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Five Things to Know About Your First Hunter Lesson

Hunter/jumper sport combines elegance with athleticism and presents the opportunity to learn to ride both on the flat and—with experience and training—over fences, too. The hunter discipline is a traditional American style of riding that harks back to European mounted hunting, while jumping is one of three exciting Olympic equestrian disciplines. Equitation classes in both hunter seat and jumping seat are designed to teach riders proper form and style, with riders being judged on position and st

by Emily Girard | Aug 14, 2023, 3:41 PM

Hunter, jumping, and hunter/jumping seat equitation are all recognized under one US Equestrian national affiliate: the United States Hunter Jumper Association. Despite the technical differences in judging, these disciplines are often taught together.

“They're all so different, but then they're all the same. We're all just trying to get the best out of each horse,” said Melissa Murphy, a hunter judge and trainer from

Clara Propp and Arabesque competing at the 2023 Adequan® /USEF Junior Hunter National Championship - East, where they defended their title in the 3'6" height. Photo: Leslie Potter/US Equestrian

Lexington, Ky., who founded the Murphy Manor training center in 2010. “What I really love is developing a young hunter—when you get to walk in the show ring and do the bigger stuff, knowing that you're sitting on one that you made, it hits you a little bit harder.”

  1. First-timers will start working around the horse on the ground, not immediately in the saddle.

“You're going to learn about grooming and tacking up the horse or pony before you do anything else, which I find is really helpful for new riders, especially if they're nervous. By the time they get on the horse, they've spent 20 minutes or so getting to know it,” said Ashley Watts, who teaches hunter and jumper lessons at Liftoff Equestrian in Versailles, Ky. “On the longe line, it just makes it a little easier to be more productive and get them comfortable and working on balance. A lot of times, their first lesson, they will be longeing and learning about the positions.”

This is also done to get the rider used to balancing on the horse and communicating without reins.

In order to get properly acquainted with the process and atmosphere of lessons, Murphy recommended that her students show up early.

“I think the safety and knowing how to work around the horse before you get on the horse is a very important feature that we probably spend 20 to 30 minutes on before we even get on,” Murphy said.

  1. After learning about the horse and the equipment, you may start on a longe line held by your trainer.

Overall, the pace of the first few lessons aims to not be overwhelming.

“We're good about not pushing them too quickly, because overfacing a rider is the quickest way to make them want to quit riding,” Watts said. "I tend to do some things where you're not holding the reins, and you touch the horse's ears or touch your feet, just to get you comfortable moving around on the horse. That’s usually the first lesson, then they'll go off the longe line and walk around and practice steering with some obstacles and stop and go.”

Murphy agreed, saying that everyone moves at their own pace, and safety and comfort are major priorities.

“I like to start people posting at a walk so they can kind of feel it in a slower motion. For someone that's not been on a horse before, when they go to trot, it can feel very big, so my biggest thing is making sure you know somebody is comfortable,” Murphy said. “And it's also got to be fun; you want them to come back.”

Even if you’re excited, though, don’t hold your breath—especially while riding.

“I think people start holding their breath on the horse because they don't realize it, but maybe they're a little nervous or anticipating things,” Watts said. “I've just had the comment like, ‘Oh my God, I'm so out of breath.’”

  1. Hunter riding involves a lot of aerobic exercise.

“I've had fit runners or skiers or people who are very fit get on and be out of breath,” Watts said. “They feel the burn in their sides, like they just didn't realize the muscles that would be used riding or the fact that they would actually be out of breath riding. I could ride 20 horses a day, but if I went to run five miles and I wasn't prepared for it, I'd be like, ‘Holy cow. I can't do that.’ It's just different forms of fitness.”

The cardio involved in hunter riding has also surprised riders who are used to other disciplines.

“With hunters, a lot of emphasis is putting your weight in your heels for balance. We’ve got to get the riders balancing in their heels, stretching long in their leg, and getting their legs wrapped around the horse so that they aren't balancing on the horses’ mouths,” Watts said. “I've had people like saddle seat riders or Western riders get on in there, [and] that's their comment. They're just like, ‘Oh, my God. You do so much.”

That being said, Watts emphasized that the differences between disciplines are not that massive.

“I feel like all disciplines have this same base, and then you branch out in different directions,” Watts said.

Murphy also explained that the most athletic part of the hunter category is making the rides look effortless.

“I have found that it's just as much hard work to ride a high-performance horse around a 4’ course and make it look beautiful, as opposed to doing one around the 1.30-meter jumper course that didn't look great, but it's fine,” Murphy said. “Doing it beautifully at one rhythm and to look like you're not working, that's the biggest thing for the hunter. So for me, that's a challenge, and I think everyone else looks for that challenge and the perfection of the hunter ring.”

  1. There are additional ways to learn outside of your lesson, too.

The USHJA offers educational materials covering horsemanship, educational programs, clinics, and equine care. Even if you’re starting from scratch, though, you’ll soon find yourself integrated into a complex culture with a common interest.

“I think tradition is very important in the hunter industry. I think sometimes it gets forgotten a little bit,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, I love horses just like everyone else. We're all kind of in this for the same thing.”

  1. Overall, the aim is connection with the horse.

“Whether it's me on a horse riding or it's a student on a horse riding, when horse and rider just complement each other and look the part, especially if it was a difficult journey to get to that point, that's super rewarding,” Watts said. “The horses jumping softly and properly and the riders doing what they need to … that's just one of my favorite things to see.”

For more information, watch the First Riding Lesson video in US Equestrian’s online Learning Center at usef.org/learn. Find additional discipline information and educational videos on usef.org’s Hunter and Hunter/Jumping Seat Equitation pages; scroll over the Compete tab and click Breeds & Disciplines. Learn more on the United States Hunter Jumper Association’s website, ushja.org. To find a riding academy near you, visit the USHJA's Recognized Riding Academy listing.