Jumping for the blue: Inside the ring of the Hunter Jumper horse shows at the N.C. State Fairgrounds

In the hunter jumper world, the common phrase “going for the gold” transforms to “jumping for the blue,” as in the coveted first place ribbon. Every year farms from around the state bring their best horses and riders to compete in the Hunter Jumper shows and derby at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Hunter jumping is a style of English horseback riding where both horse and rider are judged on accuracy, form, consistency and demeanor while performing a series of jump courses.

“So much of horseback riding is mental and both parties affect the other, meaning the horse affects the rider and the rider affects the horse,” said show judge Oliver Brown, “so there has to be a certain level of understanding and open communication for any pair to perform a course well.” The event lasts for four days and features riders of all skill sets, beginner to expert, and a variety of fence heights, some up to four feet.

In a perfect world, riders are aiming for a score of 100, but the best riders often rank somewhere between a 95 and 96. “It’s almost impossible for riders to get a perfect score because there are so many things being watched for,” said Brown, “and, in a way, our sport is sort of like acting. You can practice all you want, but at the end of the day it all comes down to how you perform in the ring.” Riders are penalized for incorrect form, cross-cantering, or cantering on the wrong lead, and when poles are knocked down or hit to the point of bouncing or injury. “Most horses will tap a pole but it depends on which hoof taps it and to what degree,” Brown said, “I’m usually okay with them tapping the pole with their back foot because most of the effort has been exerted already, but if they hit it at the beginning hard enough to bounce it, or worse knock it off, then they didn’t put up enough effort to start with.” In addition to technical penalties, there are a variety of other things judges determine a horse and riders final score on.

Demeanor, handling and attitude are also being watched when a horse and rider enter the ring. “I am looking for pleasure in both the rider and the horse from the moment they step into ring,” said Brown, “the hunter should not be overly ridden and going about his task willingly, while the rider should be encouraging and supportive of the horse, not hindering or lying to it as to where to go or when to jump.” Although he can tell when a rider is green, or inexperienced, Brown said he is not always looking for the most experienced rider, but the most focused rider who is in sync with their horse and enjoying the ride. “There has to be a certain level of communication and trust between horse and rider,” he said, “if the rider doesn’t trust the horse then he/she is going to pull on his mouth and naturally the horse isn’t going to jump. Would you?” The most beautiful horse and rider pairs to him are the ones that have clearly taken the time to build a relationship and establish a level of trust with one another.

“My advice to riders entering the ring is to be consistent,” Brown said, “come in, know where you are going and stay focused. Allow your horse to use himself and keep a good form while you guide him/her through the course.” At the end of the day, Brown considers it an honor and a joy to watch horse and rider pairs from across the state compete at the N.C. State Fair and help them become better in any way he can.

For the riders, Hunter Jumper shows are all about doing what they love the most, riding, and spending it with their farm family. Brooke of Creekside Farm has been riding for seven years and always looks forward to the fair. “I love coming to show here because it’s always a great experience,” she said, “I get to spend time with my farm family and the weather is always great because it’s really the first show of the year where it’s cool outside.” Another rider shared her same sentiment in saying that every opportunity to show off her horse and the skills they have developed throughout the year is a good opportunity.

From a trainers perspective, the N.C. State Fair is a great place for a horse show because of its close proximity to the vet school. “Not only is this a great weekend to spend with the girls and watch them show off their riding skills, but I also like that the vet school is right down the road,” said head trainer for Creekside Farms, “hopefully nothing will happen, but it’s always an added comfort to know that it’s there.”

Riders, spectators and judges alike look forward to the hunter jumper shows at the N.C. State Fair each year. From the beautifully decorated and arranged jump courses to the smiles on the riders faces as they jump for the blue, the horse stables are truly a perfect way to spend a weekend. If you are planning on heading out to the fairgrounds to watch any of the horse shows this year, some precautions are in place to protect against COVID-19. Temperatures will be taken upon entry to the facilities and masks must be worn at all times except by riders during practice or shows. All of which are a small price to pay to experience riders and horses alike competing for the coveted blue ribbon.

About Rollercoaster

"Life is short, so do the things you love with the people you love." Rollercoaster is the fair-themed nickname for Taylor Parrish, an information and communications specialist in the Public Affairs Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. An alumni of N.C. State University and former Marketing and Sales Assistant with Scott Farms, a sixth-generation family farm out of Lucama, NC, she is no stranger to the world of agriculture. Football and singing are her biggest passions. While at the fair, her "must do" items are a pineapple smoothie from Tropical Delight and a ride on the Fireball.

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