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ICYMI – 10 Quick Tips: Hunter Under Saddle with Keith Miller

Editor’s Note: This article was first published two years ago and was a huge hit. Since publishing, trainer Keith Miller has become even more dominant in the hunter under saddle classes. In case you missed it the first time, read more about his tips for this popular class below.

According to the AQHA rulebook, the class of hunter under saddle was designed to showcase a horse’s potential of becoming a hunter.

Now a highly specialized class that is equally popular among youth, amateur, and open exhibitors, as well as spectators, those who are consistently at the top of the judges’ cards not only have great horses but also know how to show the class to the best of their ability.

GoHorseShow sat down with AQHA World Champion hunter under saddle trainer, Keith Miller, an AQHA Professional Horseman, and AQHA, APHA and NSBA judge to get the scoop on ten things an exhibitor can do to increase their chances of being at the top of the judges’ card.

1) Show To Your Horse’s Ability

“A good rider knows how to show off their horse’s strengths and hide their weaknesses,” said Miller.

keith miller hunter under saddleFor example, if your horse doesn’t have a big trot, don’t speed him up in an attempt to make it look like he does.

Hunter under saddle horses are meant to have long, flowing strides that cover ground, this doesn’t equate to more speed.

It is essential to know what your horse is great at and what he is not so great at and to do what you can to maximize his performance and show well to the judges.

2) Try to Stay Alone in The Show Pen

Finding and maintaining a good rail position is imperative to having a good ride in the hunter under saddle.

hunter under saddle kirsten farris“It’s important to try and get by yourself and stay there,” said Miller. “The goal should be that when the judge is looking at you, you are the only horse they see.  You also don’t want to be that person that hides another exhibitor from the judge.  Be courteous.”

The easiest way to be courteous is to try and stay by yourself on the rail as much as possible.  Horses also tend to stay more relaxed when they aren’t bunched up which gives you the opportunity to show your horse to its maximum ability.


3) This Doesn’t Mean Ride to the Inside

hunter under saddle meg depalma whelan“Everyone understands that exhibitors are trying to get seen in the pen,” said Miller. “But as a judge, I always look to the rail first.  The exhibitors riding on the rail will also be rewarded first.  I see riders riding to the inside a lot in youth and amateur classes, and it is a problem.  Stop fighting for the inside.  Everyone needs to be riding the same track.”

Just in case you haven’t read your rulebook lately, consistently showing too far off the rail is considered a major fault and will be penalized according to the severity.

Don’t be that person.

4) Smooth Transitions are Credit Earning

sleepin keith miller“While it is important for horses to stay consistent in the gait they are traveling, smooth transitions are key to that free-flowing movement the judges are looking for,” Miller said.  “Horses that are free in the shoulders don’t hollow out in the back when asked to canter, and show a willingness to transition are very pleasing.”

Miller also cited that when asked to drop down from a canter to a trot, the horse should stay engaged without slowing down too much and when asked to canter, riders should stay away from the overly canted sideways movement that you sometimes see in the western pleasure.

5) Rider Equitation is Important

alexis miller husMiller said, “For me, rider equitation separates the top of the class from the rest.  A rider that has good communication with their lower leg is subtle in their cues, and maintains a good body position presents a better picture overall.”

Yes, the main focus of hunter under saddle is the movement of the horse, but if you don’t look good in the irons, it throws off the entire picture.  A judge may not be able to adequately reward your horse if you’re a hot mess in the saddle.


6)  Consistency Will Win a Class

generic hunter under saddle“A horse that gets around the pen without a bobble will win over a better moving horse with a bobble,” said Miller.

If you can’t maintain a consistent pace or if you try to push the envelope and push it too far, resulting in a mistake (like a break of gait) and your horse is the best mover in the pen, it won’t matter.

“Staying consistent around the pen always presents well to the judges and will be rewarded accordingly,” said Miller, “it’s that simple.”

7) Eliminate Risks

hus900This tip goes back to the idea of staying by yourself as much as possible.

“Just like with a car accident,” Miller said, “It takes two to have one. One is usually at fault, but both are equally in the accident, and both are affected.”

Getting bunched up on the rail, riding too far to the inside (Whoops! There’s the judge), or staying too close behind another horse, are all things you should avoid to eliminate the risk of having an “accident.”

Remember, consistent horses win classes.  If you get in an accident, you aren’t going to win the class, regardless of whether it was your fault or not.

8) Know What a Nice Pace Is

While all horses have different capabilities, riders who know what their horse’s best pace is and know how to keep them there will vastly improve their position on the judges’ cards.

“Don’t think the slower (or faster) yohunter under saddleu go, the better,” Miller said. “You should be able to maintain a nice rhythm at both the trot and the canter.  As in, you should be able to set a metronome to it, and the beats should match.”

Typically, riders will ride too fast at the trot and too slow at the canter.  The metronome analogy should clear up any confusion about what is too fast or too slow.

Remember the basics of a true three beat canter and a correct two-beat trot.  There is your pace.

A nice pace sets a good rhythm and will show your horse’s movement that much better.

9) Keep a Level Head

airrideequipped millerThat is, keep your horse’s head level.

“A level head showcases the highest degree of difficulty,” said Miller. “As close as you can get is ideal.  A horse who has its head too high or too low is equally penalized, however, a horse that carries their head slightly higher is slightly better than a horse who drops their poll below the withers.”

Hunter under saddle horses are supposed to look at least like they are preparing for the working hunter.  A level head means the horse would easily be able to see the approaching fence and is prepared to take it accordingly.

10) Make a Good First Impression

WORLD CHAMPION - SENIOR HUNTER UNDER SADDLEMiller said, “Trotting through the gate with confidence, without being obnoxious about it is something I reward.  Make sure both you and your horse are turned out well, meaning you have well-fitting clothes, clean tack, and your horse is in good weight.”

As with anything in life, first impressions can make or break you, and this fact holds more weight when you enter the show pen.

Miller added, “Horses that are light on their feet, cover ground at the canter, has reach, use their hocks well, and are slow legged but not shut down are the ones that are great.”

pretty assetsSummary

In conclusion, to get to the top of the judges’ cards, riders need to learn how to properly work the show pen and be in tune to what their horse is great at and what they struggle with.

These two things combined will generally make for at least a good performance that is both consistent and a joy to watch.

Photos @ Jeff Kirkbride, Shane Rux, KC Montgomery, NSBA, Wavelengthdesigns Photography, Paint Horse Journal, Larry Williams, Danielle Long