Hunter Paces to Help Your Cross Country

Hunter Pacing as a stand in for cross country – a golden opportunity for eventers and their mounts.

By Bernadette Palmeri

hunter pace

One of the most challenging aspects to eventing is the lack of resources that so many competitors face. Because we are not all privy to a fully stocked cross country course complete with banks, ditches and water jumps in our backyards, we are often left to improvise in preparation for our competitions. Furthermore, unless we are able to compete every weekend – something very few horses and riders can physically or financially afford – we can go long stretches between horse trials, creating an even greater need for practice.

While it is often overlooked, hunter pacing can be a great way to create a similar environment to being out on course without breaking the bank or your horse. Here are some of the hidden benefits to hunter pacing that can improve your cross country riding and comfort level!

One of the most drilled concepts in all three phases of eventing is the ability to go forward and come back. It is in all the dressage tests throughout the levels and also appears in well-designed show jumping and cross country courses. Did you know this is also a central task in hunter pacing? For example, on hunter paces, we can be faced with four jumps around the turns in the woods, forcing horse and rider to be collected and supple. Then, in a matter of seconds we can land off a jump and be in an open field with a great gallop fence up ahead, only to be followed by a quick turn back into the woods to a drop.

These questions are all experienced on cross country courses but offer an extra added bonus when one meets these obstacles on a pace – you do not know what is coming next! There is no walking the course at a hunter pace and therefore, horse and rider are always a bit in the dark about what lies ahead. This uncertainty forces us to trust our horse's balance and athleticism, as he is in turn asked to rely on his rider’s direction and foresight. Hunter pacing without being able to plan early for the next jump is an incredible opportunity to improve the lines of communication between you and your horse. If you make a mistake, no one is watching or grading you on a score sheet! And, you can easily retake a fence that may scare you/your horse or that you did not ride so well the first time – something we all wish we could do at events!

Unlike being on course at an event, on a hunter pace, you can go along with one or two friends as a group. This helps to create a more relaxed tone and offers extra security in the form of safety in numbers. As herd animals, horses are automatically more relaxed with a friend out on the trails. In addition to the comfort of the group, if one horse is timid or green, he has a chance to follow the guidance of the more experienced horses. Given the choice to jump the scary log or be left alone in the field – I guarantee your horse will choose the former!

Hunter pacing is also a great test of your and your horse’s fitness levels. In eventing, we often think of conditioning and fitness in a short-term or “sprint” kind of mentality. In fact, you and your horse need stamina just as much as you may need speed. Since hunter paces usually last anywhere from 1-3 hours, you are given a chance to really see how your horse responds to distance and rate his fitness level in a whole new way, along with your own.

Furthermore, it can give you a chance to ask some of the following questions: How is my jumping position in the first hour versus the last hour? Am I holding myself up and down the hills or does my horse have to do the extra work of carrying me? How long does it take my horse to warm up on the trails? How long can I canter without him becoming uncomfortable or winded? How does my horse jump in the beginning of the pace versus the end? How does he tackle the terrain in the beginning versus the end? These questions are all useful aspects to understanding your level of fitness as a team.

Finally, hunter pacing is a really fun activity for you and your horse! It does not have the pressures of eventing and takes truly the best of all the three phases (if you are a biased eventer like me!) and stretches it out over a 10-13 mile adventure! So, next time you are bitten by the cross country bug, try a hunter pace and see what it is all about!

About the Author: Bernadette Palmeri is a recent graduate of Connecticut College and currently enjoys Eventing with her horses throughout the Northeast.