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 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.
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!!!”