Tuesday, September 15
About a month earlier, I had discussed with my day job boss the possibility of taking off Tuesday mornings to go hunting. I have an excellent boss, who knows I am passionate about riding and hunting (she thinks I live a fabulously busy and creative lifestyle), and is supportive of my non-job-related interests. She agreed to give me a chance to see how it went this first fall Tuesday hunt, while reserving the right to say yes or no to the rest of the season. Tuesday hunts luckily coincided with Wednesday evening classes being held at my place of work, so I readily swapped all my Tuesday mornings for supervising Wednesday nights, and decided having a social life was overrated anyway.
I woke up at about 3:00 AM on that Tuesday, giddy with not just the regular excitement of hunting, but also with the thought of going hunting instead of commuting in to Boston to sit at a desk. Even though my alarm wouldn’t officially go off until 5:30, I did not actually fall back asleep. Instead I tried to calm my double sense of defiance and guilt for not exactly playing hooky. (I had always been a very good child and young adult; breaking rules was not my specialty.)
It was 7:00 AM when I pulled into the driveway at Millborn Farm. I located the trailers, found my horse, and started getting him ready. Grappa was all set in no time, and I mounted up (this time quite easily, as I didn’t move him from his place at the trailer, and his pal Primo was still tied next to him). We trotted around to take any edge off, but he seemed much more relaxed than he had on Saturday, and we quickly joined the huntsman and other whips around the hound trailer. The hounds were let out (9 and half couple, if I recall correctly), and they began milling about in the grass as the huntsman told us the battle plan.
We had two lines laid and quite a few driveways and roads to cross. I would be on the left, Alyse on the right, and other whips behind as was starting to become our system. There were some jumps in the territory, and we were all cautioned to be careful, as always, to make sure the hounds were clear before attempts. With the first section of the hunt outlined to me, we moved closer to the warm-up field, and let a Master gather everyone around to introduce the day.
As usual, Master Tom spoke very graciously to thank our landowners and remarked on the incredible morning weather. He was right; it was very sunny, and being just before 8:00 AM, still fairly cool, but with no trace of the fog that had swallowed up every living creature on Saturday. The grass was impossibly green, and yellow sun shone through the still-green leaves on the trees. With barely a cloud in the sky, the weather couldn’t possibly be better. After announcements, we were ready to begin, and the huntsman blew her horn as we moved off. The hounds perked up, trotting happily around her and on my right, as we headed for an opening in the trees that surrounded the field.
Following the huntsman’s directions, I scooted through the gap first on Grappa, then held a steady left side to the pack of hounds as we moved across the next field. Despite having had a 4-wheeler running the lines the evening before, I couldn’t make out the path of the tracks over the grass in the daylight, but the huntsman mischievously pointed out where someone had fallen off the 4-wheeler the day before. Learning to lay lines is still on my to-do list, even if it means apparently falling off the ATV at times.
We passed into a forest track, and I slowed to fall into line behind the first whip. We kept the pace slow, picking up a trot for a short time, and then coming back down as we crossed a narrow meadow, and then a road (thank you road whips!).
We picked up speed along a soccer field, both the first whip and me on the left at a slow canter to prevent the hounds from crossing a lazy line of conifers and darting across the field. Ever ready with my whip in my left hand—so the hounds wouldn’t see it and avoid the reprimand if I needed to use it—I watched sideways as the hounds kept pace with the huntsman through the trees. None of them made the attempt, and we both moved back on to the trail behind the huntsman and pack.
Our first line was next, a large S curve that swooped from left to right first. With a whoop from the huntsman, the hounds scurried off, noses to the ground, sterns held high. Without hesitation, they picked up the line with cries to heaven and we were cantering, then keeping an easy hand gallop as we flew from the woods across the sunlight-filled field. Knowing that the line crossed the field, and taking cues from the huntsman, I didn’t charge ahead, wary of crossing the scent path I couldn’t see. I stayed to the left of her, wider than I’d been the whole day so far, and watched the hounds race each other, voices lifted joyously.
We slowed up several lengths into the woods where the line ended, smiling and thanking each other for an excellent run. It went exactly as planned, something that rarely happens when working with twenty to thirty creatures with minds of their own.
We continued down the path, through more twists and turns, past driveways and down roads. We checked at a pond, letting the hounds splash around, and in the moment of quiet, it fully hit me that at about this time on a regular weekday, I would be just clocking in, booting up my computer. But here, now, while I was sitting on the back of Grappa and watching the hounds play, the office felt lightyears away.
We continued on and I learned my next lesson for the day. We approached an open gate with a road crossing right behind it, followed by a hack down a graveled drive. As we headed for the gate, the huntsman asked me to move up next to her into a space limited to about five feet and filled with hounds. When the huntsman says something, you do it, and you do it when she asks, so I trotted Grappa up swiftly to the outside and earned myself a quick reprimand for being so quiet about it. After all, if I don’t tell the hounds to “move over” as I come up, how will they know I’m there? While I was lucky and neither did I startle nor step on any hounds as I helped push the pack in tighter for a safer crossing, if I had, I could have startled them forward past the huntsman and into the road. And that isn’t something any foxhunter wants to contemplate for long.
We continued on at a trot and then into a canter, getting up to some speed to give everyone a good time. Cantering along, I saw Usher, one of the hounds, hang back at the side of the trail, doing his best to poop and walk at the same time. As anyone would eventually figure out, it wasn’t working. I moved to the side so as not to frighten him, glancing over my shoulder at the two whips behind to make sure someone held up the field before running into the hound.
But the whip behind me was hot on my heels, riding Grappa’s pasture-mate, Primo, and passed Usher behind me. I could see the field not far behind him and I slammed on my emergency break, Grappa taking barely a stride to get to a full stop. Primo pulled up a half-length behind me, as I immediately pushed Grappa off the trail, my eyes watching Usher, head lowered and now done with his business. A phrase Heather taught me from one of our hound walks echoes through my mind: “Open the door.” Hounds always want to get back to the rest of the pack; if one hound is off running by himself, it means there is some kind of obstacle, like a wall, blocking his path. Opening the door means allowing the hound to take the shortest path back to his place of safety in the pack. With Grappa out of the trail, Usher’s path would be clear to catch up.
Primo, on the other hand, was giving his rider a more difficult time after the hold hard, shimmying back and forth from one side of the trail to the other in front of the separated hound. I could see the wheels in Usher’s head turning as he watched his figurative door open and close with Primo’s side-stepping shenanigans, the whip astride using coaxing language to encourage hound to step up and horse to calm down. Then finally, Usher seized a moment where Primo was completely off the trail, and rushed past us both at full speed. I turned back onto the trail behind him, and followed at a gallop back to the rest of the pack and I take up my place behind the first whip in the woods.
We finished out the day with another run, and a few jumps at the end as the sun began to really warm us in our black coats (Norfolk’s staff wears formal even during informal season). Riding back into the warm-up field full of trailers, we wondered if we had lost the hilltoppers, but they appeared a few minutes later and the huntsman sounded out the end of the day’s fun with her horn.
Dismounting quickly, I pulled off Grappa’s tack and gave him a quick rub-down with a towel. I had been impressed with his jumping for the day, and he was happy and looked like he had at least another hunt or three in him, but unfortunately, it was just after 9:00 AM and I still had to change and get to work!
(Yes, I did make it on time. Boss says I can do the rest! Happy Tuesday hunting everyone!)