Hand Position for Hunt Seat Riders

Hunter Show

The trained eye of a horse show judge sees nearly everything. Riders who believe they’ve ridden a perfect round over jumps are often surprised to learn they’ve been marked down for errors. One of the worst problems riders have is their hands. Whether it’s due to a lack of polish or overall roughness, mistakes made with a rider’s hands can result in a low ribbon … or no ribbon at all.

“One of my pet peeves is a rider who comes into any sort of hunt seat equitation or medal class with bare hands,” USEF judge Andrea Meek explains. “A pair of gloves won’t make up for bad horsemanship, but they can camouflage minor flaws. Plus, bare hands just look unpolished. As a judge, it makes me wonder: Just how prepared is this rider for this type of competition.”

Meek shares another complaint related to poor hands. “Even though using a crest release is a basic skill, I still see a lot of riders — especially in the short stirrup, long stirrup and green rider divisions (classes for novice competitors) — hanging on their horse’s mouth in the air. They’re not giving their horse any freedom over the jump. Instead, they’re planting their hands on the withers, in front of the pommel. Basically, the rider is hanging on to the horse’s mouth for security.”

Meg Schulman, a USEF judge who has officiated at the highest levels of hunt seat medal competitions, adds that even advanced riders make major errors with their hands. In particular, she cites how some equitation riders attempt the optional inside turn on a course in an effort to demonstrate how they can negotiate a tight turn.

“They rotate their hand back toward their body in an effort to force the horse to start his turn as he leaves the ground.  The horse’s head and neck are cranked to the side while he’s trying to jump because his rider is hanging on to his mouth,” Schulman says. “If you can’t do it correctly using a slight opening rein and your outside leg, then just make the bigger turn.”

Meek’s and Schulman’s strong views come from their concern for the horse.

“When riders are allowed to jump before they’ve mastered the proper use of a crest release, they’re going to bang a horse in the mouth over the top of a jump. That’s punishing the horse for doing his job. And that’s just not fair.”

Liked this article? Here’s more insights from horse show judges:

Dressage Judge’s Pet Peeves

Hunter/Jumper Judge’s Pet Peeves

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Cindy Hale’s life with horses has been filled with variety. As a child she rode western and learned to barrel race. Then she worked as a groom for a show barn, and was taught to harness and drive Welsh ponies. But once she’d taken her first lessons aboard American Saddlebreds she was hooked on English riding. Hunters and hunt seat equitation came next, and she spent decades competing in those divisions on the West Coast. Always seeking to improve her horsemanship, she rode in clinics conducted by world-class riders like George Morris, Kathy Kusner and Anne Kursinski. During that time, her family began raising Thoroughbred and warmblood sport horses, and Cindy experienced the thrills and challenges of training and showing the homebred greenies. Now retired from active competition, she’s a popular judge at local and county-rated open and hunter/jumper shows. She rides recreationally both English and western. Her Paint gelding, Wally, lives at home with her and her non-horsey husband, Ron.


  1. Hallelujah! Someone finally had the courage to say that riders who are not ready to jump and, as a result, are “de-training” horses, ought NOT to be showing yet!

  2. a girl i watching ride was doing well over the first few umps but her horse jump awkwardly once so then she stopped doing crest releases. the horse kept going even though it was being popped in the mouth but eventually the horse just got fed up and refused the rest of the jumps because the rider wasn’t releasing.

  3. Now, how do you fix the hand issues…? I have problems with planting my hands on the withers or into the horses neck and I can’t seem to get a feel for a proper crest release.

  4. wait so im semi-confused about crest-release…could someone please explain? I have always been taught to ‘grab mane’ (halfway up the neck) and to slide my hands forward about 3 inches on the top of the jump as to not catch my horse in the mouth…im having a difficult time understanding what this article is trying to convey. is this okay or not?


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