean that no two jumper rounds are exactly the same, which adds to the excitement. 

How Jumper Rounds are Scored 

If hunters are all about manners, jumpers are all about numbers. 

The winner of a jumper round is the pair that finishes the course the fastest, with the fewest faults. 

Faults are typically scored as follows:

Knocking down a rail – 4 faults

Foot in a water jump – 4 faults 

Fall by either horse or rider – immediate disqualification 

Refusal – 4 faults. Depending on the governing body, a horse and rider may be disqualified if they refuse two or three fences. 

Faults are not counted if a horse rubs a jump without knocking it down. 

Depending on the type and level of competition, there may be a jump-off round as well. In this case, riders who complete the course in the time allowed (or less) without faults will move on to the next round, called the jump-off. The horse and rider pair with the fastest time and fewest faults in the jump-off round wins. 

Riders are allowed to walk the course before the competition, but cannot walk the jump-off course. 

Grey show jumper clears a narrow jump
Image by clarencealford on Pixabay

Jumper Turnout  

Compared to the ultra-conservative hunter world, jumpers are pretty much punk rock in terms of what’s allowable in the ring. 

Tack can be brown or black, leather or synthetic. An all-purpose saddle may be fine for lower levels, but you’ll need to upgrade to a more jumping-friendly close contact saddle if you’re serious. 

Boots, wraps, and ear bonnets are all acceptable, and usually complement the saddle pad or rider’s attire.

Any size or shape of saddle pad is acceptable, and many riders opt for a shock-absorbing half pad over a square pad (usually with contrasting trim and piping, or an embroidered logo or name on the square pad). 

Girths can be leather or synthetic, and belly protector girths are common at higher levels to protect the horse’s stomach from his front feet when he tucks them in over high fences.

Almost any bridle is acceptable, and figure eight or flash nosebands are common, as they keep the horse’s mouth closed while keeping his nasal passages free. 

Most types of bits are acceptable, including gag bits and three-ring bits, which can be used with two sets of reins. Bitless bridles and hackamores are also acceptable for show jumping, as is a hackamore/snaffle combination. 

Jumper riders must wear an ASTM-approved helmet, with matte and shiny options becoming increasingly popular. Breeches are typically beige or buff. Many riders opt for a traditional show shirt/ coat combo, but coat colors can range from traditional navy to grey, black, brown, and hunter green. 

Many shows will allow jumper riders to show without a coat or in a smart short-sleeved polo shirt, especially during the summer. 

Braiding for Jumper Classes

Braiding is optional in jumper classes. If you choose not to braid, the horse should still have a neatly trimmed and pulled mane to show respect for the sport. 

If you do choose to braid, jumper braids are a little faster and easier to do than hunter braids. Because braiding is not mandatory, elastics are acceptable, which can make your grooming job a lot easier. 

Jumpers should have anywhere from 10-18 braids, depending on the size and shape of the neck. Regardless of how many braids you do, each one should be about the same length and size. 

Many riders opt not to braid the last chunk of mane closest to the withers, leaving an “emergency handle” to grab onto in the event of a super tight takeoff, a momentary lapse in balance, or other occupational hazards that happen in the ‘thrills and spills’ world of a jumper round. 

The forelock can be left unbraided, plaited like the rest of the mane, or done in a French braid. 

Bay horse jumps colourful jump as rider looks down
Image by Claudia Peters from Pixabay

Are Jumpers Right For You?

Speed, agility, stats, competition… If that’s what you’re looking for in an equine discipline, jumpers may be your perfect fit. 

If you have a bold, scopey, reasonably athletic horse, you could have the makings of a jumper mount. Even if he doesn’t have textbook-perfect conformation, lacks classic jumping style, or doesn’t have the flashiest movement, the time clock won’t mind. 

If you’re interested in jumping, make sure you take the time to develop a solid position on the flat first, before you attempt bigger obstacles and more challenging courses. While tons of shows offer very doable jumper courses for novice riders, you’ll need a strong foundation before taking to the skies. 

Conclusion

Hunters and jumpers may appear similar at first glance, but their differences are a lot more than skin deep. If you’re torn between hunters and jumpers, don’t sweat – although different, they’re complementary. 

Hunters can enjoy the speed and decision-making demanded of jumper rounds, and jumpers can benefit from the pursuit of artistic perfection and style that defines hunter rounds. There really is no bad choice. 

Let us know – do you ride hunter or jumper? What do you like most about your chosen discipline? 

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