“I freely admit that the best of my fun, I owe it to horse and hound.” Whyte- Melville
And yes, I did spend four years at Cirencester.
There was a time when I could perfectly recall every field, gallop and face of a day’s hunting. I no longer do- either because I have been out so many times that faces and fields and followers blur into one, or because I’m getting older and have to remember to do things like feed myself. For this reason I thought it would be a good idea to record the details of each meet this season, like an old-fashioned hunting diary but (as this is the 21st century) online.
I won’t reveal the names of any of the places we meet at and nor will I name any followers. Sadly this is a time of anonymity, and I just hope that when I look back at these posts I can still just about remember who everyone was.
My first opening meet was a truly astonishing nine years ago. I came to hunting late; my mother was always keen on buying young horses and none of them were suitable for anything adventurous. I didn’t ride for a chunk of my childhood and when I got back into it it was straight onto freshly broken horses. As a result I was extremely nervous and didn’t go through that stage of riding plucky ponies to hounds. However I religiously read the hunting reports in Horse and Hound, loved listening to the hunt gossip and the highlight of my year was watching the spectacle of the New Year’s Day meet in the middle of town. One day I vowed I would ride out from that square on a glossy hunter.
The first horse I hunted was a coloured mare who we had from our rather eccentric milk recorder on loan. She arrived in the spring, hairy and unbroken and four years old. After a summer of Pony Club rallies it was decided that she was ready to meet hounds.
Opening meets in West Wales a decade ago were not terribly riotous affairs. I remember there being a reasonable following of people, it was raining and my mother rode the mare at the meet, she wore a long riding mac. I followed with my grandfather and at some point in the morning I got on the mare. I remember following a pointer up a steep hill and having the owner of a local riding school tell me at the top that one of my girth straps had snapped. Later on we galloped through a vat of slurry, and the little mare was babied around the outskirts of a field by a lovely coloured mare named Porridge- a mare who still hunts with the Carmarthenshire today.
I hunted the mare one more time, across the north of the county with the then unlicensed Towy and Cothi. She went back to the milk recorder to have babies and I wouldn’t hunt again until I was seventeen and had my first ex-racehorse. His day was another quiet one with the T&C (although he did rear, vertically, at the meet).
Bluey started hunting in 2012 after a failed attempt in 2011 when I hacked him to a meet of the VWH and scared him. Opening meets with the Carmarthenshire are now a bigger event- a decent field of sixty or so riders- but the meet is at a pub and the pace is the same as every other meet. Horses stay out from meet until dark. Riders wear rat catcher if they want to and its not rare to see horses unplaited and unclipped.
Back in the days when I used to read H&H like a textbook I would love to read the hunting directory. Even now I feel a shiver at the romance of the ancient names; the Beaufort, the Vale of Lune, those great packs of the shires; the Quorn, Belvoir and Pytchley, and the Croome and West Warwickshire.
Yesterday I rode at the opening meet of one of those smart packs, on my very own glossy hunter.
The first thing I ever heard about the Croome was that they like drinking. From cubbing I knew that this was true, so I made sure I was equipped with a bottle of sloe gin and three jars of the stuff brewing.
A few days before the meet I helped at the pre-season supper, and was strongly advised not to hunt side-saddle. Opening meets in these parts, I was informed, are generally a melee of riders and fresh horses. Fallers are expected, and ladies who ride side-saddle will be left behind, even by the non-jumping field, if they cannot keep up. Not keeping up, even side-saddle, is not a phrase in Bluey’s vocabulary, but even so I stared to doubt whether I should aside or not. However I didn’t want to jump Bluey in a field where riders would be (I was told) unshipped right left and centre, and I couldn’t ride astride and not jump.
The decision was made for me when I realised that I had left my stock pin in Wales and would have to wear a tie; and therefore the shirt and collar of my spinster’s side saddle habit.
The night before there were twelve hunters plaited and washed. Bluey is kept at the same yard as the hunt horses and some very beautiful traditional hunters. He is about a hand smaller than the smallest of them.
Nine horses left for the meet and parked up on a farm across the road from the main house that was hosting. Hunt staff and hounds streamed up the drive followed by the field- a field bigger than anything I have seen in Wales, even on the day that Octavia from Horse and Hound came out.
The field was awash with the green velvet collars and crested buttons of the Croome and West Warwickshire. There were plenty of huge grey Irish Draughts, perfectly mannered bays and more coloureds that I was expecting. A fair few ponies were out on lead reins with their tiny charges, including the kennel- huntsman’s son, who looked very cute in a tiny tweed coat.
Port was served in glass glasses and helpers bore aloft trays of mini hot dogs and cake. Luckily my gluten intolerance rules these foods out anyway, as I couldn’t eat through my veil. Despite the excitement of the meet Bluey stood very well until the call went for “hounds please” and he longed for meets in Wales, where he goes up front with the field master.
We were off.
A lot of rubbish is said about hunting being for toffs. With an accent like mine I can’t really say anything, but having hunted in Wales I can categorically state that hunting is the most diverse and inclusive of any sport on earth. And even here, in the heart of England, the field was a real mixture of people. And so nice! Never let the impression of a “smart pack” make you think that they will be unfriendly. Within a few months of joining up I’ve found that people are tremendously warm and funny. Take for instance a recent exchange with one character;
“Ah yes, you, you’re not my sort of girl.”
(I paused to reflect that having been single for 23 years I am probably nobody’s sort of girl)
“…because you always have your legs crossed.”
(in case you’re a bit slow on the uptake he was referring to my tendency to ride side saddle)
The field had to jump away from the meet and that first post and rails claimed its casualties. Unluckily for the fallers there were three photographers and a number of amateurs present to capture their tumbles. The non-jumping field skirted around, led by a former MFH and filled with a mixture of horses and ponies.
One was a heavy black cob with a red ribbon, ridden by a man who gave away his habit of riding in point to points by his seat, whip and boots. It was the sort of unlikely mix more commonly seen in West Wales, and to add to the novelty the cob was practicing its “airs above the ground” in anticipation of trialling for the Spanish Riding School. He was discreetly removed from our company.
The next novel sight was a loose horse that had unshipped his rider at a small fence, slipped his bridle and gone for a jolly. He was caught by a photographer; who also got some shots of his horseless rider. The local air ambulance did well from the hunt that day, although not perhaps as well as last year when there were apparently 23 falls.
I was riding with a lovely lady from the yard who owns the hunt’s celebrity horse, an utterly enormous coloured named Bouncer. Bouncer is so well known that it is normal for members of the field to greet him rather than his rider, and for foot followers to request his photo. Bluey is rather fond of Bouncer, and so when Bouncer decided to have a cheeky gallop Bluey was fast on his heels, and it took some persuasion to remind him that he is now a lady’s hunter. Sometimes he feels the grass under his feet and thinks he’s back racing at Ascot.
As the day progressed we edged in to hedge country. There were a few hedges laid with post and rails and cut for jumping. They looked rather big, but not the sort of stomach- dropping blackthorn that used to fill those H&H hunting reports. It was however a reminder that I am not in Wales anymore, and when it comes to jumping the days of loose branches dragged across a woodland track are long gone. This season my little Flat racehorse is going to have to dream himself into a hedge hopper.
With the non-jumping field moving steadily we were rather behind hounds, but a few times we did see the hunt horses and the pack. Red the hunt horse looked especially smart ridden by one of the whips, who is the first lady I’ve seen wearing a red coat and she made it look fantastic.
We hacked home at second horses after one of the jumpers from the yard had lost a shoe. The three who had jumped- one a former jockey who rode around the Grand National at its height of rider scaring- had had a wonderful day jumping everything that cropped up. Someone (not one of our contingent) had literally knocked a gate down to size, and there had been a few more fallers, but no one was hurt and it was a successful day.
All in all it was a great day and Bluey gave me another fantastic ride side saddle. I’m shooting next weekend but we’ll then be back out astride, ready for a bit of jumping.
Good night until the next time.