A hunter pace is a timed competition. Riders compete in pairs or teams of three. The course covers typical hunting country, with all the natural obstacles encountered in any day of hunting.
The hunter pace event was originally described by Alexander Mackay-Smith in a column for the Chronicle of the Horse. I have lost the original article but the goal was a course of about seven miles with about 20 jumps. He suggested that riders go in pairs as a safety measure.
There have been many variations over the years. In northern Virginia, courses are usually short, about two and a half miles, and the emphasis is on fast times. We might think of these hunter paces as simulating a hard, fast run. In southwestern Virginia, we expect to ride at least as long as we've had to drive to get to the event. Most clubs aim for riders to be on the course for an hour or longer. This means a much longer course (7 to ten miles) with correspondingly slower speeds.
At some hunter paces, you will be given an approximate distance and an approximate speed. At some, you won't get any of that information. You may be told only that the pace should simulate a day's hunting. At some paces, there are markers directing your speed. Certain parts of the course are marked to be walked. Other sections are marked to be covered at a speed simulating a good run. Every event is unique and that's part of the fun.
In the past, all gates were kept closed. It was assumed that all riders would jump the jumps. Any rider who could not negotiate a jump was automatically penalized by the additional time it took to get to the gate and get it opened and closed. Nowadays, there are more riders on course and the risk of livestock getting out is too great. Generally, all gates are open with someone at the gate to make sure livestock doesn't escape. The prize list for the event should indicate whether jumping is mandatory or optional.
When compiling scores, both members of the pair or all members of the team must finish. The time to complete the course is judged when the last member of that team finishes.
Judging the fast time competition is easy - the fastest time wins. The winning time for the other division(s) may be figured in several different ways. Traditionally, someone from the staff of the hunt club will ride the course and set the time. Other experienced hunt members may be called on to take the place of the staff members. Some hunt clubs will average the times of all competitors in a division. Or the winning time may be decided based on modifying the fast time division's performance.
In any case, it's important to realize that any distance and speeds that are mentioned in the prize list are approximate. Very few clubs accurately measure their course. Some of the terrain would make it difficult and the long distances involved can make it impractical. Given the imprecise measurements, the best approach to take to entering a hunter pace may be to just enjoy the ride!. Some riders take hunter paces as an unique opportunity to ride through privately-owned land; others take them as a challenge to see how fast they can go, and others are out there to view the wildflowers.
Remember that many people use hunter paces as an opportunity to school young or green horses. When you approach any strange horse, use caution. If you want to pass, please ask permission and make sure other riders won't be endangered by your actions. Also, make sure your horse is ready to participate safely - that he can handle the course and the obstacles and the traffic.