Hunters compete in classes where the horse is judged subjectively by one or more judges. In both jumping and flat classes, each horse is judged on: "Performance and soundness [whether or not the horse appears to be lame]..." (US Equestrian Article 2423). In some classes the horses are judged on more specific features, such as ”conformation, suitability and manners." (US Equestrian Article 2423). Conformation refers to how a horse is put together, i.e. whether he has a desirable and functional physique. Suitability refers to the horse’s natural capabilities for the tasks being asked to perform. For example, a horse which jumps unsafely would not be considered a “suitable” hunter in a hunter over fences class. Manners refers to the horse’s temperament, and how he responds to a rider’s instructions. For example, a horse that kicks out when asked to begin trotting would not have good manners, while another which perks his ears alertly and is obedient will be rewarded for good manners.

Hunter divisions at horse shows are divided into numerous categories. Some include "green" hunters for inexperienced horses, conformation hunters where horses are judged on their performance with extra emphasis placed on the horse’s build, working hunters with large fences for experienced horses, and pony hunters for ponies (horses under 14.2 hands tall) only. Other divisions can be divided by the status of the riders who pilot the horses around the course, such as junior hunters for riders 18 and under, amateur-owner hunters for non-professional adult riders or short stirrup hunters for young children just learning to ride.

A typical hunter course is 8-10 fences consisting of natural colored jumps, set on straight lines at various points around the ring. Some of the fences are set at related distances and are meant to be ridden as a set with a specific number of strides, or canter steps, in between them.