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In Defense of Dumbing Down Show Hunters by

In Defense of “Dumbing Down” Show Hunters

Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of discussion about the problems with American show hunters: they’re too slow, they’re all drugged up, they are prepped and lunged to death, there are too many divisions and too many horse shows. And critics say that all of this combines to create awful animal welfare situations and terrible riders! I’m not here to refute every point, in fact some of it I wholeheartedly agree with. But some of these points fall far from the mark, and I’m here to defend “dumbing down” show hunters.

I enjoy reading about the history of our sport – especially articles written by exceptional horsemen and women – that discuss how show hunters used to be. They paint beautiful pictures of horses and riders galloping 3’6”-4’+ fences in the open field with few related distances. Compared to now, that might as well be an entirely different sport! Many critics point to the “dumbing down” show hunters as its downfall: adding a multitude of divisions from ground poles to 3’ makes classes less competitive and creates less accomplished equestrians. These knowledgeable and successful riders hate how diluted horse shows have become.

Field Hunting

As vain as it is, whenever I read an article like that, I think about myself and all my friends that I show with. Here in Central Ohio, we have a pretty healthy Regional I and National show circuit – it’s not as large as WEF, but there are still well-run and well-attended, USEF-rated horse shows. Do you know what most of these competitors show in? Divisions that are 3’ and under. In fact, a majority of entries are at the 2’6” and under heights. That’s just a small sample, but I’d bet that many local hunter/jumper associations across the country have a similar demographic.

Aside from the fence height, I think it’s important to consider who exactly is showing in these classes. In my area, most of these classes are populated by juniors and amateurs, who are showing 2’ and 2’6”… which means THEY’RE the ones paying the bills of show management, trainers and many others who make their living in the equestrian industry.

In Defense of Dumbing Down Show Hunters for Junior Exhibitors


Juniors and Amateurs Support the Industry

Without all of the juniors and amateurs riding and showing at 3’ and under, a lot of people would be out of a job. And having fewer riders, fewer trainers and fewer horse shows certainly isn’t going to help the equestrian sport become more popular or more mainstream… and it definitely won’t help us get big corporate sponsorships.

Am I as good of a rider as someone showing in Amateur Owner Hunters at 3’6”? Absolutely not. So are these lower level divisions “dumbing down” riders today? Yeah, if that’s how you want to look at it. But consider sports on the whole – only a very small percentage of athletes compete at the top levels – whether it’s the Olympics or professionally. For example, there are many more amateur golfers than there are professional goflers; but those amateurs toiling away on the golf course on weekends and spending their money on all the equipment is what makes the sport of golf so successful.

Tucker in the Hunter Ring

Equestrians who Show are Competitive

Not all equestrians attend horse shows… in fact, I’d bet a majority of horse owners are recreational riders. Those that do show, attend for a reason… and it’s probably in some part because they’re competitive. Horse showing isn’t all about the ribbons – and I completely agree. Is it enough for me to go into the ring, have a great round and not get any satin to show for it? Yes, that feeling of achieving personal success is 110% worth it to me. In fact, I have a number of ribbons that aren’t first (or even second!) place that mean more to me than some of my better placings because of what I accomplished, regardless of where I finished in the standings.

But I’ll be brutally honest here, I’m a competitive person and competitive people like to win stuff. I’m a much happier person if I place 6th of 8 all weekend long instead of showing for a week straight and bringing home absolutely nothing. I’m glad that horse shows have additional divisions I can show in so that while I’m working hard to get better, I don’t constantly feel like a failure. Call it selfish, materialistic or whatever you want – it’s the truth.

The A-Team

Non-Equestrians’ Opinions Matter Too

We all have to justify and answer for our equine-related expenditures (monetary and otherwise) to someone. Maybe those aren’t quite the right words for it in every circumstance, but my reality (and the reality of many amateurs and juniors) is that we have to tell someone else – like parents, grandparents and/or significant others – that all this time and money we spend on owning, riding and showing a horse is worth it.

You know what’s really hard? To spend thousands of dollars to attend horse shows with almost no chance at a ribbon… and then to try to explain the financial expense to someone who isn’t an equestrian. And that’s just the money – not the blood, sweat and tears you put in not only throughout the horse show weekend, but all the months leading up to it! Having something to show for your hard work, even if it’s just a ribbon, makes it a little bit easier for the non-horsey husband/wife/mom/dad to comprehend.

Moiya's pokey hunter pony trot

Animal Welfare Is a Big Deal

Animal welfare is a real issue and we have a duty to take it seriously. I understand that more divisions means more opportunities for horses to be overworked. To that, I say two things: First, let’s keep working on adding and enforcing USEF rules so that our horses are well-cared for and their health is at the forefront of all we do; and second, give people some credit. The vast majority of equestrians love and care for their horses – they’re part of the family. So instead of assuming the worst, let’s make sure to educate owners and riders so that they can be their horses’ best advocate.

From where I stand, I see more good horsemen and women taking good care of their horses than I do those who are willing to win at any cost.

Miles Low Thoroughbred Hunters at Showtime at Willow Way

Who Am I?

Look, at the end of the day I’m just a regular, working adult amateur rider. I’m never going to go pro and I’m never going to win a class at Devon. I’m probably not even going to show at the 3’6” height in my lifetime. But I am a hardworking, dedicated and passionate amateur who enjoys learning and improving one ride at a time. I love going to horse shows and I’ll proudly display my ribbons from the 2’6” Thoroughbred Hunters because to me, they’re a huge accomplishment that I’m tremendously proud of. I might not be the next Beezie Madden, but I love this sport just as much.

I spend thousands of hours every year at the barn riding and caring for my horse. I spend thousands of dollars every year on riding lessons, equipment and horse shows. If you measured my dedication to horses and the sport of show hunters by the percentage of time and money I spend, I’d be right there in the top 10%. So don’t take away my divisions and don’t act like I make no difference in this industry at all – because even if my money is but a drop in the bucket compared to many others, I’m still here supporting the industry day in and day out. I know I matter.


Fly On Over is an equestrian lifestyle blog devoted to connecting horse lovers around the world. By providing equestrians with practical tips and tricks related to horse ownership, discussing training techniques for horse and rider, as well as covering industry news.

24 thoughts to “In Defense of “Dumbing Down” Show Hunters”

  1. yea any time i read some essay complaining about how classes have gotten too easy or whatever, and that it’s a travesty to offer derbies at 2’6 or whatever…. idk. i kinda just want to ask the author exactly what world they live in?

    i’m SURROUNDED, as you are, by local kiddos, aspirant but horseless teens, and adult amateurs who are populating absolutely filling up the low level divisions and shows. these have never been the ppl at the highest levels of competition – most of them have no ambition for that. nor are most of them particularly monied.

    these are not the riders those authors are opining for. rather, this is a whole different category of folks who are benefited by the greater access to a sport that can absolutely be enjoyed at levels below 3’6 in a way that does not at all diminish the accomplishments of those who would go higher or further. imho lol

  2. AMEN, sister. Preach on! I absolutely feel that it is not a ‘dumbing down’ of horse showing, more so a making it accessible for the lower classes. If one were to do a study of exactly who it was showing in those classes back in the day (before 1970s), I bet it wasn’t Average-Joe and Jane working a 40 hour week to pay for board and lessons. I bet it was more likely professionals and affluent amateurs. I have many, many theories on why the face of horse showing has changed, mostly relating to how society as a whole has changed.

    Me, I am happy to defend my right to be a very average adult ammy rider. My horse wants for nothing, and I enjoy what I do. If that bothers ANYONE, they know where they can stick it.

  3. The arguments about the dumbing down of show hunters (regarding fence height and numbers of divisions) are primarily from:
    – People who do not show or understand hunters
    – People who started showing in the ’80s or earlier

    Change is hard, but the truth is that amateurs and parents are paying the way for horse shows to exist these days. It’s a lot easier to stomach your kid jumping around 2’0″ for a year or two while they learn that it is throwing them in the 3’6″ JR hunter ring.

    1. Can definitely corroborate that second bullet: almost exclusively, the griping I’ve heard has been from people that start their sentences with, “well when I started showing back in ’72…” And then I want to go hit myself in the head with a hammer because I honestly don’t care what showing was like in the 70s. Things change.

  4. Well said! I think you’re absolutely right that the low level amateurs are the biggest supporters of most sports, it’s not specific to Hunters.

  5. I agree with everything you said! Especially with the ribbon part…. as an eventer we have an even less chance of bringing home a ribbon (since its 1 ribbon for the entire weekend) so those chances I can get one…. YES PLEASE!!! Though I still want to do well, not matter what place that puts me in, its just a little bit sweeter if I have a ribbon to show for my efforts 🙂

    As for the wellfare of horses…. that’s poor horsemanship no matter what level you ride at. Heck a couple of top notch riders that do ride at that upper level have been slapped with a fine and suspension b/c of drugs found in their winning horses. So to me that’s a more important issue to deal with and solve than the “dumbing down” of the shows.

    I’ve seen this “dumbing down” all across the sport too… yes it is changing but that’s also bc the sport itself is changing. Growing up I was a pony clubber and wanted more than anything to compete at Championships. But when I was coming along you had to be jumping 3’+ or be pretty darn good in dressage to make the top 4 spots to go. Now SJ for championships has a division that’s max height is 2’6 (maybe even 2’3?) when before 3’3″ was the smallest jump height in the 90’s/early 2000’s. But if they didn’t add smaller divisions they wouldn’t have the competitors to fill up the stables at Champs. So yes it’s sad that there aren’t kids that are riding at the level they used to, but that’s just how it goes, either change with the times or fade into history, and I think kids learn so much at Champs and in pony club that it’s worth having the smaller divisions (that usually end up being the biggest anyways!)

    so basically I agree with everything you said 😉 hehehe

  6. I think “dumbing down” horse shows is a beautiful thing! Without the proliferation of 2’6 and under divisions, SO MANY PEOPLE would never be able to experience this wonderful sport. IMO there is nothing better than seeing little kids in a crossrail class having fun, learning, and getting hooked on horse showing, or an adult amateur rider conquering their fears and finding success in a 2′ class. It ain’t a bad thing.

  7. WELL SAID! 100% agree. I don’t show hunters, but dressage is in the same boat. It’s the working AA’s, especially at the lower levels, who support the sport.

  8. One thing I do want to happen, after reading about all the old style hunter classes, would be to have the feel of the old classes back. It sounded really cool to have the uber natural jumps (ie actual piles of brush) and more of the jumping in and out of the ring. I like the lower heights so more people can compete, but getting the feel of the older style would be cool as well.

    1. ^^^ This! I would love to show on an old style outdoor course with a forward pace and unrelated distances.

    2. Agreed! I think there’s a happy medium somewhere. Do kiddos jumping 2′ on their sometimes naughty ponies need to do winding courses and jump out of the ring? Heck no. But at the same time, inside-outside-single-repeat seems far too simple for classes 3’6+.

      In my ideal show hunter world, classes would gradually increase in difficulty in both the type of jumps and the courses. Additionally, horses would be limited to x number of classes or less per week/day. IMO that provides more motivation to improve as a rider and prevents people from moving up just because they can hang on at that height.

  9. Eventing has sort of escaped this kind of criticism (though there’s some discussion of ‘dumbing down’ events like the Olympic Games, but that’s a entirely different topic), even though in the old days of the sport, a horse and rider started out at around Preliminary level in recognized competition. Eventing has added divisions (Training, Novice, Beginner Novice, and now even Starter) to make the sport more accessible to more people. I think that’s a smart move for any sport. It has to be accessible to people, because that’s how it keeps going.

    That said, I don’t understand the nuances of all the different hunter divisions, but I do know they make the show day a long one for people involved in show production and management (and I imagine for trainers and competitors and horses, too). At the H/J shows I’ve attended, it seems like there are 4 or 5 classes or divisions per height- so I might see 30 or 40 trips around the same 3′ course, but the announcer is telling me this horse is doing the green hunters and this horse is doing the young hunters and that horse is doing the pre-green hunters. I’d love to hear an explanation of all those different divisions and why they’re necessary- I don’t mean that in a confrontational way, either! I’m genuinely curious.

    1. Steph, GIngham at Pia’s Parade did an excellent write-up a few posts ago, about the nuances and ins-and-outs of the hunter ring. It’s a good read 🙂

  10. Yeah I always wonder about this. There’s this snobbish “you’re not a real rider if you can’t do X” attitude in every discipline that I think is very self-defeating. Like if you can do X and that makes you feel better about yourself, bully for you. But. I’m a working ammy with a full time life and I have one horse. I can’t afford full training or multiple horses or endless lessons and I make do with what I have.

    And if you’re going to come down on me for not supporting shows that don’t believe I exist?


    Obviously, this is not targeted at you specifically, but it’s a sentiment that seems to get passed around regularly. I’m supposed to shell out hundreds of dollars in memberships and entry fees to go to shows where I’m not a real rider in my spare time with my one horse. It’s frustrating. I get that shows need grass roots support, but throw me a bone here?

  11. Great post girl!! With the wider variety of classes it gives more horses jobs too… they dont have to be GP level to have a job and someone to show them.

    It also gives an AA like me who’s been riding way to long to bring along my own horse (with my trainers direction) and move up the steps… not have to go from at home to 3’6″ … cause 3′ is perfectly comfortable and I’ll stay there thanks lol!!

  12. Great post–thanks for this! I love the fact that there are classes for 2’6″ and under beyond short stirrup. It’s also nice that there are division for those who didn’t start as 6 year old pony kids. It’s nice to be able to say something other than, “if you wanted to jump something small, you should have started riding as a little kid.” This sport is so mental that it’s nice to have height options. Not all of us want to be showing 3’6″ or even 3’3″ or 3′ regularly. 2’6″ is fine. And so is 2’3″ some days because as an adult I often completely forget how to ride when I go in the show ring. The 2’3″ jumps don’t try to eat me. When I (rarely) jumped a 2’9″ fence at a show, I feared it would eat me (we had plans as to what (lower) division we’d ride in… then we ended up riding in whatever division my trainer threw me after I sat on my nutty horse for a while…)

    The prevalence of 2’6″ and under is nice though. Just because a horse can jump 3′ doesn’t necessarily mean he should. A lot of horses are staying sound at the lower heights and having longer, useful careers. Not everyone has the means to retire a horse and by having stars at 2’6″ and under who stay sound and comfortable, the question of retirement isn’t as much of an issue as it might be the bigger heights.

  13. I understand both sides of this coin well. Grand Prix riders start somewhere and that is in the lower levels too. I think my biggest grip about the lower divisions doesn’t have to do with those divisions but it has to do with Show Management and the USEF Mileage rule. I don’t think they need to offer 2′ at HITS. I do think that we need to have a wide variety of shows and not just A. I think we need a resurgance of the C-rating, with its cheaper prices and shorter days for people and young horses to cut their teeth on. We need strong and vibrant schooling show series, with decent amenities at a decent price.

  14. I think everyone should do whatever makes them happy. I think the thing that annoys me the most about hunters isn’t the lower heights (I love lower heights – I show the lower heights eventing/jumping all the time) it’s the way they’re judged. I don’t think that horses that look drugged should be the ideal. I get that they’re not all drugged. I get that most riders and trainers truly care about their welfare. But some people want to win at any cost. And the judges award that type of dead to world/drugged behavior and penalize horses having spunk. What I think if unfair is that those people who don’t want to drug their horses are disadvantaged. I’d really just like to see a lot more drug testing to weed out the bad.

  15. I agree with you for most shows. However, I don’t think they should be dumbing down the national horse shows. Like the addition of the 3’3″ Maclay final which they promptly renamed when people complained. I think national finals should remain exclusive to the best of the best. It’s something to work toward. I’m not saying the lower levels can’t have their own finals, but they should be at the local or regional level.

  16. What Olivia said. I agree. I am proud to be a dumbed-down hunter rider happy to cruise around Xs and maybe one day (if the stars align) 2-2’6″ fences in a show ring on my formerly green, repurposed TB that did not cost me an arm and a leg to buy in the first place. And just say no to drugs. Teach people how to ride various types of horses, Trainers.

  17. I adored this.
    My barn brings the most riders to every h/j show in the area. With 3-4 exceptions, no one from my barn shows over 2’6 in the hunter ring, and most of them show in the 2′ or crossrail divisions. Take those away, and these shows probably wouldn’t exist anymore.

  18. This is really interesting. Definitely it’s the amateurs and juniors that make up the foundation of just about any equestrian discipline- so to me it just makes sense to provide opportunities to engage those members/participants to preserve the future of the sport.

  19. Agree 100%… Even around here in Virginia horse country it’s a struggle to fill classes above 2’6″, so I’m not sure why shows (a BUSINESS) would focus on classes that don’t fill.

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