Not Exactly Playing Hooky, or Move Over and Open the Door

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!)

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The Sound of the Horn

September 12, 2015

For the readers who do not know me personally, this past year (and a bit) has been full of struggles and adventures. Here’s the quick version: I applied for the Apprenticeship program with the MFHA, squeaked by the first interview (a lunch date with Andrew B.), and seemingly passed the second (a weekend’s hunting in Georgia with the fantastic Tony L. and Marion T.), and while the program was ultimately not run, I wound up volunteering every Saturday at Norfolk Hunt on the recommendation of the MFHA. I whipped in during spring season and continued to work throughout the summer with hound exercises, stepping in a few times during the week when needed by using personal and vacation days allotted by my day job. Labor Day weekend was a Professional Development Program opportunity to take part in a clinic with Chris R. of Ireland for two days, and then a hunt with Woodford Hounds. With the whirlwind of foxhunting around, I realized I really should start back up on this blog (something I had considered doing last spring season, but didn’t get around to). I think a lot of you are very curious about foxhunting, and I like being able to look back at my experiences…. So, without further ado, tally ho!

Today marked the beginning of hunt season for Norfolk Hunt! Like many hunts in my experience, I woke up before dawn and stumbled into my clothes (I set them out the night before so I didn’t have to scramble looking) and made a to-go cup of tea. Then it was on with the stock-tie. A tip: I always tie my stock before I leave the house; not only can I be a perfectionist in my bathroom mirror versus a car review mirror, but I don’t have to worry about time to do it when all I want to do when I get to the meet is mount up. To keep clean, I wear a zip up sweatshirt that I can easily discard and switch out for my hunting jacket right before I mount.

Since I am horseless, I only had myself to worry about so a single load of equipment made its way into my car and away I went. I feel like just about everything is always an hour from where I live, no matter where I live, so after an hour, I made it to Adam’s Farm, our first fixture. Arriving right at 7:00 AM, I was a little surprised to find myself the first to show up after our lovely hunt secretaries. At Norfolk, the secretaries always check in riders by name and by horse’s name. This way, they don’t miss any guests, and they know which horse and rider (and combination) have racked up the most hunts during the season. What they do with this number still remains a mystery.

I parked and before five minutes had passed, several trailers pulled in. I went down to find Ted E., a longtime member and current President, from among the foggy meadow.

Norfolk Hunt September 12, 2015

This was, unfortunately and fortunately, the only picture I managed to take today. Unfortunately because I like having nice pictures; fortunately, because I likely would have dropped my phone/camera as there’s no time for that when learning to whip-in.

I found him unloading Grappa and Primo, two polo ponies turned hunt horses. I had ridden Grappa for part of the previous season, so I was actually familiar with him; he’s an excellent boy and I was happy to see him again. (My first few hunts had been a little difficult, as we were still trying to find the right bit/noseband/martingale combination.) But Ted had figured it out over the summer and I tacked him up with his twisted snaffle, flash, and standing martingale.

You know that moment when you are all set to go and ready to mount, but then something stupid happens? The sort of thing that only happens when there’s plenty of other people watching? Perhaps even waiting for you?

At 7:30, the rest of the whips were mounted and I was attempting to do the same. Grappa, however, was not feeling it. Every time I got my foot near the stirrup, he began dancing sideways, and polo pony he may technically be, but I would estimate him around 16 hands. The tack-box-turned-mounting-block would leaving him spinning to face me, and my laughable attempts to lift my feet to my shortened-for-galloping-and-jumping stirrups were just that… laughable. After two tries of hopping along on one foot after him, Ted was kind enough to offer me assistance (thanks be to all gentleman hunters), and he snuggled in Primo so that Grappa didn’t have anywhere to go the next time he tried his sideways dance. The way the stars lined up made it so that I was mounting from the right, and while Ted offered to rearrange, I was more in a hurry to finally get on this merry-go-round and declined. As I placed my right foot into the stirrup I had two simultaneous thoughts:

1) I can’t remember the last time I tried to mount from the right. (My best guess now is my D-3 rating when I was 10.)

2) Oh Jesus, he’s either crow-hopping or preparing for airs above the ground.

The few seconds it took me to find my left stirrup were the most harrowing of the entire day as Grappa pranced underneath me. I immediately decided it was in my best interest to start trotting in circles as soon as possible. To my relief, after only about three minutes, he took a deep sigh and relaxed, slowing his trot to better match my posting.

And with that taken care of, I gathered with Heather P., our huntsman, and the other whips as we released the hounds from the trailer. I settled into position on the road, and we watched carefully for the next half hour as the field mounted, warmed up, and Master Tom L. welcomed them and thanked our landowners.

Then, with the sound of the horn, we started off. Today, my position was on the huntsman’s left. This meant that whenever we turned right, I generally had to move ahead and block the hounds from wanting to continue straight. (This was something I had been learning on hound walks, but now, as Heather put it at one of the checks: you are on a horse; you can get there fast enough.)

And fast we went! The hounds caught the line and opened up into a joyous baying. We crossed a field, the hounds running along a stone wall, then turning left through an opening into the adjacent field. I followed just behind Heather on her left, pulling up sharply as she turned and jumped the wall to catch up with the hounds. (It’s a little strange being a whip and not knowing where the drag hunt intends to go.) Grappa, being a good sport at my sliding stop, followed behind and over the wall. For a horse who’s only experience jumping is the few times I had to get over something the previous season, he seemed to have figured out what he was doing that day, as we encountered a number of stone walls and logs later on as well.

We continued on past the first line, and down a single-track in the woods, where Alyse P. (our professional whip) and I switched sides and I moved to the right. Then, we opened up into a large field with mist hiding the opposite side. While the forested areas were clear of fog, the white stuff hung low and thick across the grassy fields. The hounds were instantly out, their cries and the sound of the horn ringing in my ears as they raced into the white distance and horribly out of sight. Alyse was off after them, her horse Gilligan a grey blur. Heather cut diagonally across the field and I trailed at a hand gallop somewhere in between, a little unsure of where I was supposed to be and very unsure of where I was going in the fog.

Suddenly, Gilligan was pulling up short, and Alyse shouted at me to head back–wire! The hounds were white shadows around us and I headed back closer to the darker shape of Pilgrim and Heather. Gilligan was cantering like a show-jumper now, and I kept my eyes scanning the ground as best I could for dangers. I barely made out Usher, one of our best hounds, running on my left until we rode up an incline to a less dense patch of fog. At the end of the field, we counted ‘all on’ (10 couple), and quickly moved on.

The rest of the hunt was less dramatic as the sun burned off the mist and the day brightened. While not a very hot day for the beginning of September, the humidity felt close to 100% and the air was sticky all around us when we stopped for checks. We let the hounds play in a pond to cool off before we moved out, and walked near puddles to give them a chance to drink on the go if they chose. The staff’s main duty is the welfare of the hounds–without happy hounds, a hunt just can’t happen. Usually that means preventing the hounds from getting into danger, like our aptly named Trouble who just wants to investigate everything. But it also means keeping an eye on the day’s weather to consider how well the hounds would be able to work.

Other times, it means the whipper-in needs to ride up and body block hounds from picking up the scent of a deer and rioting after it. This was the specific lesson I learned today! Knowing that anything large and living can be a fun scent for a hound, we whips are always on the lookout for animals that can be a distraction from the laid scent, including cats, dogs, and quite frequently deer. So when I spotted one flitting through the trees up ahead, I called out to the huntsman. She let me know that whenever I saw something hazardous, I should take immediately action to prevent problems and told me to ride up. We kept the hounds tucked in neatly between us, with Alyse watching carefully to make sure no one slipped out behind and away. I think it’s a testament to our huntsman’s training that the hounds didn’t even pause to take another sniff as we continued on down the trail.

We arrived back at the field next to all the trailers and paused with the hounds while the field did a victory gallop around and through a short course in the woods. All in all, we finished up just before 10:00 AM, the smiling field returning to gather round the now-quiet hounds.

Dismounted and amidst her pack, the huntsman blew a traditional end of meet melody, chasing the last bit of mist away with the sound of the horn.

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MFHA Foxhunting Apprenticeship

Have you ever considered working with horses and hounds professionally? Didn’t know you could? Well, the MFHA is recruiting! All you need to apply are proficient riding skills, an understanding of dogs, and a love of the outdoors. As Chair of the USPC Foxhunting Committee, I would especially invite members of USPC who are 18 years of age or older and have earned their C3 Traditional or higher certifications to apply. Pony Club on your resume CAN help you get your dream job! The MFHA is hoping to find the next generation of foxhunters among Pony Club as not only our horsemanship is solid, but our ties to the foxhunting community have lasted several generations already.

Below is the official information about the MFHA Professional Development Program Apprenticeship, and you can find more at http://www.mfha.org/pdp-apprenticeship.html.

The MFHA Foundation and the Hunt Staff Benefit Foundation (HSBF) are pleased to announce openings for their apprenticeship program for the 2015-2016 season. This is a wonderful opportunity for one or two individuals who have a love of horses, hounds and the outdoors. A career in mounted foxhunting can be a rewarding and exciting way to make a living. This program is open to any, interested persons, and is ideal for those looking for an exciting way to make a living in the world of mounted foxhunting. The person who will succeed should have riding skills and an understanding of dogs and a feel for nature.

The apprenticeship will last one year. The chosen applicants will be placed with a fox hunt; housing, salary and insurance will be provided. In addition to the hands on experience working with hounds and horses, the education will be supplemented with a curriculum of books, pamphlets and CDs. There will be written assignments and a representative from the MFHA will visit on a regular basis to evaluate the student’s progress. The Huntsmen, Masters and staff they will work with will be of the highest caliber. In addition they will visit other hunts, hounds shows and any of the MFHA seminars being held during their apprenticeship. Every effort will be made during their year to expose them to as much of the hunting world as possible.

Applications will close on December 31st. Candidates will be chosen through extensive interviews at a two day get together of all the applicants in March of 2015. The place and date will be announced at a later date.

Upon a successful completion of the course the MFHA will assist in placing graduates into a position of employment with a recognized pack.

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Old North Bridge Hounds (Part 2: With a New England Tally Ho~!)

November 2013

I woke up Saturday morning with only a few butterflies in my stomach. It had been quite some time since I’d dressed up in my formal attire and I felt a rush of nostalgia (even though it hadn’t REALLY been that long) when I pulled my yoga pants over my breeches and a sweatshirt over my ratcatcher and stocktie. (I always tie my stock tie before I get to the horses–why? Because my hands are invariably dirty after brushing, braiding, and tacking up and then my beautifully white stock becomes closer to a cream color….)

With my boots, hunt coat and a to-go cup of tea, I climbed into the car and drove out to the barn. Once arrived, I assisted with brushing and loading so that before long, we were on our way. Since my horse was located at the farm of our huntsman (Sandra B. is her daughter), we caravanned behind, knowing that if we followed her, the hunt wouldn’t start without us!

The hunt territory we arrived at in Pepperell, MA was gorgeous. An enormous white farm house jutted out of the ground in a vast empty field nearby as we pulled our trailer into the neighboring one. I paid my cap to the secretary as we entered and then I felt that bit of nostalgia again. Trailers crowded together, clean and happy horses in various states of dress tied to them. I smiled at unmounted riders, who also seemed to be in a variety of dress still, running back and forth with thick pieces of leather, shouting hellos and jokes, and basically doing all the last minute things necessary before putting a foot in the stirrup.

My host and I joined in the fray as soon as we parked and unloaded. We mounted up a little early and joined the other early birds in walking circles around the trailers. I introduced myself while limbering up my borrowed mare and fielded questions about my red collar (go Woodbrook!).

Before too long, the hounds were let out of their trailer and I could hear a few notes of a horn to keep them close to their huntsman. I followed my host through a gate and we lined up with everyone, our backs and horses’ behinds to a small row of trees. The huntsman followed, the pack swarming around her horse’s hooves. Once in front, she made several typical announcements (including another introduction for me and other guests) and then the hunt officially began.

Lined up and ready to go!

Lined up and ready to go!

Knowing hunt policy of staying with my host, I followed her as first flight headed out and we tagged along at the end of it. We started out at a brisk trot, and I relished the feeling of a bit of friskiness in my mare. She was ready to go, and was as excited as I was to be out in the fresh air. At the back, I didn’t get much of a view of the hounds working, but I was able to discuss some of the differences between my hunting experiences and those that I immediately found in New England.

1) The color. And it sounds weird to say that, but I’ve only hunted in Western Washington in the fall before, and all we have is pine needles, scotch broom, and blackberry bushes, all of which are green. All year. Massachusetts held gorgeous fall leaves, all firetruck-red and sunset orange and goldenrod yellow, sometimes even on the same leaf. Many of the leaves had fallen as we crossed into a shady woodland run, and they swished beneath the horses’ hooves.

DSCN0941

Did I also mention the lack of underbrush? This looks like territory from out of a dream!

2) The roads. Now, I know this is because I’ve been spoiled so much by having 40,000 acres on the Ft. Lewis base, and I’m sure each territory is slightly different, but we crossed a road every single time we went to a new run. Sometimes, it was simply stepping straight across, but a few times, we all walked patiently on the side until we reached our newest destination/field. And each time, the hounds needed to be collected and transported across and/or down the road. (If we didn’t account for each hound before moving on, chances are that hound would never make it home.) It really made me aware of how little open land we have left for foxhunting (or really, outdoor sports in general) in this area and how lucky we are to still be able to continue what we do. Our hound caravan was full of some very dedicated people to let us enjoy the mounted side of the sport!

Crossing roads in the States is also quite different than across the pond. I had been hoping for New England to be more similar to England itself in terms of being able to freely move at moderate speeds along roads when necessary, but it seems the American way of not believing horses will survive asphalt (with the proper conditioning of course!!) prevails. And it seems drivers in the New England countryside are much less likely to see and understand a group of foxhunters than those around English or Irish villages as well. For the most part, all the drivers were overly polite (which was nice), but seemed a bit confused. I suppose I can’t blame them!

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3) First flight does not mean the same thing. I remember being shocked when I had to explain first/second/hilltopping to English foxhunters. Isn’t that where those terms originated?! I had thought wrongly. I learned those were American terms and there was generally just one field per hunt and you stayed in it, or you didn’t and went home at your own leisurely pace. Here, I was expecting first flight to mean something similar to what I experienced back home with Woodbrook and Fraser Valley: gallop lots and jump whatever is available.

Old North Bridge Hounds, despite also being a drag hunt which tend to be a bit faster, was a little different. According to their website, Old North Bridge Hounds slows their pace purposefully to give the field a better opportunity to watch the hounds work. To that effect, our flight did a lot of walking, a goodly amount of trotting, and when it came to cantering down a singletrack, a crotchety woman in front of us decided she wanted to walk and wouldn’t let anyone behind her pass because she thought the roots were too much in the way. My little mare, who had been eager to please and wanted to just gallop the entire hunt, nearly fell asleep at this point. (To be fair, I think everyone behind was just as upset as I was–we are capable of judging if our own horses will trip, no need to hold the rest of us up if you aren’t the fieldmaster!!) Unfortunately, this particular territory didn’t have much in the way of jumps: there was one 3-foot coop at the top of a hill where it couldn’t be seen until basically past it and I had been advised that only the bravest (or craziest?) of the field would jump it because it was too big. The constant stop-and-go of having to catch and load hounds between every run also took up some time, but because it was check time, it gave us a chance to socialize and pass around flasks, which is rather more traditional in hunting than the fast pace.

After close to two hours, we came back upon the farmhouse and the trailers. We cared for the horses first (not too bad after cooling out along the road home) and headed inside the enormous white house for the Hunt Tea. Inside rooms that looked straight out of the 1800s were delicious stew, wine, and other munchies like grapes, crackers and veggies. We chatted, ate, and admired the house for another hour until it was time to go.

Despite the pace (which was probably better for me and the lack of horses I’d been riding), I loved every minute of the company of the Old North Bridge Hounds members. Being on a horse in the crisp weather, reins in my hands and feet in my stirrups was magical after so long away. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity I was given to ride another’s horse and be invited to the hunt field with Old North Bridge Hounds. Thank you!

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Old North Bridge Hounds (Part 1: Getting There is Half the Battle)

November 10th, 2013

For those unaware, I had sold my horse in April and moved 3,000 miles away from home and hunt club. Shortly after moving to the East Coast, I found myself surrounded by horses as I worked for Cavalia’s Odysseo. Yet, somehow, the thrill of watching other people ride was wearing off (despite the amazing feats that show pulls off).

As with all things, it takes persistence and a bit of luck to get where you want to be. My journey first began with a bit of luck, in that I met a member of the Old North Bridge Hounds while I was working at Odysseo. Sandra B., daughter of the huntsman, told me that she had some spare horses, and that once the season started, I was welcome to ride with her. My task that night would be finding her on Facebook and we would continue our conversation there.

This is where the persistence came in. With no shared networks or friends, I sorted through dozens of potential Sandra B.’s, finally realizing that privacy settings were probably the culprit. Luckily, I remembered the name of her hunt club, looked it up online and shot an email off asking to be put in touch with my acquaintance.

Then I waited. Days later, I received a message that mine had been forwarded to the correct party. I continued to wait.

After a few weeks of scrambling after jobs, moving to a new apartment, and general shenanigans of being broke in a new city which is famed for the season, I found myself in certain foxhunting withdrawal. I had just accepted the position of USPC’s Foxhunting Committee Chair for the upcoming year and it painfully threw into the stark light of day that I hadn’t actually been foxhunting for too long. I emailed Old North Bridge Hounds again, this time to introduce myself properly and hope the club would prove responsive. Upon their recommendation, I was made a member of their Facebook page and I introduced myself yet again where all the members could see.

Almost immediately, Sandra B. reappeared, congratulating me on finding her and through an exchange of numbers and information, I was out at her barn within the week.

Tucked away amidst a gentle forest and surrounded by barns and farms, the stable was just what I’d been missing. I met the horses, and chose one that reminded me the most of Lily, my former hunt horse. (I really should have figured to do side-by-side comparisons with photos here!) Miss Bet was a dark bay Thoroughbred mare, 17 years old, and somewhere around 16 hands. She was cranky about blankets and saddles, but in truth, a sweet cuddler at heart. While her age and temperament made her a steady hunt horse, it was actually her first full season in the field and she was quite new to jumping.

We started off with a warm-up in a grand indoor arena, and then moved to the trails. Leaves that were once all red and gold, now faded, littered the forest floor as we picked our way through the trees. We crossed a stream, Miss Bet showing her fearlessness in the face of running water, and looped around an old sandpit. We returned back across a stream and then up to an aqueduct making a majestic smooth road that sloped down to a field on one side, and a lake on the other. The flattened ground was perfect and we let go at a trot that quickly pulled into a canter. (Albeit, with many half-halts as reminders to not bury herself on the forehand.)

With the wind whipping my face, I couldn’t help the smile. Next week, I would be dressed in my traditional clothes, and listening to the music of the hounds.

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Congratulations: 2nd Place Winner of the USPC Foxhunting Writing Contest

I am super pleased to have a guest post today from a very good friend of mine who not only foxhunts with Woodbrook Hunt Club, but also goes above and beyond to support our hunt by helping care for the hounds. Kathryn C. is an excellent role model for what it means to be a Pony Club foxhunter and I’m proud to see her accomplishments rewarded! For 2013, she submitted a piece of writing for the Hildegard Neill Ritchie Writing Contest, also known as the “Joys of Foxhunting,” and placed second! She won $100 to be spent on Pony Club or Foxhunting fees, and will be published in Pony Club News and the Chronicle of the Horse. Below is her winning submission:

The Working Student

Silence fell across the field as the hounds scoured the covert for any trace of a scent. I took the chance to breathe in the crisp morning air. I looked around at all my fellow hunters, and thought about the tradition. Looking down at my colors on the collar of hunt coat and my once clean boots I feel as though I am part of history. Before my mind could wander too far, I heard the music. The freight train of a thoroughbred between my legs grew an entire hand when he heard the sound of the horn. The meadow ahead offered up a good run. I shortened my reins, intertwined my fingers in his wiry mane, leaned over, and whispered “Ready?”, and then we were off. I didn’t feel a single hoof touch the ground. The wind in my face wiped away any worry.

BEEP! The sound of my reality echoed relentlessly through my bedroom. Today I am off to the hunt club for a more realistic experience. There is a hunt today, I just won’t be riding. It is my job to make sure kennels are kept clean and to help the kennelman take care of the hounds. While I grab my work jeans, an old sweatshirt, and muck boots, I think about how at that very moment members of the hunt are scavenging for their breeches, hunt coats, stock ties, and tall boots. I must say I will be much more comfortable than they will be. On my way out the door, I grabbed my freshly brewed coffee and I’m off to the club.
Today the hunt was going out to a fixture where we have to trailer the hounds. When I arrived I helped the Kennelman make sure the hounds had plenty of water and anything else they would need for traveling on this unusually warm day in the Northwest. Once everything was packed, the Kennelman asked me to put collars on all the hounds that would be hunting that day as they flooded into the catch pen. The hounds knew what was going on; this is what they were bred to do. Once everyone had collars it was time to load. I got to be the one in the trailer being handed hounds one at a time. Once everyone was ready and loaded, I had to jump out the window to get out of the trailer. The whole process of drawing the hounds is actually pretty amusing; those of us playing “chase the hounds” look no different than people herding children within a candy store.

When the hunt moves off, I stay behind to tend to the kennel. Just because everyone left doesn’t mean chores don’t have to be done. Taking care of the hounds is a lot like taking care of a horse barn, in the sense that they need fresh water, clean bedding, and the runs have to be mucked. Those hounds who stay behind offer wonderful company while chores get done. They always make a point of checking to make sure you are doing the job right.

As I finish up cleaning the kennels, the hunt returns. Once the hounds get unloaded and sorted out into their designated runs, I take the Kennelman’s horse back to get untacked and hosed down. The staff horses deserve a little extra appreciation. Without their willing attitude the hunt would not be the same. In our hunt, the Kennelman is also the one who spreads the drag. If it weren’t for her horse carrying the scent for the hounds to follow, we would not have a hunt.

After all my chores are done, I make my way up to the club house for a traditional hunt breakfast. On my way, I take one look at the little red kennel house, smile, and I think to myself; it may not look like much, but who said looks mean everything? I have been working at the hunt club since I was about 15 years old and every day that I go out the club only strengthens my passion for the sport. As a girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest I couldn’t be farther away from the Virginia roots of American hunting. If ever I feel I need a good run, I can plop down in the sun and read my Rita Mae Brown foxhunting
novels and go for a ride. Hunting is a sport driven by passion, and it is that passion that gets me up at the crack of reality to come to the club. Yip Yip! Tally Ho!

Congratulations to all out Joys of Foxhunting Contest winners. To read the 1st and 3rd place submissions, please go to http://www.ponyclub.org/?page=Foxhunting and click on the respective links.

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Home Again with Woodbrook

9 March 2013

I hadn’t hunted with Woodbrook Hunt Club since December. As January had been full of icy conditions and all the hunts were cancelled, I had missed those. The Pony Club Exchange meant that while I was certainly foxhunting in England, my horse was just as certainly not hunting at home. My week touring Ireland after the Exchange meant that it was the end of February when I returned, jet-lagged and already signed up to judge horse management at a rally the very next day. It was also a hunt (February 23rd), but as my jet-lag meant I was dead-tired at 4:00pm, I was glad I was doing something without a horse of my own to worry about.

By the time March 9th rolled around, I was more than ready to be back in the hunt field with my own mare in my own territory. Armed with her new hunting bridle from Ireland, Lily and I were dressed to the nines–I slaved away in the morning to give her a quick version of a bath (as it was still a bit chilly and very foggy) with hot sponges, braided her mane, and even painted her hooves. For myself, I wore my sturdy (British) Pony Club stock pin, freshly brushed and lint-rolled coat, nicest breeches, and with boots that were polished and I even cleaned the bottoms of. (Yes, the part that I promptly walked on before I could even mount up.) Something in the way of English preparation may have rubbed off on me; either that, or I had spent so much time having horses beautifully prepared for me, I missed all the brushing and tack-cleaning of my own.

I did more in terms of preparation for this hunt than I normally do for Opening Day or Blessing of the Hounds. I think this might become a normal thing for me....

I did more in terms of preparation for this hunt than I normally do for Opening Day or Blessing of the Hounds. I think this might become a normal thing for me….

Knowing that Lily had only had two rides on her in the last week after having almost two months off, we decided on second flight. Nicole K. would be leading first flight, and while I would have loved to follow after her quick pace, I knew that Lily would be dying before the first check.

I was happy to be able to ride with Linda H. on Paris and Meaghan O. on Ammon as it was one of my first opportunities to catch up with them after I had returned. We took it fairly easy, and I could tell Lily was just as relaxed and happy as me to be out and about in the sunshine. (Crazy that we had any sun in March!) It was also a bit nostalgic as it might have been my last ride on Lily with Woodbrook (she was for sale as I’m now on the East Coast), so I was happy to get this opportunity with such good company.

We started out with a short jaunt to the Hunter Trials field, where we cast off and crossed the road and railroad tracks to reach the Craig. After having been away for so long, it was almost like I was seeing it for the first time. (Maybe the sunshine made it all look different too, haha.) Our jumps looked a bit smaller and quite a bit safer than the trappy drains and wire-filled fields. Sure, we had some puddles here and there, but nothing like the muck of soft once-plowed fields in the rainy season. And the pine trees! I can’t quite describe how much I like pine trees, especially the grand old ones that tower high enough to have lost any low branches. I also really enjoyed knowing where I was, and that if needed, at any moment, I would be able to find home.

After jumping through the Craig, we moved next to the Kellogg, a place where I hadn’t actually hunted since last season and one of my favorite runs. We kept a steady pace through the trees and managed not to trip over any roots or low jumps overrun with scotch broom. This is often the most challenging part of the Kellogg!

Our check in the sunlight-dappled shade.

Our check in the sunlight-dappled shade.

We checked after the Kellogg, and I began to feel the heat of the day in my thick hunt coat. Lily, still with most of her winter fur, was also feeling it, especially with her out-of-shape body. Still, with her Thoroughbred energy, I knew she could handle at least one more run at our second flight pace, so we continued on to the Ditch.

Following Linda and Paris, I was surprised to see Paris jump out halfway over the large log triple and do one helluva sliding stop (the skid marks are still there) as Linda reprimanded him. Lily, calmly as could be, popped over them without batting an eye at the unfolding drama to her left, almost as if to let Paris know he was being a complete juvenile. We finished the Ditch smoothly and with those three runs under our belt, and with a consult with my friends Linda and Meaghan, we decided to do a coolout walk back to the clubhouse, at which point we would probably meet the faster but more circuitous route of the main field roughly at the same time.

Just past the beginning of the Kellogg, we met up with a few more riders who had the same idea of returning early, but let them trot ahead, keeping our meandering pace in the sunshine. I was able to entertain my friends with stories of adventures abroad and I might also have been coerced into agreeing to think about being the Pony Club Foxhunting Chair within the next few years…. Uh oh! Let me just be on the committee for some time first, Linda! (She is the current Foxhunting Chair for Pony Club.)

We returned just in time for breakfast, a wonderful spread as always with delicious gnocchi in white sauce, a fresh salad, baked lasagna, plenty of finger foods, and rich cakes for dessert. And almost unbelievably, the punch was something that didn’t knock me off my feet with its alcohol content! I’ll be looking into getting some cherry liqueur for myself one of these days….

Overall, a fantastic day out hunting with some of my favorite people and favorite hunt! I couldn’t have asked for better weather either. England and Ireland have nothing on us at Woodbrook!

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