The Hampton Classic is an end-of-the-summer tradition that attracts both equestrians and non-horse lovers alike. Some come just for the shopping, socializing and celebrity sightings while others are hard core horse enthusiasts fully versed in the ins and outs of the competitive equestrian world. For those who don’t have an equine background but are interested in the competition, navigating the list of classes and understanding what they mean can be pretty confusing, and the descriptions of each class might as well be in another language for many.
The first key to understanding horse shows is the distinction between hunters, jumpers and equitation. In jumper classes, riders and their horses must complete a course of jumps in a certain time allowed. They receive “faults” or points off their score, if they go over the time allowed and also if they knock down the rails on any of the jumps. In jumper classes, competition is based solely on athletic ability of the horse, as well as power and speed. Form and style of horse and rider are not taken into consideration. In jumper classes, after the first round, the riders who go “clear” without any time or knockdown faults, are invited back for a “jump-off.” The jump-off is a shortened course of jumps from the original round and decides the winner.
Hunter classes, by contrast, are not timed but are judged based on the style and ability of the horse. The actual jumps in a hunter class look much different than they do in jumper classes—hunter jumps are meant to look like natural obstacles that could be found in the hunt field, whereas in a jumper course, the fences consist usually of simple but colorful rails. Hunter classes are based on traditional fox hunting, where horses and riders would be required to jump natural elements found in the hunt field, such as brush and shrub or hay bales. The way the horse moves and jumps is what is on display in hunter classes, and judges are looking for horses that are quiet, well-mannered and that generally look like they would be easy to ride. Horses with good hunter form jump with their forelegs tucked neatly underneath them. A consistent pace around the course is also a key element. The horse should move at what is called a “forward” gait, moving at a good, steady pace but still giving the appearance of being under control.
In equitation classes, the rider is in the spotlight, and needs to display both good form and control of the horse. Equitation courses generally feature tighter turns and combinations of two or three jumps in quick succession, similar to a jumper course, although there is no time restriction. Equitation classes also often feature “tests” where certain riders are invited back after the first round and then judged over a course featuring fewer jumps where they showcase their ability in other elements, such as making their horse trot over a jump, riding over a jump without their feet in the stirrups or coming to a halt after a jump.
Within the respective hunter, jumper and equitation divisions, there are many subdivisions where classes are divided according to the age of the riders, age and experience level of the horse and size of the horse or pony. Any hunter classes with the word “green” in the title refers to the experience level of the horse. The progression from “pre-green” (or “baby green”) to first-year green to second-year green simply refers to the years a horse has shown competitively in the hunter division. A regular hunter is considered an experienced show hunter.
In a conformation hunter class, the horse or pony is being judged not only on its form over fences but also on its conformation—in other words, the way it is built and put together. In conformation classes, the riders, on foot, must bring their horse or pony into the ring, without a saddle, and lead the horse around for the judges to see.
In pony divisions, classes are split up according to the height of the pony. Horses and ponies are measured by hands, with each hand equaling 4 inches. The measurement starts on the ground at the horse’s front hoof and ends at the top of its withers (shoulders) at the base of the neck. Ponies measure 14.2 hands and under, while anything taller than that is considered a horse. Just as there are distinctions for age and size of horses and ponies, there are also distinctions for the age and experience level of riders. Any riders who are age 18 or under can compete in the children’s and junior divisions. The young riders begin their careers in the short stirrup division, where the jumps are the smallest, and progress to the pre-children’s division, on to children’s and then to juniors. The distinction between children’s and juniors has to do with the height of the jumps, with the junior division jumps being higher. Any rider above the age of 18 who is not paid to ride is considered an adult amateur. In the amateur-owner division, the jumps are higher and the horse that is being ridden must either belong to the rider or a member of that rider’s family.