The mountain and moorland working hunter pony classes are some of the most popular and well contended, but how do competitors really feel about the current system? Rebecca Haywood investigates
Do you have an in-height native pony who is over-height for the mountain and moorland (M&M) working hunter pony classes? This is the question one exhibitor posted on social media that has led to a debate on the current structure of the classes. The current system used in qualifiers for both the Royal International (RIHS) and Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) has been in place since 2013, but a survey launched on Facebook could suggest a shake-up is needed.
Helen Gheorghiu Gould presented a survey to competitors in these classes to gauge how many would like to see a change, how they would implement it and what advantages could be gained.
“I wanted to see if people thought the classes were excluding in-height native ponies,” explains Helen.
The M&M working hunter pony classes are open to all the native breeds, from the very smallest (the Shetland pony) up to the largest (the Welsh section D). As in plaited workers, the class is judged on a jumping round over rustic fences as well as an individual show and conformation phase.
All ponies exhibited in these classes must be registered in the main body of the pure-bred studbook of their respective breeds. Part-breds are not eligible to compete. There are currently four height divisions: not exceeding 122cm (maximum fence height of 65cm); exceeding 122cm but not exceeding 133cm (maximum fence height of 80cm); exceeding 133cm but not exceeding 143cm (maximum fence height of 90cm) and exceeding 143cm (maximum fence height of 1m).
In 2013 the classes were split into these four height divisions, with new fence height and spreads, as opposed to the former three sections (not exceeding 122cm, not exceeding 138cm and exceeding 138cm). The idea for the changes was to create a more equal playing field, in which the athletic ability of each breed was taken into account rather than its height.
The increase to four classes has enabled ponies that were previously at the lower end of their height sections to jump slightly smaller fences that were more suited to their abilities.
Helen said she was intrigued about the current system after her daughter’s pony, a 135cm Welsh section C, could no longer jump in the not exceeding 133cm class.
“He was doing really well in the 133cm class, but sadly he grew to 135cm by the time he was seven,” says Helen. “Although he loves his jumping, we found that pushing him into 143cm classes was damaging his confidence; the height, width and striding wasn’t built for him. I began to wonder why the native worker classes are not working for some ‘in height’ natives as the Welsh Pony and Cob Society classes do [128cm; 138cm and 148 cm]. It was my own curiosity and experience that fed this and I don’t expect any definite change.”
The findings of the survey showed that many competitors would like to see some form of change. The main concern is over class sizes in the 143cm section, with some shows receiving more than 50 entries.
“Some people would like to see a structure that is based on breed, if not the old system,” adds Helen.
Helen has suggested a simple change – one additional “middle” class for 133 to 138cm ponies, which is achieved by lowering heights in lower classes slightly while not putting up the fences in the higher sections.
“This may reduce class numbers for the 143cm ponies, but perhaps it’ll also remove the need to put forward ‘over-height’ ponies, too, because it’s all a bit more manageable,” she says.
Helen also wanted to highlight that fence height shouldn’t be what it’s all about: “Perhaps we could have some of the old working hunter challenges back, like the hunting gate,” she suggests.
Rachel Turner, who is a course-builder for the National Pony Society (NPS) and competes in worker classes, explains that her primary concern is that the classes must remain performance-based and with jumping as the main focus.
“While I understand that some of the courses are too big for the some of the heavier breed types, they are also very jumpable for an athletic performance pony. In my opinion, a good worker and a good flat pony should be different types. The quality of the ponies winning these classes in recent years proves how high the level of competition is.
“I’m also not sure the timetable at shows will allow for more classes. I think a lot of the reason behind huge class entries is not enough novice and restricted/intermediate classes being held at the bigger county shows. Riders often have to use the qualifiers as a training ground while aiming to get the mileage required eventually to be successful at top level. Hence the tracks are going to be too big.”
Rachel doesn’t believe that adding a 133 to 138cm class with lower fences will help.
“This still won’t cater for the majority of Dales and Highland ponies that are bigger than 138cm. It will just split the 143cm class in half,” she says.
Rachel adds that possibly allowing certain breeds the option to choose what height fences they jump might work.
“They’d still be judged as one class and shouldn’t take any more time in the timetable,” adds Rachel, who says that technical challenges are often dependent upon who the course-builder is. “My pet hate is distances being built too big for the native ponies. I believe they can be plenty scopey enough to jump the height, but are not always able to cover the ground or have the length of stride that is asked of them from time to time.
“A well-trained pony should always have the ability to shorten, but I hate to see ponies having to chip in due to distances being built inappropriately. It does their confidence no good at all and I believe this is more influential than the height of fences.
No need to change system
Amy Smith – winner of the HOYS M&M working hunter championship in 2019 – says: “I don’t see a need to change the way the system works now. Many heavier type ponies are jumping the toughest of tracks as they are now and by changing to the proposed structure I think it might become more of a flat class.”
Amy also agrees that shows are already short on time with the classes as they are.
“These classes take long enough without having 200 ponies trying to open a gate, so adding obstacles would more likely be a hindrance,” she says. “Having ridden the heavier breed types in the working hunter ring, success mainly comes down to preparation. Whether they’re a Connemara or a Highland, they have to have some natural scope and that will to please, but the riders also need to be educated on how to untap the potential and use it to an advantage.”
Amateur rider Rachel Eve, who used to compete in native worker classes, thinks if a new height section was introduced it could encourage more people into affiliated workers.
“My pony is 136cm, which means we have to do the 143cm class, and it’s too big for him,” says Rachel. “I would definitely take up affiliated workers again if the height sections were looked at.”
Popularity of native breeds
Native show producer Sam Roberts says that it’s the popularity of native breeds that has caused a huge increase in competitors.
“I don’t think this proposal will make the overall judging time any less; if anything, it could increase it,” says Sam. “The RIHS and HOYS 122cm winner was a Shetland last year, which proves they are more than capable of jumping the height and winning, too. I can name you a Highland winning a 133cm class, a Welsh section C winning the 122cm section and a Dales winning the 143cm. The current height changes were instigated by HOYS changing it one year, and the other societies fell into line for consistency.”
Sam also believes that if a child competes the same pony in plaited worker classes they would be jumping a slightly bigger track again, so the native course would seem too small in comparison.
“I think it’s good to keep the consistency between the two,” she adds. “Building courses for native ponies is a controversial subject. Make it too big and people complain it’s not fair for the breed as they’re not athletic enough to jump it, but build it too small and everyone clears it. Build it too technical and you take away the natural flow of a rhythm you’re trying to achieve, while if it’s built with angles and trappy lines it becomes a showjumping test.”
Sam says the courses need to be kept interesting: “We have some amazing courses that are fun and interesting to ride with banks, bullfinches, gates, natural water, dykes and undulating ground. How the classes are split won’t take away that it’s a competition of athletic ability and correct native pony qualities we’re looking for.”
A massive impact
Amateur rider Tori Oakes says she can understand why some riders think this is a good idea, especially if their pony is measured into the bigger height section and struggles with the height of the fences.
“However, I think that adding another section would have a massive impact on the judges and stewards. A lot of the shows already run until late,” she adds. “I think the way the classes are at the moment really works and there will always be a problem for some ponies when it comes down to sizes. It could make it a show class as there are so many clears already. I’m not sure about adding hunting obstacles as my ponies love their jumping and trying to do a gate at the end would be a struggle.”
Helen feels her proposed structure would address the concern of the Shetland community regarding jump heights, help to stop exhibitors trying to compete over-height ponies in a lower class, and reduce the class numbers for 143cm competitors.
“Above all, it’s fairer than the current system and stops outlawing ‘in breed height’ ponies,” concludes Helen. “This is just an offering. We are amateurs not experts. We would love to see change, but do not expect it.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 26 March 2020