Not much hunting for me lately (lame horse…booo), so I’ll share this memory with you.
One thing I really find annoying about my own generation is the impulse to photograph everything without really experiencing it. It’s all about the dopamine hit from those Facebook or Instagram likes, projecting an ideal life. (And I have to say, anyone who is lucky enough to foxhunt definitely has at least one ideal part of their life.)
And I’m not immune from it either. In the hunt field, there are so many moments I wish I could share with others. Tweed coats among the trees, hounds porpoising in the soybeans, a breathless gallop up to the blinding morning sun. I still can’t really believe I’m allowed to do this on a regular basis, so it feels like I simultaneously need to drink in the moment and save it forever.
One moment like this happened out cubbing this fall. We were hacking in, waiting on a hillside for the huntsman to collect hounds. I was in the back of the field, so I saw the scene unfold before me. Riders in their tweeds leaning over to share a swig of something good, laughing and talking about the day. Horses, swishing their tails. By the pond at the foot of the hill were the huntsman and a whip, deep in conversation about something. Sugarloaf Mountain, not quite changing her leaves yet, peeked out on the horizon.
I started to cry and I can’t exactly explain why. From the beauty of it all? From gratitude? From fear that these moments are so fleeting?
I recently found a gem at Second Story Books–a bound collection of articles from a magazine founded in 1927 called Horse and Horseman. It covers a variety of disciplines: polo, steeplechase, flat racing, Western, and of course foxhunting. Back then there was a lot of debate about the forward seat vs. the old-fashioned “lean back and hang on somehow” method of jumping! But the great thing about foxhunting is how much of it remains the same over the decades–the upholding (and breaking) of certain sacred rules.
In that vein, I brought this passage from the book to our most recent hunt meet to share with friends. You could call it a foxhunter’s prayer–though actually, it might be more accurate to call it a curse.
“The Foxhunter’s Creed of Thomas Young”
Article 1.–Let every man present himself at the meeting place sober, suitably clothed, and in good time. He that rideth his hunter steadily to the fixture is better than he who useth a covert hack. He that useth a bicycle or tandem or motorcar or any manner of machine, let him be accursed.
Article 2.–Every man shall at the meet salute and speak words or comfort to the huntsman and the whippers-in. He shall also count and examine the hounds. He shall then salute his friends. He that shall say, “It will be a bad-scenting day, let him be accursed.
Article 3.–It is lawful and right that those of experience shall carefully give explanation and encouragement to all young persons and instruct them by word at all times, so that foxhunting shall continue in the land from generation to generation. He that thinketh he knowth but knowth not, let him be accursed.
Article 4.–Every man shall remember that the ground he passes over is not all his own property. He that useth not due care, let him be accursed.
Article 5. He that leapeth or breaketh fences unnecessarily, let him be accursed. He that talketh loudly or often during the day, let him be accursed. He that weareth an apron or mackintosh on wet days, let him be accursed. He that rideth over or hurteth any hound, let him be everlastingly damned.
Article 6.–If it be possible, let every true believer of the Faith abstain from all food or drink during the day, save only sufficient to sustain life in case of need. The whole day to be kept as special fasting and strengthening of the mind in the Faith. He shall partake of food and drink in the evening. Verily, after a good day he shall partake of a special allowance of drink.
Article 7.–Accused be he that goeth home of his own free will before hounds do.
Article 8.–He that killeth or taketh a fox by any means save by hunting, let him be accursed, Yea, let him be everlastingly damned. May his dwelling-place become desolate and his possessions a desert. May his soul be filled with bitterness and his body with pain.
Article 9.–He that believeth these articles and doeth them, let his life be long.
Article 10.–May the Scarlet never be brought into dishonour.
A bit harsh BUT nevertheless hilarious. We were all accursed on Saturday for using trailers rather than hacking to the meet on the road. That would have made my ride about 2 hours longer.
I would add a few to the list of the accursed:
he who knows not how to tack his horse (ie. galloping boots put on backwards, bits attached to the bridle completely wrong…yep, I have seen it!)
she who looks not where she is going
he who partakes of an extra “special allowance of drink” DURING the hunt and falls off his horse
she who neglects the cleaning of her tack and horse (I guess back in the day they had grooms for that!)
he who calls out “ware hole” for obstacles that are completely irrelevant and not in the path of anyone. Congratulations, you identified a hole in the distance!
cars and bikes that zoom down country roads as if it’s the Beltway!
And I would STRONGLY second the cursing and damnation of he (or she!) who talks too much! Often, it tends to be the person who “thinketh he knoweth but knoweth not.” Nothing wrong with asking questions quietly of course. But not incessantly or just to hear your own voice! To me that is the worst etiquette fault because it affects everyone else’s enjoyment of the moment and it can even distract hounds.
Who would you curse in the hunt field? I think anyone who hunts has their shortlist of pet peeves.. Now whenever I see an offender I will think to myself, “Let them be accursed!!!”
One thing I really enjoy about hunting and horses in general is the repetition. Though our lives change, nature is comfortably predictable. Every year, fall brings thicker coats, foliage –and now, all the anxious anticipation and glory of Opening Hunt.
For me, Opening Hunt is inextricably tied to my relationship with my husband. When we were dating, our fourth anniversary fell on October 25–the same day as my first Opening Meet. Not only was he OK with me hijacking our anniversary to play with horses, in the days before I really put him through the wringer.
At the time, I was working at a barn some mornings, doing the feed and mucking, plus writing for Horse Nation. The Thursday before Opening Meet, my plan was to do the barn in the morning and then cover Washington International’s Pony Steeplechase in the evening. I was so excited for my first-ever press pass. Then a piece of sawdust got in my eye.
Thankfully, it was from the sawdust shavings pile, not a dirty stall–but my entire eyelid soon swelled to Quasimodo proportions, throbbing with pain. I finished my barn chores and drove home with one eye shut. I tried to flush it out with water. No luck. But I was not giving up the opportunity to see the inner workings of WIHS–the stabling in the underground garage, the warmup arena set up around concrete pillars! So I just shut one eye and tried not to scare the pony kids with my teary, swollen face as I interviewed them. I took photos of the event, completely unable to tell if my camera was focused or if any of my pictures would come out.
It was bad. On my Metro ride home, I had to run out of the train at a random stop. The pain was actually making me nauseous and I threw up into the train tracks like a drunk coed returning from a frat party. Crying as I waited for another train, I called my fiancé to come pick me up from our station. I called off work the next day and got an eye doctor to fish out the (miniscule!) piece of sawdust from my eyelid. How something the size of the point of a pin could cause so much pain, I still am not sure. But missing my first Opening Hunt was out of the question
Once the eye was fixed, I got some rest and then went to go wash and braid my (generously lent) horse. I had never braided before and this horse did not make my job easy, weaving like nobody’s business for FOUR HOURS. I was so frustrated, and determined to finish that I failed to notice my phone was out of battery and that my fiancé had called, worried. It was dark, raining, and he had no idea if I had been kicked in the head, gotten into a car accident, or even where to find me if I had! Oops, bad fianceé move on my part.
But still, I was stupidly determined to attend my first Opening Meet on our fourth anniversary and for some reason he was OK with it.
Thankfully, the hunt went completely fine (despite a little girth “wardrobe malfunction” early on and some tearful cursing trying to re-mount my horse) and we hunted well into the afternoon. I was one of the few who stayed until the end, with more riders turning back with each hour, and I felt like a warrior.
From City to Country
This year, thankfully, was less dramatic. It’s my fourth Opening Meet, my third with Lefty, and my first wearing Potomac Hunt’s colors. Finally, I feel like I know what to do–how to groom, how to dress, when to talk, when to be quiet. But the week before Opening is always full of nervous excitement. Now the pre-hunt routine is pretty automatic, but I did have to clip Lefty, get my braiding supplies together, figure out what to put in my flask…
And for the first time since my first Opening Hunt, I attended Barn Night at Washington International again. This time, both eyes were working (!) and I was surrounded by friends from the local Pony Club and Horsemasters group. And I got to meet an old Horse Nation colleague who was covering the entire WIHS weekend. Even though I can see horses pretty much any day of the week (even luckier), there is still something magical about the tent barns set up in the street and the smell of horses in the city.
I don’t envy top showjumpers though. I enjoy watching horse shows once in a while but I think what I do is a LOT more fun.
The next day was one of preparation. I did work, but I zoomed off as soon as possible to bathe and braid Lefty. Another companionable tradition–drinking a beer and bathing your horse with hunting friends! All the horse prep went smoothly. (Though I’m not sure why I forgot that I am TERRIBLE at making hunter braids that stay overnight. They end up frizzy and sticking in all directions by the next morning, as I found out. But I started that way so I just kept going. I had to redo nearly all of them on Saturday morning.)
More traditions when I got home: collecting all of my hunt clothes, making sure my boots were polished, and filling my flask. Then the nervous energy set in and I invented a few tasks: ironing my stock tie and reinforcing the buttons on my hunt coat.
I was nervous about my braids (rightly) so I set my alarm for 5:30 am. The stirrup cup was to begin at 10am.
The Hunt Morning
All of the hunt preparation went according to plan, and we arrived at the meet about 30 minutes before the Stirrup Cup. My husband said he would meet us to take pictures, but there was no sign of him.
I was getting worried, so I unlocked the car to check my phone. Three missed calls. I called him back–he was lost, so I gave directions.
“Will there be food there?”
“Yes, there are refreshments,” I said, giving Lefty a look just daring him to try eating grass again.
“No, not ALCOHOL, baby, I mean FOOD!”
“Oh yeah, there are cookies.”
“WHAT! So you’re saying I’m going to be surrounded by horse people who AGREE with you that cookies are breakfast?!”
“Yep, see you soon!”
So yes–even though this year was less traumatic than the days leading up to my first Opening, at least we maintained the important tradition of horrifying Byron.
I mounted up from the wheel of the trailer and Byron handed me my photo prop.
It’s the Good Seat Challenge Trophy, handed down in Potomac Hunt each year since the 1950s to the rider with the best seat…which is up to interpretation! I wanted to take advantage of the photo opportunity while Lefty was braided and clean.
After the Blessing of the Hounds the field gathered on the hillside for a professional photo and then we moved off, heading around the back end of the hunt club to draw in the woods. It always surprises me how LARGE the opening hunt ends up being! There had to be at least 100 riders.
Not much jumping, though I did ride in first field. Maybe one hanging log? But it was a fast day. We hit on a fox pretty quickly and ran for about 20 minutes straight, then gathered hounds, enjoyed our flasks, hacked back, and I think we must have caught on the line of the same fox because we ended up galloping back the same way and doing nearly the same thing all over again.
The problem with a large field is that it significantly increases the potential for rider stupidity and general chaos. I won’t name names, but at speed, Lefty very deftly avoided a rider who was very casually standing around right in the middle of the path the entire field was galloping through! Not sure what the reason for that was, but it doesn’t really matter–I just rode my own horse, and I was really happy he saved my butt!
Maybe there was another check in between there somewhere, but those were the two big runs of the day. We ended up back near the hunt club and the staff decided to call it a day.
It wasn’t the epic “last man standing” type of Opening Hunt, but it’s kind of hard to complain when you and your horse come home safe AND your husband comes to take pictures of your prized toilet seat!