Thursday, July 28, 2011

Derby Do? Derby Don't?

A show hunter jumping a Rolex cross-country fence?

In the time I've had this past year (or so) to school, practice, and enjoy riding recreationally, I have thought about many new and interesting ways to hone my skills in both dressage and jumping. Eddie and I have improved greatly in our flatwork and we have discovered the positives and the negatives in our work over fences. I've ridden trot poles, gymnastics, schooled lines, small courses, and jumped a XC fence or two. It's all there, but because I haven't been out competing, I'm just not sure where we really stand any longer if placed up against peer horses and riders out there on the road; and, I'm not sure if we're making objective progress, or if it's all just subjective at this point. I always liked to compete to not just test my skills and lessons-learned, but to see just how Eddie and I measure up when viewed in a realm much larger than our own backyard. Plus, Eddie is a total diva and he is ALWAYS better when he knows there is actually something at stake!

I've thought a bit lately about this idea of the hunter derby. I'm talking about the USHJA hunter derby classes, not to be confused with the more familiar eventing derbies that combine show jumping and cross-country fences in a more eventer-friendly atmosphere (often employed for schooling or fund-raiser purposes). I'm speaking of the hunter ring classes that have become very popular the past few years as the USHJA has endeavored to recognize a more traditional "fox hunter" aspect to the efforts, harking back to the days of field hunter trials that incorporated stone walls, coops, banks, and brush fences in their show courses. I know that top-level eventer Doug Payne has recently competed in a rated hunter derby class. I'm intrigued by this type of class mainly because I've been trying to find ways to school a variety of questions with Eddie that ask him to jump in some instances as a show jumper, but to a moment later be able to just as easily "switch gears" and jump a XC fence, even if is outside of the context of a full cross-country course. I know there are advantages to having a horse that can float down to a square oxer and quietly sail over it as if his feet are light as air; and then at the drop of a hat be able to sit back on his haunches and drive forward down-to and over a solid table without even batting an eyelash. I also know that there are a number of folks who feel that it is difficult to ask an event horse to jump as a show hunter in one instance, then turn-on the XC switch in the next instance (without changing pace or stride). I can understand that viewpoint, but I am really more inclined to believe that a solid event horse can jump in the gear and form that is required.....when it is required. If you have a horse that can only jump in XC mode when he's on a XC course, and only jump in a ring when he's in a ring, then I'm not sure that horse is as accomplished or as talented as may initially appear. At the same time, I wonder about the attempt to face a mix of flower-and-rails, as well as solid fences, when trucking around on a show hunter. Would a derby course be beneficial to an eventer who doesn't necessarily want to have a horse jump cross-country obstacles like a hunter? Or, is it not such a bad thing to practice cross-country fences like a hunter (since there is really no full XC experience that would involve major changes in location, terrain, pace, or stamina)? I also wonder, most of all, if a hunter derby would be more advantageous for an event rider, or an event horse? Do hunter derbies serve a real purpose for eventers, other than simply for a fun outing or a unique change of pace?

Fence #1 (an Aiken jump) at a rated USHJA derby.
I am fascinated by the hunter derby courses and I guess I'm just trying to wrap my mind around whether or whether not it is the good deal that it appears to be. Is asking horses and riders to tackle a challenging and diverse course within the confines of an arena (or the very near outskirts of the arena) while cantering around serenely and elegantly, with nary a rush, bobble, or nose in the air, a good thing for an eventer? My horse is a very "huntery" jumper, but he was also a fox hunter before I owned him (he's only sort of a fox hunter now that he's with me!), so he is not afraid of walls, brush, ditches, banks, water, tables, coops, but I find that he jumps cross-country very floaty, with little tucked knees and a perfect spot at every fence. I am only a lower-level eventer, so this is comfortable for me and I'd rather ride a neat and tidy horse XC than one who pulls me around and flies over everything out of a leaping gallop. But, I guess I wonder if I'm looking at the hunter derbies as a possible "win-win" scenario: a balanced and even presentation of fences that asks both straightforward questions (flowers and rails) as well as more challenging efforts (coops or brushes). The USHJA web site indicates that the hunter derby (at least the first round) will be a "classic hunter style round" with a minimum of 10 fences that "must simulate those reminiscent of the hunt field and the course must offer a variety of Derby jumps with different appearances such as: natural post and rail, stone wall, white board fence or gate, coop, aiken, hedge, oxer, brush, logs, natural foliage." As an eventer, I think this sort of offers the best of both worlds ---> a simulated XC school while only requiring the space of a show arena. Likewise, I want to imagine that my horse would canter lightly down to a white-rail vertical, then turn left and canter as softly and politely to a 3-foot coop. If he does so, would that also mean that when I was out on a cross-country course, could I also get such a soft and polite canter down to a 3-foot coop, or would I feel as if I needed to sit back, clamp my leg on, and drive-drive-drive to a forward spot that may or may not be one-and-a-half strides from the actual fence (but, at least we'd get over it)? Would a derby course be more of an opportunity to train (or "trick") me into RIDING better to any type, size, or kind of question than it would actually school my horse? Does my horse even care what is in front of him if I AM the one who is riding well and is ok with what is ahead? I'm not sure if a derby class is the answer to my quest for a change of scenery or if it's truly the good deal it seems on paper, but if there happens to be one in my area, I may see about entering (since anything in my area would either be schooling or unrated). Regardless, as a former hunter-trained rider, I'd love to see more of these classes around, if only because I'd really enjoy spectating and seeing how other riders benefit from this opportunity, if nothing else. 


TBA said...

I think the hunter derbies sound fun simply because they're different. I would love to try one, but unfortunately there aren't any in my area :(

Suzanne said...

Do it! And then let us know how it worked for you! I think you will find that Hunter Derbies are going to morph into more challenging Hunter Classes than true tests of the Field Hunter type. There is so much controversy in the hunter world when the courses become more challenging or edging closer to XC type fences or terrain. There a definitely leaders that will continue to push the challenging courses but, money will prevail. thanks for writing this...

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