Take Two Tuesday

A Jumper Primer
What You Need to Know to Try Jumpers
By Gegi Winslett

Photos courtesy: Sean Reilly Photography

(October 2015)

Here’s how it’s done. Top jumper rider Ramiro Quintana won this year’s $100,000 Upperville Grand Prix at the Upperville Horse Show, piloting St. Bride’s Farm’s Whitney to the victory. Note the eyes up, heels down, and following hand of the rider. Good equitation always gives you an advantage. Photo courtesy: Valerie Durbon


The term hunter/jumper came about as a short-cut to describe equestrian competitions that involve jumping, without any distinction between what are really two different disciplines. Jumpers are an Olympic sport and a form of equestrian competition held all over the world. Hunters are an American-made competition format, derived from the way horses are ridden in the field as foxhunters.

Hunter shows are judged subjectively, meaning that the judge makes an evaluation of the correctness of the performance (meaning following the format of the class) and also of quality of what the horse does in the ring. The horse is judged on how well it moves and jumps, on how well it meets the standard of an efficient athlete. The judge looks for a horse galloping with a long, low, ground covering stride, moving in a flowing manner, demonstrating that it is adjustable in its gait, jumping in a smooth, round arc over each fence, tucking it’s legs tightly, landing efficiently and galloping on to the next jump.

Jumper shows are strictly “judged” objectively. Horses competing in jumpers have to get over a jump without knocking it (or any piece of it) down while maintaining forward motion, and jump the jumps in the correct order from the start line to the finish line. A horse is not penalized if it trots, as long as it maintains the forward motion.


In jumper shows, ponies compete against horses and children often compete against adults. At local jumper shows, it is “traditional” to wear brightly colored clothes and to color coordinate with your saddle pad.

In hunter courses, the horse must maintain the canter unless the course stipulates that a fence is to be trotted, which is the case in Handy Hunter classes and in the Handy round of a Hunter Derby.

Although a horse is not penalized for trotting a jumper course, jumper competitions involve time. While some jumper shows offer “optimum time” classes, jumpers are a test of a horse’s ability to jump cleanly at speed. See the rules section at the end of this article for an explanation of how time and speed are involved.

Different Kinds of Jumps, Different Kinds of Courses

Fences in hunter competitions simulate the jumps one would find going cross country when foxhunting, such as post and rails, gates, stone walls, and coops. They are natural looking and have plain colors.

Jumper fences have lots of color and often have unusual styles, and sometimes have over-the-top designs like those we saw at the 2014 World Equestrian Games where horses jumped a giant artist’s hand holding a paint brush.
In the 2012 Olympics in London, some of the obstacles looked like famous British landmarks such as the Tower of London, Stonehenge and even a double-decker London tour bus.

The idea of these jumps is to test the horse’s willingness to jump anything the rider tells him to. Jumper courses often contain a Liverpool, which is a wide jump either containing water or giving the appearance of holding water (sometimes it is simply a blue tarp), with one or more rails over it.


A Liverpool is a jump that simulates water, and is often made from a blue tarp-like material and is therefore not something horses see every day. Here, a rider at a local jumper show takes the opportunity to show her horse the Liverpool jump before having to ride over it. At higher-level shows, the jump could actually contain water.

Jumper courses are more complex than hunter courses, involving tighter turns, more changes of direction and asking the horse to demonstrate more variations of pace, greater flexibility and balance, and the ability to adjust his stride.
There is a start line and a finish line in a jumper course, and when the rider enters the ring, they must wait for the signal from the judge before they start their course. The jumps are numbered, although if the wind blows a number down, it’s not an excuse for going off course. Riders need to learn the courses beforehand.

Hunter courses are normally seven or eight fences. Jumper courses are typically a first-round minimum of seven or eight efforts (combinations carry one number but are considered either two or three efforts). The maximum first round number is 12, with jump offs typically containing five or six fences.


The competitor at a Kelly’s Ford jumper show is clearing a “skinny,” a narrow fence that tests the horse and rider’s ability to be precise in riding their line to the jump.


Is your horse a hunter or a jumper?

Horses that are excellent candidates for hunter competition are those with the ability, heart and courage to gallop and jump, which also have the conformation, quality of movement, and style of jumping that equates to the “efficient athlete” standard.

There are horses whose way of going and style of jumping may not fit the subjective “efficient athlete” standards, yet have all the heart, bravery and boldness to jump very well. These horses often find their home in the jumper ring. That doesn’t mean that horses with excellent conformation, style and way of going don’t also find their home in the jumper ring. But horses that are not as “efficient” may still be good jumpers. Perhaps they jumper flatter or don’t use their head and neck as much. Maybe they have a shorter stride that wouldn’t win in the hunter ring but yet they have the ability to negotiate jumps very well. Maybe they twist over a fence or jump with a hollow back. These horses aren’t perfect in the way they do it but they still get from one side of the jump to the other.


The ability to take tight turns at speed is essential in jumper competition. The key to success, though, is being able to keep your horse balanced and ready to successfully negotiate the next fence.

One note on jumping style: You do not want a horse that jumps with its knees down. That is a wreck waiting to happen. When a horse hits a pole above his knees, it can produce a somersault. If he hits below the knees, he can still snap them up. People will say a horse that hangs its knees is ok because the jumps come down. I don’t want to jump that kind of horse. It is not safe.

For horses (and riders) beginning a show career, hunters are the best training ground. Horses and riders learn pace, rhythm, and smoothness, and develop the ability to jump courses without being chased against the clock too early in their careers.

While jumpers have grown tremendously at the national and local level, there has been recognition that at the lower levels, the reward for going fast needed to be curtailed, based on safety as well as constructive training for horses and riders.

Galloping over small jumps does not help horses (and ponies) learn to jump, but often teaches them to jump “through” the jumps. This is why many local shows use the USEF Table IV, which are the optimum time sections, for the puddle jumper and novice jumper classes.


Jumpers compete over fences of all colors, not the more natural jumps seen in the hunter ring. This horse is going in a hackamore, a type of bitless bridle. Jumper competitions allow a wider range of tack than hunters.


The Rules

The USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) produces the rulebook that governs all recognized equestrian competitions in the U.S. and our local (VHSA Associate and VHSA Recognized) shows use these rules to run their jumper events as well.

Faults: Rider and horse combinations may go “clear” incurring no faults, or are given faults which are negative points. Knock downs (causing any part or all of a fence to fall) are four faults. Refusals and run-outs receive four faults for the first disobedience and a second causes elimination. Fall of the horse and/or rider causes elimination. Crossing the line of travel (i.e. making a circle while on course) is considered a disobedience and is faulted accordingly. Exceeding the time allowed results in one fault per second.

Other causes of elimination: Going off course, taking more than 45 seconds to jump the first obstacle, starting the course before the judge sounds a tone, jumping a fence before crossing the start line or after crossing the finish line.

USEF Table IV: Optimum Time sections. The course is measured and a time allowed to complete the course is determined based on a standard of pace, such as 350 meters per minute or 325 meters per minute, or another pace chosen by the judge or course designer to best fit the conditions and levels of competition. The optimum time is then set at four seconds faster than the time allowed. If a rider exceeds the time allowed, they get time faults -- one fault per second over the time allowed. The winner is the horse who goes clear and comes the closest to the optimum time (either over it or under it).

USEF Table II Most of our Associate jumper shows run under USEF Table II rules
Table II, Section I: Time First Round. In these classes ,there is only one round and the placings are determined by adding together any faults. Horse and rider combinations with clear rounds or equal faults are placed according to the time taken to complete the course. Clear rounds are placed ahead of rounds with faults -- a slower, clear round beats a faster round with faults.

Table II, Section 2 (a) Time First Jump Off: The first round and the jump off (if held) are decided by adding together the faults incurred over the course and any faults for exceeding the time allowed. A jump off is held if there is more than one clear round, or if there are rounds with equal faults. This jump off takes place after all competitors have finished their first round.

Table II, Section 2 (b) Time First Jump Off: The first round and the jump off are judged the same as in Section 2 (a) except that any competitor who has gone clear in the first round will, without leaving the ring and after an audible signal from the judge, do the designated jump off course. If there are no clear rounds in the first round and a tie exists for first place (i.e. two or more horses have the same number of faults), there will be a jump off at the end of the class, as in Section 2 (a).

Table II, Section 2 (c) Power and Speed: In this class, there is a first round and an immediate jump off. If the competitor has gone clear in the first round, he will, upon crossing the finish line, immediately start the designated jump off course. The finish line for the first round is the start line for the jump off, and the jump off time starts as the horse crosses that line.

The fences are numbered consecutively from the first fence of the first round through the last fence of the jump off. If there are no clear rounds in the first round and a tie exists for first place, there will be a jump off at the end of the class, as in Table II, Sec. 2 (a). If a competitor has faults in the first round, the judge will sound a tone after the rider crosses the finish line to tell them not to continue to the jump off.