photo by Pat Michaels
Miscellaneous Shenanigans

Whipping in

So although The Leftist has been lame recently (abscess just would not pop; finally he’s on the mend and slowly getting fit again), I haven’t been completely absent from the hunt field. Rather, it seems I’m being recruited as a whipper-in.

photo by Pat Michaels
Phenomenal photo courtesy Pat Michaels. That’s me in green up front! When Potomac’s hunt season unofficially begins in August, correct attire is polo shirts.

This is as much a mystery to me as anyone. My goal when out hunting is simply NOT to embarrass myself, to do the right things and just kind of blend in with the field. And of course to have a great time and come home safe. So I’m really not sure how I got noticed on my little brown horse but I suspect one of the masters in particular really wants me to do it.

Being a teacher’s pet, I reread Foxhunting: How to Watch and Listen by Hugh Robards, MFH, per the huntsman’s recommendation. (I would recommend it to anyone looking to understand a typical day foxhunting from a variety of perspectives: the field, the whip, even the fox!) But even after reading that, I only had a vague idea of what the whips do. I assumed they flanked the hounds, kind of in a triangle formation, with the huntsman at the apex. This is completely wrong, at least when hunting with Potomac. Our huntsman assigns an area to each whipper-in depending on the territory we are allowed to hunt. Perhaps one whip will cover the road, to keep the hounds from becoming roadkill. Another might watch the boundary of a farm where we’re not allowed to ride. If we have a third whip, he might be responsible for watching an area the hounds might go that would change the plan for the day, and for calling the huntsman if that happens. Yes, our hunt staff does embrace technology to some extent, though they try to minimize calling each other and rely more on their senses–but if hounds are running full tilt toward the road, it’s better to communicate FAST.

But a lot of the job is intuitive and impossible to explain. The whips have to use their judgement to decide whether to stay at their post, or move with the hounds as they cover different areas. This ability to judge where the hounds are going versus where they are comes with experience.

So far I’ve whipped in three times–once on Lefty, twice on nice horses generously lent to me. Each time, I shadowed one of the whips. I noticed big differences in their style. One of our more experienced whips never seems to be in a rush. He’s always in the right place at the right time. He told me stories of how the fixture has changed over the decades, and knows how to traverse the country like he knows the hallways and rooms of his own house. The other whip I shadowed is younger, but still, very knowledgeable about the territory, and a phenomenal rider. I struggled to keep up with her and maintain any sense of order as she galloped across a field like her tail was on fire! There was no option not to follow, unless I wanted to be left behind. Thankfully, she was able to give me some pointers on galloping in the open with control (“Rearrange that horse’s teeth if you have to!”) Weirdly, this set my nerves at ease. I think there is something wrong with me.

In any case, I’m not 100% sold if I want to start whipping in rather than riding in the field. I would need a different horse, since right now I half lease and Lefty’s owner wants to be able to hunt him in the field during the week. Most of the time, once you start whipping in regularly, horses really don’t like to ride in the field anymore–so that is completely reasonable makes total sense to me. And I enjoy riding in the field. That’s where my friends are, and if something goes wrong, there are people there to help, laugh at you, and pass you a flask.

Pros:

  • It’s thrilling.
  • It’s actually hunting, not just following the group.
  • I like being important.

Cons:

  • It’s terrifying.
  • You need the right horse. In fact, you need at least two horses–one that will ride in the field and one that will whip in. And preferably one for when those horses are lame. I have half a leased horse.
  • You definitely need road studs or borium.
  • You’re essential staff. You can’t go home early.
  • Don’t want to turn my hobby into something stressful, with hunt politics, the inevitable mistakes I will make as I learn, etc.

I know. It looks heavily tilted to the “Con” side. But I still asked my husband for a hunt whip for Christmas…not sure why…it might be that, as terrifying as whipping in can be, there is a little part of me that is thrilled to simply SURVIVE a challenge and relive those glorious moments over and over.

Like the first time I whipped in on Lefty. We had a pretty quiet day, listening hard to locate the hounds at the periphery of the territory. We had a few little canters and jumped a few little things. Lefty was completely unfazed by an errant cow in the corner of a field. (I was more nervous than he was–a steer attacked me when I was a child, no joke!) It all seemed manageable.

Until we were hacking in. About 500 feet from the trailers, the hunt staff chose a path with what was essentially an Irish drain–a steep, muddy ravine that your horse has to slide down, rock back, and jump across. The huntsman crossed on foot with the hounds. One of the whips, behind me, held his horse.

I looked at the ditch, wide-eyed with dread. I had never approached an obstacle like this (ie. a horse-swallowing Hell pit) with Lefty and had no idea what he would do. He is good with water crossings, but…

“You’ve got to GO,” she told me. She literally had a handful to deal with.

I chickened out and peeled off to the side to let her go first (and give me a lead). It worked! Lefty carefully slid down, rocked back, and sailed across.

Dapple Bay

I’m still riding that high of Lefty taking care of me, bringing me home safe. So I don’t know. I’m not in the market to buy a horse right now anyway…but I’ll definitely consider whipping in as a factor for when I do. Like I said, I have a problem.

 

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