Ride along with me, The Fledgling Foxhunter, with each adventure I hope to share with you some insight from the beginners’ perspective of subjects including what to expect while out foxhunting, foxhunting fashion, etiquette in the field, pre-and-post hunt realities and socializing for the anti-social.
My first soiree with foxhunting was a single ride two years ago. The second first time was SO much easier, but since this is all about the first time out I will openly admit that I had no idea what to expect. I luckily found an acquaintance that had hunted before and she put me in contact with The Chagrin Valley Hunt. I sent a cordial email to the main email address, requesting permission to ride along. I eagerly awaited a response that would assure my participation, and was invited to an “open day” by Joint Master Laura Mock. I was so excited to hear back with a date, time and a “fixture” which is the land on which the meet takes place. Some fixtures are regarded as more beginner friendly, if you can’t make it to an open day, be forthcoming with the masters or secretary about your level of experience and make arrangements to ride a fixture that is most suitable for your first time out. I inquired back as to the appropriate attire and turnout for an open day and was instructed that casual riding attire was expected (think clinic attire), tall boots or paddocks and half chaps, helmet, any sort of saddle and a clean unbraided horse.
So what next? I was a nervous wreck. I kept replaying those crazy Irish hunting videos in my mind of people being launched into the stratosphere over massive hedges or nearly drowning in the “drains” (looks like a canal) with their poor beast swimming around them looking for any sort of escape. First up I had to tackle what I was going to wear. I weighed whether I should go with my cross country attire complete with red protective vest, since coops are technically solid and I was somewhat convinced that I might die. However after much deliberation, a torn apart closet and multiple wardrobe changes I opted for beige breeches, a sage fleece pullover, black tall boots and traditional shaped fleece saddle pad. Ladies unless your hair is very short you should plan on wearing a hairnet under your helmet, even if it is a casual day. My goal was to be about as inconspicuous as possible. One suggestion I do have is to definitely stay away from red (huntsman and staff) and any other of the hunts official colors. Even on open days staff will often wear red or the hunts colors and it is a godsend when you are trying to decipher who is who.
So who is who and why is it important? There is an order of go that is expected in the hunt field, and it should be maintained for both the safety and enjoyment of the day for all who participate. The huntsman, master(s), whippers in and staff all get first dibs on their riding position in the field and that position is typically directly with the hounds or leading a flight. You will want to identify and remember who these people are as they are just as important to the enjoyment of your sporting day as the hounds. Next up are members who have been awarded their “colors”. Different hunts have varying guidelines as to who is awarded their colors, but in general those with colors have offered a significant and consistent contribution to their hunt for multiple years. Not only in maintaining their subscriptions and regular attendance, but also in general support, volunteer work and experience in the field. Members who have earned their colors are a little tougher to pick out on open days, a dead giveaway are riders with mahogany or black patent topped boots, and those who carry traditional hunting whips with a horn handle. On formal days they will have a collar on their hunt coat in their hunts colors, hence the term earning their “colors”. Subscribing members ride after those with colors and guests ride to the back of the flight – unless you have a member that you are out with, this is the position you can expect to ride in.
The night before the hunt – I bathe and groom my horse, if it is too cold, for a full bath I will still try to wash his legs and spot clean anything that is particularly dirty. Especially now that it is colder, I can see why having a horse vacuum would be an absolute blessing, and have added one to my wishlist (you can create, find and share wishlists too). I load the trailer with his bridle and hang his hay net. My coat, boots, helmet, hairnet, stock-tie, stock pin and gloves go into the truck.
The morning of the hunt –I think this is probably a big bonus that my horses are kept at home. I have found it takes me about and hour and a half to get everything done for both me and my horse prior to my load and go time. Formal days take every bit of this time, open days I find myself stopping to kill a little time. The goal arrival time to the fixture should be around 30 minutes, much sooner and you will likely be alone wondering if you are at the right place, any later you will not have time to go through the necessary pre-ride preparations. I get up, feed my horse, take down his tail and groom him while he finishes his breakfast. He has a lot of white on him so I check to see if I am going to have to wash any stains, and get that done as soon as he is finished eating. I toss him a flake of hay before heading back into the house to get myself cleaned up and dressed for the ride. Many if not most foxhunters trailer tacked up, with or without the bridle. So about 30 minutes before my load and go time I head back out to the barn, put the final touches on his grooming and tack him up. In addition to your saddle, girth and pad, I would strongly suggest using a breastplate/breast collar. A long ride in conjunction with varying terrain can lead to even a well fitted saddle slipping back, with little to no opportunity to stop and fix it. I put a well fitting saddle cover on to help contain my stirrups for the trailer ride and put a sheet or blanket over top of everything. This really helps to keep the tack contained and protected and to keep him clean on the ride. I put his shipping boots on last, head out to the trailer, load and go.
Once at the fixture – I tend to consider myself anti-social, however foxhunting a very social sport. So buck up and insert yourself into the moment, go around be friendly and polite and introduce yourself, say hello to the huntsman and whippers-in, find the master(s) and thank them for having you out. Have your liability release forms and capping fee (essentially an entry fee) in an envelope with your name. On your rounds you will likely come across the field secretary (look for someone with a clipboard). He or she will need to collect your envelope prior to the start of the hunt. Watch the clock on your rounds and make sure you have enough time to put yourself together, you will still need to tie your stock tie (formal days), put your hair into a hairnet and get on your helmet, boots, gloves. Once you are ready you will need bridle and your horse, touch up any grooming mishaps that happened on the trailer ride, adjust your saddle, tighten your girth and mount up. The hunt will start on time and you don’t want to be the odd man out, when it’s time to go.
Moving off – The master(s) will typically make a few announcements and tell you who is leading each flight (pay attention!) You will need to pick one (Check out “transformation” for more info on flights). For your first time out I would suggest starting in third and asking the field master/flight leader to move up if it is too slow, likewise you can start in second and ask to move back to third or even up to first if the pace is still not to your expectation. Regardless of which flight you head out in you can plan on being at the back of the bus. Being at the back is a really great place to observe from, and feel out how your horse is going to handle the excitement without being a disruption to others. Once the announcements are over the hounds will be released. This is always an exciting moment for me! They come bounding out of the trailer happily exploring, rolling in the grass, and playing with each other. I strongly suggest keeping your distance as a pack of hounds can be quite the sight for an inexperienced horse. You absolutely do not want to run the risk of your horse striking or kicking at them. Soon after they settle, the huntsman will call the hounds together and they will be off. First flight will take shape and follow at a relatively close distance from the huntsman and hounds. Second flight will have gathered together and will head out soon after first flight at a trot and third flight will leave out at a walk or jog. Once you get your position in the chosen flight you can expect to be following the horse ahead of you for the duration of the ride. This is a great opportunity to quietly make new friends. You horse however may not agree with your social pursuits, be very mindful of your horse’s attitude and ears and leave plenty of room, just in case. As a fellow foxhunter welcomed me I will welcome you: Eyes up, Heels down and Have fun!
You can find a local hunt by visiting the Masters of Foxhounds Association and Foundation http://www.mfha.com/hunts-map.html