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Horse Show Jumping

What is Show Jumping?

The foundation for hunters and jumpers dates back to the days of field hunting. As early as 1534, angry farmers were chasing down foxes to protect their lambs from the vermin. That evolved into the British sport of fox hunting, which was originally run across open fields that were considered common ground. Then came the Enclosure Act in the 1700's, a British parliamentary act that brought fences along property boundaries as common ground was dispersed amongst the wealthy landowners.
Show Jump
This meant that those wishing to pursue their sport now needed horses that were capable of jumping obstacles. And from those humble beginnings, field hunters, show hunters and show jumpers were born.

Today, Hunters and Jumpers are often grouped together as if the two are synonymous. Even the sports two guiding organizations, The American Hunter Jumper Association and the United States Hunter/Jumper Association (USHJA) make it sound as if the two go hand in hand. While it's true that many show jumpers begin by riding in the hunter divisions, no two disciplines could be more different and yet still jump over a course of obstacles.


The common root that joins all riders that jump is equitation. Commonly thought of as a class or division for hunters, particularly for young riders, it is much more than that. The word "equitation" literally means "the art of riding on horseback" and should be the primary goal whether you are riding hunters, jumpers, dressage, eventing, fox hunting, or just a pleasure rider. No matter what discipline you ride, your balance and position enhances the horse's performance.


Listed below are the details of what makes a good show hunter, field hunter and show jumper. In general terms, the easiest difference to distinguish between the disciplines is who wins. Show hunters are completely subjective, meaning it's up to the judge to decide who wins the class based on conformation, way of going, style and to some extent whether the jumps stay up. In Field Hunting, there is no winner or loser; it's a full day chase that is almost as much a social event as it is a contest between you & your horse vs. the fox and the terrain. Show jumpers is much easier for an audience that is unfamiliar with equestrian sports to watch. The rules are easy - the person with the fastest round who doesn't know any fences down and stays on his horse wins.


Show Jumping Hunt seat is the term used to describe the forward seat style of riding commonly found at American horse shows. Most of the ideals and goals continue to be shaped by the traditions and necessities of field hunting. Not that many years ago, show hunter competitions included work on grass fields outside of the ring but the sport has evolved to the point where it almost exclusively takes place inside a ring with groomed footing. Competitions in North America include both flat and over fences classes. They are generally divided into those that judge the rider (equitation) and those that judge the horse (pleasure).


The perfect show hunter has a long, sweeping stride that covers maximum ground with minimum effort. Ideally the majority of the movement occurs from the horse's shoulder and hip. This harkens back to the days of the field hunter, where a horse would have to work for several hours on end, often galloping, and inefficient movement would tire the horse more quickly. The perfect hunter is sometimes referred to as a "daisy cutter" because of the way the horse glides just barely over the ground. While conformation is judged, Hunters are not limited to any particular breed or color.

The successful hunter must always be in a balanced frame. This, too, relates back to the hunt field, where a horse had to be balanced in order to cope with the changing terrain and surprising fences. The frame of the show hunter is more "stretched out" than horses competing in dressage, eventing, or show jumping, but the horse should not be on its forehand. The horse should have a good jumping form with great bascule and be well mannered.

In show hunters, riders often have a slightly looser rein to encourage the horse to go "long and low" but maintain self-carriage. The horse carries its head just in front of the vertical.

Hunt seat equitation classes judge the rider only, including his or her position on the flat and over fences and overall effectiveness while riding. The ideal equitation mount has less bascule then the show hunter, because it is easier for a rider to maintain the correct jumping position on a "flatter" horse that does not throw the rider out of the saddle when it jumps. The movement of the equitation horse is generally more collected than the show hunter, which allows the rider to better adjust the stride for tricky combinations.

Jumping form

A good show hunter should jump with his forearm parallel or higher to the ground and the knees and lower legs tucked evenly under its forearm as it clears the fence. They should exhibit a great bascule, or roundness over a jump. This is often described as the horse taking the shape of a dolphin jumping out of the water, with the horse's back up, and its head reaching forward and down over the fence.
Show Horse Jump

The course

A typical show hunter course consists of 8-12 obstacles on level footing in an arena or ring. According to the rules, obstacles should simulate those found in the hunting field, such as natural post and rail, chicken coop, a gait, stonewall, hay bales, etc. The cups that hold up the jumps are deep and round. Each course should have at least four different types of obstacles. At least half of the jumps should be the required height for that division, staring at 2' 9" and going up to 4' 6". There are no water jumps involved in a hunter course.

The course diagram is posted at least an hour before the class begins so that all riders can see what their course is. If the distance between the jumps is less than 90', the distance between the fences must be included as well. The distance between fences is usually a set number of strides, with each stride 12 feet in length plus six feet for take off and landing. The horse must put a certain amount of strides between each set of fences if they are in a line. If they don't, points will be taken off the overall score.

The horse is judged on its smoothness around the course, its movement, jumping form, consistent pace and smooth jumping style. A good ride over fences will look much easier than it really is to achieve. Refusals, knocked rails, or rubs over fences cost the rider valuable points. Just being on the wrong lead could cost a rider the ribbon.

Show hunter courses include smoother lines, fewer combinations, and wider turns, reflecting the fox hunting tradition. Another type of show hunter course, called the equitation course, is a sort of hybrid between hunters and jumpers. Equitation courses are more technical, testing rider's skill and form. They often include combinations, tight turns, and difficult distances between fences. Unlike jumpers, however, the rider is still scored subjectively by a judge.


Field hunting or Foxhunting has existed in North America since Colonial days. George Washington was an ardent foxhunter who owned his own pack of hounds. Unlike the British, here in America the emphasis is now placed on the chase rather than the kill. The season for foxhunting is from when the crops are harvested in the fall until the spring when they are planted, since no one where a wild fox may take them.

Although the qualities of the show hunter are based on those of the field hunter, the modern show horse is vastly different from its more rugged counterpart in the field. The field hunter must be tougher and more durable, with great stamina to withstand the pounding of a long day of hunting. The field hunter must also be extremely brave, as it often has to jump solid objects, and other natural obstacles such as real stone walls (not the plywood painted ones), ditches, banks, and hedges, and must occasionally go through water. Unlike the show hunter, the field hunter must travel over varied terrain. In fact, a good field hunter is more closely related to an eventer than a show hunter.


Show Jumping Show jumping as we know it started in France, where field hunting was an unpopular sport because the spectators couldn't see the horses go over the jumps. To satisfy the crowds, fences were moved into the arena and "Lepping" was born. In 1869 'horse leaping' came to prominence at Dublin horse show. By 1900 most of the more important shows had Lepping classes, including sidesaddle classes for women.

At this time, riders used a very deep seat with long stirrups when jumping. This was more secure for the rider but impeded the freedom of the horse to use its body to the extent needed to clear large obstacles. Then came Italian instructor Captain Frederico Caprilli (1868-1907) with his ideas that a forward position with shorter stirrups was better for both horse and rider. Without question, Caprilli was the greatest influence in the development of modern riding and changed our style of jumping forever.

Show jumping was first incorporated into the Olympic Games in 1912 and has thrived ever since, its popularity due in part to its suitability as a spectator sport which can be viewed on television.


The show jumper generally has more power and energy than a show hunter. Since the only thing that matters is whether the horse clears the fence a jumper's conformation is only important where issues of soundness are concerned. Jumpers are often (but not always) taller and more powerfully built than hunters. The horses that excel at this sport are often more fiery than hunters but a good jumper must also be controllable. Any breed of horse can be a jumper, although Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods and Sport Horse crosses tend to dominate the sport. It is rare for a horse to perform both as a hunter and as a jumper as temperament and style are vastly different.

The Course

Show jumping courses include combination fences, sharp turns and several changes of direction, all requiring adjustability and athleticism. Jumper fences start as low as 3" and go up to as high as 5-5'6" in Grand Prix show jumping. Puissance classes go to 7-7'6". Obstacles used in jumper competition are often brightly colored and sometimes even deliberately designed to look "scary." These courses usually include an open water or "liverpool" obstacle, and may also have varied terrain with fences on the top or bottom of a bank, or with a ditch under an obstacle.

Unlike the subjective scoring of the hunters, show jumping horses are penalized by scoring "faults" if they knock down or refuse obstacles (four faults), or if they exceed the optimum time. Some jumper classes also require a second round called a "jump off" for those who jumped clean (received no penalties) in the first round. The jump off is usually smaller than the original course, incorporating the original jumps but in different combinations with tighter turns that call for bolder riding.

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