One of the most commonly used terms when referring to types, rather than specific breeds of horse, is that of 'hunter.' But what exactly constitutes a hunter? The hunting of foxes with hounds is now illegal within the UK, and many horses and ponies which are 'hunters' or 'hunter types' have never seen action on the hunting field, so getting to the bottom of the original meaning of the term and its relevance today can be confusing. Here is a simple guide to what makes a horse or pony a hunter, and the different types of hunter categorisations used in the UK.
The original meaning of the term 'hunter' when referring to horses and ponies meant a horse or pony which had all of the requisite traits to make them suitable for hunting animals such as stags or foxes with hounds. Factors including hardiness, conformation, temperament and endurance were all important for mounted hunting, with hunts often beginning in the early morning and carrying on all day until sundown. Horses used for hunting were required to be able to manage well in cold weathers, be extremely fit, able to gallop and take fences with ease, and able to produce a fair turn of speed from a relatively sudden start, as well as being capable of maintain a steady pace at canter or gallop for prolonged periods of time.
While the banning of hunting with hounds in 2004 meant that the practice of hunting live prey from horseback with a dog pack became illegal, the change in definition of the term 'hunter' had already begun many years beforehand. Today, the term 'hunter' is of more relevance to showing and breeding than it is to actual hunting, with the rising popularity of classes for show hunters- horses and ponies which are shown in competition on the flat and not over fences- a good indication of the change in the usage of the term from the time when all hunters would have been desired partially for their suitability for jumping fences.
There are three main categorisations of hunter horses and ponies in the UK- the working hunter, the show hunter and the field hunter.
Within the three categories of working hunter, show hunter and field hunter, horses and ponies are also further broken down in terms of their build and conformation.The terms heavyweight hunter, middleweight hunter and lightweight hunter are each used to describe hunter type horses depending on their build, confirmation, and the approximate size and weight of rider which they can carry. Generally, ponies are referred to in terms of working hunter or show hunter only, with a working hunter type tending to be stockier than a show hunter type. The term ladies hunter refers to a hunter type which is ridden side saddle, and entered in ladies hunters showing classes which are held on the flat, and so form a subsection of show hunter classes. While it is almost unheard of to see ladies hunter classes performed over fences, horses and ponies ridden side saddle are quite capable of mastering jumping and completing a course of fences in the same way as those ridden astride, and there is generally nothing to prevent a side saddle rider from entering any type of astride ridden showing class on the flat or over fences, assuming that she and her mount otherwise fulfil the entry criteria.
The Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain society, formerly known as the Hunter Improvement Society, is a professional organisation which forms the governing body of in hand and ridden hunter classes in the UK. It was formed with the intention of promoting the welfare and improvement of horses and ponies of hunter types. Horses and ponies with a proven track record in the organisation's competitions and events are generally much in demand as both riding horses and for stud. To find out more about the Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain Society and hunter horses and ponies in general, visit their web site.