Transforming a Saddleseat Horse into a Hunter

We all know that the hunter pleasure divison has seen a huge boom in entries and has become very popular among exhibitors and spectators.  Today we see a lot of saddle seat horses switch disciplines and go into the hunter pleasure division.  A lot of them do so very successfully.

I was wondering what trainers out there look for in a horse when they’re considering changing a horse to a hunter. What are conformation/movement/training,etc aspects that tell you that the horse is a good candidate for hunter pleasure.  When you see english/classic pleasure horses out there, what are some signs that tell you that the horse would be better suited as a hunter or would just make a killer hunter pleasure mount. 

Also, when you do decide to convert a saddleseat horse to a hunter; what are some of the aspects of training that have to go into that? What needs to be done in order for the horse to successfully transition?

I’m just very interested in this subject.  I ride in the hunter pleasure division and absolutely love it.  And I always find myself thinking, “I wonder how that horse would look as a hunter…”

12 Responses to Transforming a Saddleseat Horse into a Hunter

  1. bluedesiign says:

    I’m not a professional, this is just my take on it. I think that the big moving hunt horses are beautiful. There is a very fine line between the movement of a lot of today’s english pleasure horses and hunt horses. Their head and neck carriage is what makes one different from the other. Some horses might be able to hold a nice head set for pleasure but it might be more comfortable and more natural for them to hold it lower as a hunt horse. Most trainers put a horse in the division that is best suited to that individual horse. It is easier for both horse and handler to show in a division that suits the horse. You can really tell when a horse isn’t happy with their job. You want your horse to excel in whatever division they are in and the only way they will do that is if they are comfortable and it comes to them naturally.

    In the end, it is about the individual horse’s attitude and conformation. If they are naturally really up headed it might be harder to get them to drop their head for proper form. And if they are really hot and full of it, they probably aren’t going to make the best hunter either. Hunt horses are supposed to look like they like their job and do it in a mannerly fashion.

  2. bluedesiign says:

    Oh, I skipped part of your post! I think to transition a pleasure horse to a hunt horse is in their headset, as I said before. If a horse is too hot and difficult to work with, I don’t think they will make a good hunter. I’m not saying that hunters can’t be exciting just that they should be a bit calmer than what you would expect out of a lot of pleasure/park horses.

    Personally, I would just let them go. I would ride them with longer reins and let them drop their head. After they get comfortable dropping their head you could try draw reins, bitting and long lining. If the horse is going back to up headed mode, you might want to exaggerate the head position a little by putting side reins on a lower ring than what you would work other hunt horses.

  3. CowgirlUp says:

    I definitely agree that there are some things that disqualify a possible candidate for hunter pleasure like being overly hot/excitable, not wanting to drop their head, etc. But there are a lot of upheaded hunters who do very well and like you said, there’s a fine line between the movement of hunters and english pl horses.

    I guess what I really want to know is, what is it in a horse that is not yet a hunter that makes a trainer decide, “that would be a great hunter”. Are there any traits you should look for in an eng/classic pl horse if you are looking to find a hunter in a saddleseat horse?
    If you were interested in finding a horse to introduce into the hunter division, what would you look for? This is if you had not handled the horse, you were just watching it at a show, looking at photos, etc

  4. bluedesiign says:

    For a horse that you are just looking at and not handling, I would just watch how they use their body. Are they resisting the bit? Can the rider loosen the rein without the horse completely losing form? Is their head on the lower end compared to other horses in the ring?

    It is really hard to just look at a horse from a distance. I would say handling the horse or seeing it in it’s natural state would be the only definite way to know.

    If it is a seasoned horse that you can handle, I would say assess how well they like their job. Higher headsets are acceptable in the hunter division but obviously you want them to look like a hunter. A pleasure horse may get tired or worn out with its job and changing to a hunt horse might be a good option. They might not hold their head up and be as crisp in their movement as they once were. I think that moving to a hunt horse in that case would be a good choice. It is so competitive these days and horses are being asked to go above and beyond. If they don’t have the edge that they once used to it might be best to drop them down.

    If it is a youngster that has not been shown or even broke yet, I would assess their natural head carriage. A horse might pick up like a park horse but if they aren’t up headed it will be a huge battle. I am not saying that it can’t be done, but why waste your time when neither rider nor horse will be happy?

    The best results will probably come when you turn a horse out and allow them to do what they want to do. They will hold their head where it is comfortable and it should give you a good idea of where they want to be.

  5. RaeOfLight says:

    I don’t have enough experience to really say what would qualify a horse as a candidate to go into the hunter division. But I would say I think there are some horses there that need to get out!

    Blue – I hope when you said “big moving” you meant extension. I agree, that’s lovely. But it annoys me no end to see a “park hunter” trotting down the rail. I don’t understand why riders/trainers don’t put these horses in appropriate saddle seat divisions.

  6. bluedesiign says:

    I like a combination of both extension and some movement. I don’t like the horses that go level nor do I like the horses that have flat movement. I guess what I am trying to say is I am a middle of the road type of person!! :P

    A hunt horse that has some action, fluid movement and a big stride is breath taking.

    A lot of hunters are overshod to get that movement and sometimes it really hurts the overall picture. The horse’s movement shows how artificial it actually is. To me, that is not what a hunt horse should look like.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I want a horse that will nicely step under himself and push forward with his haunches. Once forward is achieved the head and neck will follow in a comfortable position. My current horse was being ridden saddle seat before I looked at him. In the video, I could see that, although his neck is rather vertical, when not encouraged in the upright saddle seat position he would come forward nicely with his nose on the vertical. This allows the horses back to come up and gives the hindquarters the ability to engage. These are crucial aspects of a ‘hunt’ horse to follow the hounds. Many of the big moving ‘hunt’ horses today don’t engage the hindquarters forward, just up and down, some are even on the forehand. I can’t image riding that across hill and dale following the hounds. When looking at pictures look to see if the horse appears to be trotting up hill, not becuase of the camera angel, but because the horse has engaged the hindquarters and as a result they are lower.

  8. IED says:


    For the vast majority of “Park Hunters”, they are simply not suited to be English horses. It may be that they are totally uncomfortable picking up their head and putting their nose in the way an English horse needs to do it, or perhaps they don’t have the length of neck to accomplish this. A horse may LOOK like he can pick his head up and trot like a banshee, but that may not necessarily mean they WANT to or would be remotely good at it. A very talented 4 year old hunter in my barn went from being an English horse at 3 to a hunter at 4. It sure looked like he could pick up his head and trot right off, but he didn’t like it, wasn’t comfortable doing it, and flat out didn’t want to. So he became a hunter with a big trot and a high, yet arched and beautiful, neck, and he was much happier and a lot more successful in the ring. To anyone that didn’t know him, he looked like he could probably pick his head up and be an English horse, but it just wasn’t him. Until you are the trainer of the “park hunter”, it’s impossible to know whether the horse has the desire, conformational ability, or talent to be an English horse.

    If I’m watching a class and thinking to myself which horses would be better hunters than English horses, it’s usually the ones that extend their legs OUT a bit more than UP and can really power off the back end. I personally look for a little bit of a thinner neck with more natural arch to it that’s tipped forward just a hair more than your average competitive English horse, a prettier face, and a bit of a longer horse – the really short backed guys look a little too compact to me.

  9. leslie says:

    The rulebook emphasizes that hunters should have a ground covering gait, so a lot of those trappy moving park hunters currently in vogue are really not suited to the hunter division, regardless of where their head and neck go.

    I get that Morgans have more natural up and down motion than a TB or Warmblood, and I wouldn’t expect daisy clippers in a Morgan hunter class. But I don’t get why they have long feet and weighted shoes. Why are trainers shoeing for saddle seat motion on their hunters, and why are judges rewarding level motion? That’s not an efficient, ground-covering gait.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Thank you, that was my point. I think part of the problem is the exaggerated(sp?) head/neck carriage that is rewarded in English Pleasure. So if the horse doesn’t have a vertical neck with it’s face on the vertical it must be hunt. Twenty years ago I would have loved to have some of todays hunt horses for Saddleseat.

  11. morgansrule says:

    I agree with most of the comments here and wanted to add a couple. First, power in the hind end comes in a few different ways. A saddleseat horse should really bend at the hock, their power is collected in an “upward” motion, and then power on at the road trot. A hunter has less bend in the hock and powers “out the back” for lack of a better term, giving them the length of stride. Hand in hand with this, the famous morgan low back is another factor. Most of your great saddleseat horses will be low in the back (it is sort of a balance for that neck being up there) and it allows them to drop into their hind end and elevate. Hunter horses should round their back, especially on extension, and a straighter back helps with that aspect.

    One thing to keep in mind when watching “fronty” hunters. Even the best western pleasure morgan will snort it up, crank it’s neck and pop it’s knees when excited. It’s in their blood, regardless of lineage. A lot of those hot hunters are simply excited by the show ring and haven’t totally acclimated to their job. We don’t get to put a sign on the horses “first time hunter”! LOL.

    As for the shoeing, well, it is my humble opinion that there is a serious lack of qualified morgan farriers, and many smaller stables get whoever the local guy is and those guys don’t understand that there is a serious difference in the disciplines. And you know the old adage “the more you tell your farrier what to do, the more he’s going to do what the hell he wants” :-)

  12. eqfool says:

    I’m definitely not a professional, but after riding for about 7 or 8 years, and attending horse shows for quite a while, I think I kind of have an idea of what judges are looking for and such. In my opinion, the first step to determining whether or not a horse would make a nice hunter is to take a step back a really look at their confirmation. (I wish we had done this with my first horse before we decided to try and make her show Classic Pleasure!) Make sure you look at where its neck “comes out” of its withers. If the neck is closer to this: |, then you’ve probably got a saddleseat horse on your hands. If the neck looks more like this \, you’re probably better off just starting it huntseat or western. I started my horse huntseat after YEARS of her constantly pulling down on my hands and trying to put her head down. It was like she was saying, “Come ON people! Can’t you see I want to put my head down?!” After that, she was a dream. She wasn’t strong anymore, her manners greatly improved, and she became way more relaxed. There have definitely been exceptions to my “theory”, though. Like I said, I’m nowhere near an expert.

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