What makes a horse a hunter?
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What makes a horse a hunter?

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 history of the term 'hunter'

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.

Modern times

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.

Categorisation of hunter types

There are three main categorisations of hunter horses and ponies in the UK- the working hunter, the show hunter and the field hunter.

  • The working hunter is a horse or pony which is used in competition events such as hunter trials and working hunter classes. Working hunters are accomplished jumpers and generally fairly businesslike and sturdy in appearance, and will be able to complete either a short course of fences in a show ring in working hunter events, or a wider ranging course with additional obstacles over a larger area in the case of hunter trials. Working hunter events and classes are distinct from show jumping in terms of the type of fences used- while show jumping utilises brightly coloured poles and obstacles, working hunter courses are designed to look natural and present an authentic representation of the kinds of fences and obstacles which a hunting horse or pony might encounter in the field.
  • The show hunter is a horse or pony which is considered to have the looks, confirmation, hardiness and temperament of a good hunter, and which is shown on the flat. Horses and ponies competing in show hunter events are not required to jump fences, and judging is instead bases on the confirmation, appeal and paces of the horse or pony on the flat. Show hunter classes may either be conducted in hand or mounted, with mounted classes taking into account as part of judging the suitability of the animal for ridden work, and their performance and schooling. Show hunter horses and ponies must be presented and turned out to a high standard, and generally tend to have finer lines and appear less stocky than their working hunter counterparts.
  • The field hunter is a horse or pony that is specifically used for hunting in the field, or a horse or pony that is used for or is suitable for hunting with hounds. These animals will tend to be sturdy, powerful creatures which are very fit and trained for both speed and endurance. While hunting live prey with dogs is now outlawed in the UK, popular sporting substitutes such as drag hunting or trail hunting which are intended to simulate the challenges and thrills of hunting live prey with hounds have in many ways come to replace them, and so the term field hunter is still relevant today when referring to a horse or pony which is used for or suitable for such pursuits.

Other categorisations

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

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.

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