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The Beginning of the Hunter Derby

Many people do not know what the Hunter Derby is or where it came from. Many people do not even know that the United States is currently the only country that hosts Hunters, Equitation and Hunter Derby competitions.

Where did the Hunter Derby come from?

It all began in the late 18th century in Britain, where a fox was pursued by a hunt formed by men on horseback and a pack of fox hounds (Mammal Group & University of Bristol, 2012). During these hunts, the riders would have to jump over obstacles (i.e. banks, ditches, gates, walls, hedges, coops and natural post-and-rail fences) to be able to pursue the fox. As time moved on, in 1896, a group of foxhunting enthusiasts who owned horses pooled their resources to purchase a Chester County property suitable for hosting horse shows. They created a venue where they could show off their horses and, of course themselves, and promote the breeding of superior horses for new area residents (McClung, 2011). This event was the first Devon Horse Show, where the Hunters and other competitions began.

The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair is the oldest and largest outdoor multi-breed horse competition in the United States (Equestrian Life, 2012). Throughout the now 11 day event competition it features, Hunters, Jumpers, Carriages, Hackneys and Saddlebreds. From the first Devon Horse show which had 30 classes, to now with over 45 divisions, you cannot miss the steeped tradition of Devon. While also moving forward into the 21st century, it’s no wonder that in 2010, Devon became just the fourth American horse show to be honored with the distinction of a USEF Heritage Competition, and was recognized for the second consecutive year by the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame as the Horse Show of the Year (Equestrian Life, 2012). Just recently, the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair won the United States Equestrian Federation’s Hall of Fame award for the best Hunter Derby.

During November of 2006 at a dinner after the George H. Morris Clinic, George H. Morris and other professionals discussed that the hunter courses were too predictable and that the divisions have become too watered down: outside, diagonal, outside, diagonal, over similar looking decorated fences with round shaped turns and ascending ground lines. They are less challenging than the courses of the past (Iliff-Prax, 2008). This group of professionals took this discussion to the next step and so began the Hunter Derby.

When did the Hunter Derby start?

After the November 2006 dinner, the plans for the first Hunter Derby demonstration were made. It was held at Canterbury Farms in Hampshire, Illinois during the summer of 2007. Greg Franklin offered his Derby Field, Diane Carney, owner of Telluride Farm, put together the course and jumps, Brenda Mueller got Walsh Harness & Saddlery to sponsor prizes, and Rush and Carl Weeden of Brookwood Farm put up the $10,000 prize money. In this demonstration, there were 36 riders and horses. After this very successful demonstration there was more held in Las Vegas at the World Cup, at M.K. Pritzker’s Evergreen Invitational in Wisconsin, and at the Washington International Horse Show that year. The first International Hunter Derby was held in St. Louis by Equine Productions in December 2007, which was the beginning of the 2008 show season. Though there were no Hunter Derby Finals in the 2008 show season, the Hunter Derby season carried over into the 2009 show season. The first Hunter Derby Final was held in 2009 at the Kentucky Horse Park where John French on Rumba, owned by Mountain Home Stables, won. Then for the 2011 show season, the USHJA started The National Hunter Derby Program; which leads us to present time International, National and Grass Roots Level Hunter Derby competitions.

What is a Hunter Derby?

An International Hunter Derby and a National Hunter Derby are scored differently. A National Hunter Derby is run as a two-round format class with a minimum of two panels of judges, usually 4, The judges use the open numerical system to score the participants in the Classic Hunter Round, which is the first round, on their performance, hunter pace, jumping style, quality, substance and movement. The second round, called the Handy Hunter Round, reflects the cleverness of pace and handiness of the participants. This round should simulate riding over hunt country and incorporate options such as tight turns, different jump approaches, hand galloping and trotting a fence. After the judges’ scores from each round are obtained, one point will be added for each high-option fence jumped without major fault up to a maximum of four points. The obstacles that the participants will be riding over are to reflect that of an actual hunt field and offer diversity in jump appearances, such as natural foliage, white board fence, gate, coop, natural post and rail, stone wall, hedge, aiken, oxer, brush logs, banks, ditches, etc. These jumps are set at 3’, with four high option jumps which are set at 3’5” (USHJA, 2010). Currently the thought of raising the height is being circulated but nothing has been decided upon.

The International Hunger Derby competition is also run as a two-round format class with four judges who are seated in two panels consisting of two judges per panel. In both the Classic Hunter Style Round (first round) and the Handy Hunter Round (second round) each judging panel will aware a numerical base score based on quality, movement,  jumping style, manners and way of going (USHJA, 2011). There is also the opportunity to be awarded an Option Bonus Score of one additional point for each higher-height fence jumped. The total score from each judge will be added together to form an overall first round score and determine the winner. In the Handy Hunter Round, each judging panel will award an additional Handy Bonus Score between zero and 10 to each horse-and-rider combination to reward handiness (USHJA, 2011). Then the scores will be added together to form and determine the second round winner. All fences are to be set at 3’6” to 4’0” with the exclusion of the four option fences which are set between 4’0” and 4’3”. No more than 50% of the course may be set at 3’6” in height (USHJA, 2011). Then the scores from each round will be added together to decide the overall winner. Currently, administration is pushing for the International Derby to truly be an International competition, similar to how Jumper Competitions are hosted.

As Diane Carney stated, “We’re putting riding back into the hunters. To place your horse at these jumps with the proper impulsion, at the proper distance, and produce the best possible shape in the air, you need a connection and the ability to balance your horse between your leg, seat and hand. There’s more to it than counting strides” (Iliff-Prax, 2008). The Hunter Derby is meant to be a challenging and fun competition for any rider and horse. As George H. Morris stated, the hunter derby is “back to the future”.  It’s the new and exciting portion at most national or local competitions. You may see many local organizations now hosting similar type derbies at lower heights for grass roots levels to get involved.  One such series is hosted by which can be found on the Illinois Hunter Jumper Circuit.  The series gives intermediate riders a chance to practice the skills needed for the higher levels of competition and offers a year end fianls.

At any level, the hunter derbies have brought the hunter divisions back to life offering over $3 million in prize money to date.

Next time you are at a show, give the Hunter Derby a try, and you might just love it.




Equestrian Life. (2012). The devon horse show and country fair. Retrieved from

Iliff-Prax, L. (2008, June). Ushja international hunter derby breathes new life into the sport. Retrieved from

Mammal Group. , & University of Bristol (2012). Foxhunting: history. Retrieved from

McClung, C. (2011, April 27). 115 years of the devon horse show. Retrieved from

USHJA. (2011). International derby: frequently asked questions. Retrieved from

USHJA. (2010). National hunter derby. Retrieved from