For me, dressage can actually be far more scary than hunting. (My OTTB makes sure of that.) It doesn’t feel great when your horse has a complete and utter tantrum when you insist he respect the outside rein, or when you get about 3ft of lateral steps when trying to leg yield across the arena. Even if you can gallop a 3ft coop or navigate a ditch that would make most DQs pee their pristine white breeches, dressage can make you doubt you have any riding ability at all.
So when I came across Lucy McKeown’s Stressage Stories blog, I knew had found a kindred spirit. She is a young UK-based rider and writer who covers her dressage adventures and the psychology behind success. We’re doing a little exchange where we ask and answer the same 3 questions:
Describe how dressage makes you feel in 3 words
Dedicated, inspired and elegant
What are your favorite parts of your sport?
Firstly the satisfaction of nailing a certain movement. Knowing that you have set the horse up ready to be able to dance and move effortlessly underneath you
Which leads me to my next favorite… the feeling that my horse starts to relax and trust me. The correct communication just feels like magic (even though we all know it actually comes from a lot of hard work!)
Are there any common misconceptions in dressage that you want to clear up?
A common misconception of dressage is that it is elitist and only for those with loads of money and the fanciest horses. However dressage is french for the word training and so this training can benefit any horse and rider no matter who they are.
There is also the misconception that it isn’t fun and friendly. I have noticed quite the opposite. So many people know the struggles of the sport and want to encourage you.
Have you or do you ever suffer with nerves and if so, what are your top tips?
I do get nervous a lot. Especially for big competitions. My top tips would be to view nerves as excitement (your body does the same things in response), plan loads (and plan some more… Then accept that there will be some things beyond your control, so make sure your plan is focused on what you can do and what solutions you can bring to the table.
Volunteering. (What, was that not what you were thinking?)
Especially since this year has been such a wash in terms of weather, footing, and a broken/sick horse, a major part of my involvement with the hunt club this year has been volunteering. It’s not as exciting as hunting, but it can actually be a pretty fun excuse to hang out with hunt people and make friends. And volunteering is absolutely critical to making hunting happen at all.
Hunt breakfasts need food and people to pass out drinks at the stirrup cup. Hunter paces need scorers, timers and trailer parking organizers. Hunt parties need organizers, decorators, and people to come early and stay late to set up and clean. And that’s not to mention hunting itself, which couldn’t happen without the masters and honorary staff (whips, secretary) who are not paid!
As disappointing as this season has been for my riding, it’s been a banner year in terms of volunteering for the hunt. So I thought I would detail a few (admittedly, incomplete) aspects of being a hunt volunteer!
Volunteering at the Meet
Bringing food and drink: always appreciated at a stirrup cup or post-hunt tailgate. Personally I NEED food after I hunt if I don’t want to get woozy as I’m doing all of my post-hunt chores at the barn.
Field secretary: The field secretary is usually the same person at every hunt. He or she collects cap fees from guests and makes sure all riders sign a waiver.
Whipper-in: an incredibly demanding volunteer job (though many hunts have at least one paid whip). The whipper-in helps to control the hounds and prevent them from going in areas where we are not allowed to hunt, or from crossing dangerous roads. You need to be a bold, capable rider who knows the territory and hounds well, and you need a fast, fit horse.
Volunteering at a Hunt Party
Social Committee: Most hunts have a Social Committee which organizes the year’s parties. We usually end up having about 1 hunt party per month!
Coming up with party themes and logistics. The social committee needs to strike a balance between parties being fun and interesting, and being cost-efficient. Ideally the parties break-even in cost vs. money made, though of course it is great if the parties make money for the hunt!
Coordinating volunteers: Most parties need a checkin person to collect money (if it’s a party that requires tickets to cover the cost of food), a bartender, setup, cleanup, decorations, someone to wash cloth tablecloths after the party…there are so many small details to think of!
Volunteering at a Steeplechase
I freely admit there is FAR more to our Potomac Hunt Races than I even know about. It is a huge community event in our region benefiting TAPS. I have volunteered as a “crowd control” rider for several years, which I really enjoy. I love being “on the inside” because I remember going to events like this when I was growing up, and wondering how you got to be lucky enough to be one of the “official” people.
And you get the best seat in the house to watch the races.
Parking help: Normally a hunt member does this in a beat-up little sedan that he drives like a 4×4 Jeep Wrangler. It is really a sight to see on a muddy track.
Vendor coordination: We have a “Vendor Village” where racegoers can shop. A hunt member needs to be the point person for all the vendors.
Funding and organization: I have no idea how this happens! I know this is a gargantuan task that one of our Masters organizes with the Race Committee, who plan the event all year.
Grandstand announcer: Tells people what is happening in the races!
Tractors: Someone always gets stuck at the races…and hunt members are there to drag them out of the mud.
Ground volunteers: Wrangling increasingly drunk racegoers as the day goes on
Mounted crowd control: There are times when we need to make sure racegoers stay OFF the racetrack (obviously!) but most of the time this is a pretty easy and fun job. The hardest part is the parade at the beginning when they sing The Star Spangled Banner–very loud and spooky time for a horse. I have finally just given up on this part because my horse flips out. The rest of the day is mostly supervising from on high, making sure guests don’t let their kids or dogs astray, and letting the public pet your horse. More than anything it is positive PR for the hunt. So it is easy but very important to give people a positive association with Potomac Hunt.You and your horse need to be immaculately clean and braided.
Outider: Not only do you have your horse clean and braided, you need to be an excellent and bold rider on top of it. The outrider is the person who catches loose racehorses if they part from their rider.
Organizing an Intro to Fox Chasing Clinic
I have helped organize our intro to foxchasing clinic for a few years now and I always really enjoy it. It isn’t that long ago that I was preparing for my first hunt clinic, and I remember how incredibly nerve-wracking it was to try and not make a fool of myself. It makes me feel really good to be able to help other newbies through this experience and provide as much help as I can.
Organizing an intro-to-hunting clinic involves:
Advertising the event in local horse publications and on social media
Recruiting a horde of volunteers to handle food, setup, and cleanup–reminding everyone to be friendly ambassadors to our guests! Looking at who helped in previous years and using SignupGenius works well.
Our hunt has speeches from the huntsman, masters, and hunt members about various aspects of hunting during the post-clinic breakfast. So I had to think of who might have a good story and convince them to speak. 2018 was my first year giving a speech at the hunt breakfast!
Making sure everyone pays, checks in and signs a waiver
Making sure the Masters know people want a third field on this day!
On the day of–the idea is that you will have volunteers to handle most aspects. As the organizer, your role is to make sure things go on schedule and to handle any potential chaos.
Organizing a Hunt Silent Auction
I did NOT realize what a gargantuan task this was when I was asked to help. It is really equivalent to a part time job so it’s a good way to volunteer if you are retired, if you have a flexible schedule, or if you are not working. NOT an ideal task if you have a full time job, plus a side gig and also enjoy riding your horse in your free time.
Organizing the party–Thankfully other hunt members are handling this but it would involve everything in the section above.
Sending out email and social media reminders to donate items for the auction
Individually contacting each person or business that donated items in the past
Figuring out a day and time for each person to bring the item to you or the clubhouse.
Driving all around the county to pick up items from those people who can’t bring items to you.
Keeping a TON of random fox related stuff in your spare bedroom (not recommended if you have 5 flights of stairs to get to your spare bedroom)
Enlisting volunteers to help set up items at the auction, emcee the event and do check-out
To be honest, I was feeling completely overwhelmed by the Silent Auction event until yesterday when I loaded up all the items in my truck and got together with a few other members to set up everything in the clubhouse. It really is true that many hands make light work–and it turns volunteering into something to enjoy rather than dread!
As a member of a hunt club, you SHOULD be volunteering! Even if it’s something small like bringing food to a tailgate. It’s always appreciated and always needed.
As you may have noticed…this blog has been pretty quiet lately. Here in Maryland we’ve basically had three months straight of rain, which means almost no hunting. I think I’ve gotten out three or four times this entire season, when ordinarily I’m out every weekend!
Then my horse Lefty got kicked in the head, rearranged the bones in his face, and got some Frankenstein’s monster-esque staples in his head for Halloween.
A friend of mine lent me a very nice horse to hunt, and I promptly ran my face into a thorny vine in solidarity with Lefty.
(photo by Pat Michaels)
Things seemed to be going well, and Lefty and I got back to some light riding in December…then his OTHER eye blew up due to a tick borne infection. So now he’s on a course of Doxy that finishes up this week.
All of this is a long way of saying–I’ve kind of been in the riding dumps, with so many horse health setbacks and busy times at work for me. So after visiting my family for the holidays, I was REALLY grateful to come home to this Secret Santa gift from Stephanie, a fellow foxhunter and writer of the Hand Gallop blog.
I LOVED the Hunt Seat Paper Co. card and foxy notepad when I ripped open the box at 11pm after a 5hr flight!
She also included a tin of balm for small cuts and scrapes (inevitable with a TB!), stick-tite spray for the saddle, delicious-smelling cookies for Lefty and Ghiardelli chocolates for me in a small horsey zip-up bag. The chocolates didn’t last long–Ghiardelli is my favorite! And I think I will use the bag to hold my braiding supplies and other small doodads at the barn.
Thank you Stephanie! The great thing about your gifts is that they can be used whether I’m riding or just toodling around the barn with my Frankenhorse. And thank you Tracy of The Printable Pony for hosting and organizing the Secret Santa exchange. Make sure to hop on over to her page to see who else participated!
Spring is here, and with it, the Hunter Pace circuit–a fun way to keep the good times rolling with your foxhunting friends when the season is over, or to dip a toe into the foxhunting world for the first time.
A hunter pace (also called a paper chase in some areas) is the least competitive competition of all time. I know because I’ve ridden them and done the scoring too! There’s no way to strategize, so earning a ribbon is just the cherry on top of a cross-country ride and a delicious tailgate. Of course, some people, hilariously, take it very seriously. To me, it’s an excuse to ride out over gorgeous country and school some XC jumps with your friends.
How does a hunter pace work?
A team of 2+ riders navigates a marked course of 5-7 miles over trails and fields. The attire is “ratcatcher”–what foxhunters wear during the informal season (Tweed coat, coordinating stock tie, breeches and brown or black boots). Polo shirts or regular show attire are also typically fine, but this varies by club. There are various classes (flat, low jumps, high jumps) but the goal for each is to get as close as possible to the “optimum time”…which is not disclosed to the riders. Supposedly the optimum time represents a typical hunting pace for the country. So you have to guess when the hunt would typically gallop, or walk, or trot. Sometimes the optimum time is set by a person riding the course beforehand, and sometimes it is an average of all the times in the class (excluding the fastest and slowest times).
Either way, it’s a crap shoot in my opinion. If you hunt, you know that the pace can be widely variable depending on the conditions and scent, so…there is no such thing as a “typical hunting pace.” If the optimum time is determined by an average, you have no clue how others will ride the course. I have always found the best strategy is to just go at a pace that makes sense for an avid foxhunter. Gallop the straightaways, trot on trails with good footing, walk if footing is bad. You don’t have to jump everything if you don’t want to. You can even get lost, fall off, refuse jumps, and still win.
In fact, you will see almost all of that in this video of my most recent hunter pace (aside from falling off, thankfully!). I left in the “oops” moments just to show that even after 4 years of hunting on a regular basis–my horse is not a saint and my riding is not impeccable. It wasn’t my best ride ever and that’s ok!
You don’t have to be perfect to do a hunter pace and here is video proof!
Howard County Iron Bridge Hunter Pace: Optimum Lows
1 Minute Highlights Reel
If you’re looking to get involved in foxhunting, participating in your local hunt’s spring or fall hunter paces is a fabulous and affordable way to get started. (The Maryland Hunter Pace circuit is $25/ride.) The best part is, if you’re just getting started, you can pick your own pace and you can choose which jumps you want to try. Completely low pressure and focused on fun!
Have you participated in a hunter pace? Does it differ from how Maryland hunter paces work? Where’s your favorite course?
So although the majority of the formal season was a wash for me from December to February (lameness, extreme cold, travel, more extreme cold plus extreme rain), we’re finishing out the season well. Last weekend we hunted from what I’ve always been told is one of our best jumping fixtures–but being a fairly new member, I have only hunted from there a handful of times, and each time, it’s been a pretty slow day without jumping (except once when I whipped in and jumped a few old, small coops). That was not the case last Saturday–and it made for a day full of everything I love about hunting.
High winds all week had basically dried out the ground after an extremely rainy stretch, which made the footing good, but also meant there were a fair number of downed trees. This was also good, because it made for more jumping!
We jumped a bunch of small logs on the ground and hanging logs of medium size, no problem. I was so pleased with the Leftist. All of the dressage and walking that I’ve been forced to do all winter, bringing him back from his long abscess vacation, is really paying off. Rather than walk–huge jerky trot–BALLS TO THE WALL GALLOP, now I have a nice trot and canter added to the mix. It’s nice!!
This day I had a junior to look out for. Her adult chaperone was delayed by truck problems, so I offered to let her ride with me. She’s a great rider so I was not worried about that–more just the whole idea of being responsible for someone’s child! I kept looking back every time we had a little gallop or a jump, and thankfully each time she was still there. She loves to hunt and it is so cool to see animals, adults and kids all enjoying the same thing.
Everything was going well until we got to a bunch of downed branches right at the edge of the woods and a field…at a canter. By the time I saw it, I had no time to slow down. Lefty plowed on through, turned smartly to the left and galloped on. I looked over my shoulder. The branches, formerly on the ground, were stuck straight up in the air. Lefty had kicked them up right into the face of the horse behind me…and my charge was hanging halfway off said horse, her shoulders on its neck. “STAND UP!” I yelled. Not exactly a formal position they teach you, but it got the message across and she got her shoulders up and seat back in the saddle. “You did it!” I called as we galloped on. Not much time to really congratulate her, but that’s hunting.
I know at her age (actually, even now!) I would have scarcely believed I had emerged from such a close call at speed. There’s always a progression of feelings for me: shock, disbelief, and self-congratulatory awe. I was just glad my not-so-careful riding didn’t go as badly as it could have. We didn’t have to deliver my charge home in a body bag.
The other highlight of the day was a sizeable coop! Probably about 3’6.” My first thought was, “Oh. That looks big.” Then I consciously tried to banish that thought because it has not served me well before. Look across the jump. Leg on. LOOK! Two point. Leg ON! And we sailed over with plenty of airtime and galloped on, scratching Lefty’s neck to praise him. I was soooo happy with him!
Then of course, another junior on a medium pony sailed right over it too. No big deal I guess when you’re a fearless kid on the wonder pony!
The adults toasted with celebratory port. I offered my junior charge a celebratory granola bar, but she declined. (Probably for the best because it’s been in my sandwich case for two years.)
After we hacked in, I slid out of my saddle and immediately felt it. All the chiropractic work I had done around November and December–gone. My shoulder burned and my right hip ached. Oh well. I had to wash the mud off my horse before I could even really think about it, and all pains are eased at the hunt breakfast table. The sidesaddle girls went all out with champagne in actual flutes (fancy). I dug right into the venison sausage and cheese, clutching my Miller Lite (hydrating).
A well behaved horse, great times in nature with friends, and some close calls, but all the horses and humans returned safely to stuff their faces. What more can you ask for?
(featured photo by Larry Schaudies. From 2017, but the same fixture on an equally cold day!)
So–everyone I spoke to about hunting in England was right. The hirelings were rockstars, and I really didn’t need any special preparation. No hedges–but there were some other twists and turns that made a slow day of hunting unforgettable.
The morning started like any other hunting morning–an early alarm, and creeping around in the dark trying not to wake my husband as I got dressed. I triple-checked that I had packed everything. Hairnet, foot warmers, gloves: check. I had some breakfast, fired up my phone’s global plan, and grabbed my travel health insurance papers. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it but you never know!
Anyone who talked to me in the two weeks leading up to this trip could tell you in detail all of the anxiety I had about travel logistics, making my connections and getting to the fixture on time. It was honestly my biggest worry, more so than hunting a new horse, since Plantation Hirelings had such stellar reviews. So when I arrived at Alton station well ahead of time with no mishaps, I felt like the rest of the day was just gravy. When my hosts picked me up, I sang the praises of the U.K. public transit for nearly the entire ride to the barn. It just WORKS. Coming from D.C., the land of single-tracking and 20+ minutes between trains, it seems miraculous.
My hireling was a warmblood called Harley– also known as “The King.” You can see why.
After I helped tack him up, we had a long trailer (lorry) ride to the fixture that gave me a chance to get to know my hosts. More similarities than differences between U.S. and U.K foxhunters. Cursing at stupid drivers, sharing the hunt gossip, a faithful dog curled at our feet. “Look at that hill! Wonder if we can ask the farmer to use his field for galloping.” Foxhunters truly are a breed of their own and recognizable around the world.
Of course, the big difference is that in England, live foxhunting has been illegal since 2004. Drag hunting is fine (and this is what the hunt clubs do now to adhere to the law) but it is an extremely divisive issue. City people don’t get it, and country people resent the urban influence on something they don’t understand. I made the mistake of mentioning that I had foxhunted to ONE city person on my trip. From the look on his face, you would think I had thrown his child in front of a bus. My hosts were amazed to hear that I have never encountered a hunt saboteur. In the U.S., the reaction to “I’m a foxhunter,” is usually more like, “Huh, people still do that?” or “Oh, my brother hunts deer,” not “You’re a murderous animal abuser.”
As we talked about it I could see the conundrum. It’s hard to understand foxhunting until you do it, meet the people and see that they actually care deeply about both tame and wild animals, and work to protect both for generations. But even if you ride, foxhunting can be intimidating to break into–and why would you bother trying, if you’re convinced everyone who does it is a monster?
I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know that our lively conversation helped to distract me. I was a bit nervous after I heard Harley slipped and fell in the mud hunting the day before. Soon enough we arrived at the tiny (by American standards) parking area at the end of a long driveway. Standing there were my fellow hireling riders who had driven from London–one of whom, to my delight, happened to be Kat Brown, who recommended the Hursley Hambledon to me in the first place!
Just like at home, my nerves melted away when I swung into the saddle. I quickly realized Harley was 17 hands of class. He responded to the slightest seat adjustment, went round, stood at checks, lovely gaits, everything. His one fault was that he wanted to be glued to his stablemates all day–but hey, honestly it was an excuse to make friends. “Hi, how are you? I see our horses are shamelessly making out with each other.”
The fixture was made up of several wide, manicured interconnecting paths through the woods, with tall bare tree trunks allowing an easy view of the hounds and huntsman working. I felt like I was in the Hundred Acre Wood from Winnie the Pooh.
Unfortunately, the weather conditions were challenging. We had three types of footing depending on where the sun was shining: frozen solid, greasy, and sloppy. Winter, spring and fall, all in one day!
(A side note: Several times throughout the day, I saw weird little creatures scurry across the trail in the distance. These were muntjacs–an invasive species of tiny deer the size of a Border Collie. Who knew I would discover an entirely new species on my foxhunting trip? I was fascinated by them.)
Most of the day, the pace was slow, with the field watching the hounds working the line in the woods, and taking advantage of the ample opportunities to share flasks. When we did move from covert to covert, I could tell the field master was doing her best to keep a safe pace given the ground conditions.
Until the hounds cut across a big open field.
The riders bushwacked through the woods to catch up with the field master, who was already halfway across the fallow field. Branches and brambles everywhere–at a certain point it just was easier to duck down on my horse’s neck and grab the martingale strap than try to push away the trees. As we approached the open field, I sat up to look where I was going, and THWACK–a solid branch to the face. No time to worry about it. I bridged my reins and crouched in two-point for a gallop. I was not sure how my horse would react to the first run of the day.
He surged with a dramatic first step–hooo boy, I thought, bringing my shoulders back–then settled into a lovely, rocking-horse canter. That’s why they call him the King! I thought, and scratched his withers appreciatively.
I felt my chin when we met with the rest of the field. It hurt, but no blood.
The perfect souvenir.
I texted about 1000 pictures to my husband as I boarded the train home.
“Quiet day. Fabulous horse. Headed to train station. Be back in about 2 hrs.”
We made arrangements to meet in the city for bao, and I eased back into my seat, cheeks flushed and the skin on my chin raw–completely content. I had a responsibly irresponsible adventure, riding a strange horse in a strange land in awful conditions (but at a reasonable pace, and with travel health insurance, which made it OK of course). I managed to make friends and come home in one piece. AND the train was, again, wonderful.
What tied the whole day together with a nice, neat bow was when I arrived at the Oxford Circus station. I ascended the escalator to street level and heard people yelling. “FUR IS MURDER!” “Madam, do NOT go in that store if you care at ALL about animals!”
It was a horde of PETA protestors greeting me upon my return to the city. About 20 people were rallying outside a store that sold fur. One woman offered me a flyer, and I took it, chuckling.
She had no idea what I had just done that day. And I don’t think she would ever understand.
PS–For those who are wondering “how in the world can hunting abroad be frugal?!” It’s not, but it is certainly more doable when you can tag along to your husband’s business trip. Hirelings are expensive anywhere you go, and in my research I found price ranges to be anywhere from 150 pounds to 245 pounds (~$206 to $338). I found one in the middle of that range but honestly I was more swayed by good reviews and safety. Cap fees range from about 70 pounds to 100 pounds ($100 to $137), though I was able to take advantage of half price for HH newbies ($50). The train was affordable, compared to the U.S. at 29 pounds ($40) round trip. I also tipped my hireling provider. All told, the day cost about $400.
So as I write to you I am completely freaking out…because…
I’m hunting in England in a month!!!!!!
So how did this happen? Well, my husband has a business trip to London and I am tagging along. I actually did the same thing last year, but I was afraid to try hunting over there for several reasons. What if I was hurt, and my husband would never want me to hunt again? What if I got horribly lost, had no cell service, and never made it to the meet? Would I be expected to jump an enormous hedge?
It all seemed frankly terrifying, so instead, I met up with a friend of a friend for a hack in Richmond Park. That was all right, though my little Appaloosa cob thing was not much of a looker.
But now that I have this opportunity again, I’m seizing it. In 2017, I had a few hairy hunting moments that I realized I could not only survive, but still manage to have fun. I’ve had horses run away with me, buck, rear, slip on pavement–all of the things I was afraid of. And I was fine. Of course, being in 20s I suspect I am invincible, but even if not, I realized that I was capable of more than I thought.
I found a cheap flight (like 10 hrs in coach cheap…), made some calls and emails, and finally decided to go with Plantation Hirelings and the Hursley Hambledon Hunt per Kat Brown’s recommendation (the “Urban Equestrian” blog writer–very funny). My other option was hunting in the Cotswolds, which would have been wonderful if the hireling had not been £245. Too much for the Frugal Foxhunter.
I had it in my head that British hunts are all stiff hedges, Martha Sitwell galloping around glamorously, and iron-mouthed hirelings running off with hapless tourists, but so far, everyone who has actually hunted over there has given me reassuring advice:
“hedge etc are always optional and usually very well shouted about by the field master, and there is always a way round for non-jumpers or if you’re feeling a bit squeamish. You don’t have to jump anything you don’t want to, and you’ll have a nanny with you from the hirelings yard so you won’t be on your own and you’ll have a pal to stick with.”
“The horses over there are all superstars — they’ll take good care of you!”
All good advice, but nevertheless, I’m still baffled that you can just call someone, say “Hey, I’d like to hire a horse,” and all they say is, “Sure, when?” These people have no idea if I can ride at all. It feels like someone should be stopping me. Why am I allowed to do this?!
I’m unreasonably excited. Every day, when I get home from work, I’ve been preparing. Figuring out transport from London, researching the barn and the hunt, planning how to fit my hunt attire and warm winter clothes in a carry-on, rereading Leslie Wylie’s “Meeting Martha” series. Essentials. And even though everyone I talk to keeps telling me I don’t really need to do any preparation, I’m going to take a few jumping lessons. Haven’t really jumped anything big for a while…and I don’t know if I’ll be allowed…but if the horse is game, I kind of want to try jumping a hedge. Don’t tell my husband.
I can’t wait to see the differences between foxhunting where the sport originated, and where it emigrated to–my home near the nation’s capital. And of course, opinions toward hunting are very polarizing in the U.K. with class struggles and hunt saboteurs. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
But then again, in 2013 when I had my first hunting experience with Old Dominion, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience too. And look what happened.
Just wanted to send a sincere thank you to Nadia at 3day Adventures with Horses, my Secret Santa! She gave me a C4 belt with a nice foxhunting scene!
The scene is a little more gruesome than your average hunt though, which I find pretty amusing.
There’s a funny story behind this whole blogger gift exchange for me this year. I signed up at The Printable Pony blog in November, but I didn’t see my name on the final list of participants, and I didn’t get any info about my Secret Santa via email. The rational side of me said, “Oh well. Must have been a technical glitch.” But the rest of me said, “SCREW THEM! If they don’t want me in their stupid little blogger club, I’ll make my own!”
Hence, the Equestrian Pen Pal program I’ve started. No joke. Of course I had the idea kicking around before then, but good old fashioned spite and resentment was what truly motivated me to get the thing set up.
Anyway, last week I received the C4 belt and a lovely Christmas card in the mail from Nadia. Uh oh. I frantically emailed The Printable Pony. Was someone expecting a gift from me? Then checked my Spam folder…yep. There was my Secret Santa assignment, and I was just seeing it the week before Christmas.
And maybe I should learn a lesson about being less quick to jump to the worst possible scenario and take vengeful action…but it ended all good in the end, so why bother?
Even though I am frugal, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the good things in life. For example: horses. And there are plenty of luxurious things that go with that.
Since Lefty has been lame, I’ve been lucky to have been lent some very nice horses. And very nice saddles, and even an entire truck and trailer to transport the very nice horse. (I have some wonderful friends who trust me way too much.) The CWD saddle that was lent to me, though, made such an impression I found myself daydreaming about it repeatedly.
It was like sitting on an ergonomic cloud that also had the ability to make my horse behave. I brought my shoulders back an inch and everything fell into alignment. I had a rocking horse canter, uphill, lovely, controlled. This happens only rarely in my current saddle, a pancake-flat Crosby Prix des Nations which has been described as the “panty liner” and “pretty much the last thing you would want to hunt in.”
I don’t know that I would go that far, since I have certainly survived many hunting days and belligerent rides in the arena in the Crosby, but it is certainly not cushy and soft and dreamlike. There is no padding, there are no knee rolls, but I like it for a lot of reasons. It is the saddle I used on my first horse in high school. It is a saddle that fits Lefty. It is a saddle that will make you learn how to use your leg properly, or you will die. It is a saddle that George Morris definitely approves of. All for the cheap, cheap price of $450 (which I think is a bit more expensive than some Crosbys, but it is made of fancy bridle-quality leather).
But after riding in the Comfort Wondrous Derriere saddle…well, thoughts started creeping into my mind. The Crosby has served me well over three years and has plenty of life left in it, probably decades. But for hunting…well, safety trumps everything, doesn’t it? And isn’t my safety “worth it”?
Well, maybe not $5000 “worth it.” I don’t think I’m at the phase of life yet where I should be spending that on a saddle, particularly when $1000 or $2000 should be perfectly fine to find a more appropriate saddle for my sport.
So consider this my announcement and my official saving start date. I will not bore you all with the trials of a saddle search because we all know it is maddening. But I will use this blog to stay accountable to my saving goal:
I would like to save at least $2000 for a used saddle and saddle fitting. If I end up spending less than that, great.
I’m going to contribute $1000 from my Christmas bonus to this goal now.
If my end date is July, this is going to require additional savings of about $150/month.
I’m going to automate this saving using Capital One 360, and eat out only once a week at the office.
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.
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.
It’s actually hunting, not just following the group.
I like being important.
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.
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.