The last time I rode a cob I was twelve and it ended in the chestnut mare dropping her shoulder- and me- at the top of the drive, a final act of unkindness that sent her to Llanybydder horse mart, a place known to hold the worst of West Walian horseflesh. Therefore it was with some concern that I was legged up on to Erica, a black mare of around fifteen hands, who is for sale and currently in the hands of one of the Carmarthenshire’s resident horse dealers and a hunting stalwart.
The problems of not having my own transport mean that while I drove the three hours back to Wales Bluey remained sulking in Worcestershire while his friends Henry and Lola and the hunt horses made the journey to the Croome’s Boxing Day meet in the town of Pershore. While he has been dismissed as little more than a hunting pony, and he certainly wouldn’t stand up to a hard day in the Shires or a morning carrying anyone over five foot five Bluey is, in my opinion at least, the very best horse to hunt. What more can you ask for than an animal that stands at the meet, goes to sleep at checks and yet can surge forward with the smooth acceleration of a Ferrari and lead the field in the full knowledge that he can easily reach 10mph faster? Therefore I am always a little hesitant at the thought of hunting another horse.
The meet was held at a low-beamed pub, nestled between a surging river and the backdrop of a rising hill, in a village tucked into the winding lanes of the Carmarthenshire countryside. The country here is spectacular and nothing like that seen east of Offa’s Dyke. In the south meets can be held on sandy beaches, while the lower half of the Towy Valley boasts the verdant pastures of the best dairy farms in Britain. Higher up the grass browns and the fields steepen as gates grow rusty, streams trickle through narrow coverts and sheep and beef cattle huddle beneath red kites wheeling across the leaden sky. While the occasional pheasant will lift from a disturbed woodland the main gun sport here is found with the Paxton Hounds, a foot pack of local renown who send the Carmarthenshire their gun- shy hounds and combine traipsing around the countryside in Real Tree smocks with a great thirst for beer.
Horses hunting in this part range from glossy blood horses and chunky coloured cobs to the odd bona fide hunter and a small army of fearless children’s ponies. With the setting being so remote and there being an absence of crowds riders at the Boxing Day meet are almost always there for the hunting, rather than a chance to grace the front page of the local paper.
Erica’s owner informed me that she had ridden to hounds on Tuesday, so I was at least aware that she had seen them. However I forgot to ask about her capabilities in the realms of jumping, standing and moving out of walk, and hoped that ignorance would be bliss. Hounds were released and made their way closer to the pub for the Chairman’s speech and the remnants of sausages and warm buttered bread rolls. A few were less keen to brave the festivities and a foot follower had to grab hold of one and take her to the pack, while I waved the lash of a whip (borrowed from one of the joint Masters) in encouragement at another. Erica was not keen on the lash and I decided to leave any attempts at whipping-in to the whips already in attendance and in full knowledge of what they were doing.
While I rode Erica my mother had secured the loan of Razz, a small coloured cob belonging to one of the whips, who bears with good grace anyone who finds themselves short of a horse- or any terrier man or hapless partner who decides that they fancy a day as a mounted follower. As such Razz bears a look of staid resignation while his stable mate Ebony rides up front with hounds.
Our Field Master was a former Welsh Champion Jockey who spent several seasons as an incredibly popular- with both landowners and riders- Master of Foxhounds. Now that his racing days are over he has passed the baton on to his son who has just turned sixteen and is in his first season of point-to-pointing. His youngest daughter pony races while his older daughter was out on a chestnut ex-pointer and his wife normally rides up front and takes care of the Carmarthenshire’s vast number of keenly thrusting child riders. Such is the Field Master’s charm that my mother claims he is the only person who stands a chance of ever persuading my father to allow the hounds to cross our land and to host a lawn meet at home.
Today the Field Master carefully informed the field that non- jumpers should stay in the back and the fences would all be lowered for them to pass through. While other packs have non- jumping Field Masters and a gaggle of riders who look for gates the Carmarthenshire doesn’t have that option- a self-inflicted wound given that there are no fixed hunt jumps anywhere in the country. Instead woodland paths are lined with jump after jump fashioned from branches, logs and anything else that is at hand. This means that one faller or refusal holds up the field and circling to take a second attempt at a jump is impossible. Equally impossible is running out given that the track will always be flanked by banks, hedges, impassable slopes or dense woodland. It was down these chutes of jumps that Bluey learnt the true joy of hunting, hard at the heels of the Field Master with another keen thruster breathing down one’s neck.
The first fence- a brush of a branch- had already been demolished as we approached, and the Field Master’s daughter, riding in front of me, stopped a few strides away from the second because the whole field had pulled up. Once they moved on she pushed forward her gutsy thoroughbred, and Erica shifted her legs as fast as they would go to follow the pert chestnut bottom disappearing in front of us. And she could jump.
The fences ranged from miniature bullfinches to a log standing at around three foot that was solid enough to evoke a rotational fall should it be hit. The mud was deep and sticky after the efforts of twenty riders yet Erica met each one with joy, soaring above them as if to prove that my long-standing oath to never own anything bar a thoroughbred is a combination of vanity and gluttony for fast galloping.
At least eight fences were cleared by Erica’s black legs before we pulled up and waited for the non- jumpers. It was a long wait as one rider had made an attempt at jumping and had fallen off twice. This event was marked by delighted shrieks that the rider was “in The Book”, the Carmarthenshire’s version of a Tumble Club (referred to with the Croome as reporting to “Splatman”). The rest of the riders followed suit, led by a showjumper who spends meets offering jumping advice to anyone who looks like their riding may be in need of polishing.
The worst thing about hunting in Wales is the sometimes monotonous roads that have to be traversed in order to move from one covert to another. It’s one reason why I’m glad that my side saddle hunting began in earnest with my move to Worcestershire- sitting trot for three miles aside would be enough to destroy the strongest of abdominal muscles. Used to Bluey’s gazelle like legs extending into his long trot I was quite unprepared for posting to Erica’s little stride.
A book I read earlier this year described the movement of the loins at canter aside as something that a married woman would understand. All I can say is that posting to Erica’s trot conjured up images that boarding school boys with an internet connection would understand. Her canter though was lovely, and she offered to move at that pace along the roads, trailed by Razz who was rather keen to keep his new friend within his sights.
We had a first short gallop up a sharp slope into a field, rising from woodland where the terrier men were sitting around chatting. At the meet their quad bike had had to be towed by a gator, but it now appeared to be in full working order as they zoomed past, one of the hunt’s child riders having decided to join his father on the quad rather than accompany his mother on his pony.
Fancy dress was a theme for the day with Erica’s owner decked out in a reindeer onesie, her horse resplendent in antlers and a red nose. Her daughter’s pony had a festive exercise sheet while many other riders had twined tinsel around plaits and brow bands. Although we actually missed the rain the ongoing bad weather had encouraged many riders to wear long riding macs rather than ratcatcher or their normal hunting coats. Any smugness I may have felt at the rain repelling properties of my Melton wool melted away as we all grew warm in the unseasonal weather.
Jumping for the sake of jumping is a long-standing Carmarthenshire tradition, and a group of us stood on the side of a steep bank and watched as both children and adults hopped backwards and forwards over a gorse- edged ditch. One follower, who is a favourite for the Most Falls, lost his beagler over the ditch, although his reliable horse managed to keep his Father Christmas hat. There was one faller and several cat leaps but the excitement wore off as the keenest of the jumpers found a pile of logs and started to construct jumps. The Carmarthenshire’s other dealer, who has just invested in his first pointer, actually unearthed a small saw to better shape some fences.
With the clouds gathering and one of our group keen to get back to her baby (being looked after by his father and grandmother- not left in the lorry) we bid good night to the warm camaraderie of the Carmarthenshire and headed for home, a stretch of road which Erica jogged along, keen to spend some more time hunting. While she may not quite clear the Stanks hedges I’m sure Erica would make a bloody good attempt at clearing them, and I hope that she finds a jump- loving home.
Meanwhile the huntsman’s girlfriend, a nurse riding a gelding with stars clipped on his bottom, suggested that Bluey might be better off not knowing that I spent Boxing Day hunting a cob while he gorged himself on haylage. Although I might report back that Erica jumped everything without suggesting that there might be a hideous beast living beneath the jump, and never once gave the impression that jumps are a needless interruption to galloping, which Bluey does whenever he sees riders queuing for a post and rails. Huge thanks to his owner for letting me borrow him, and for doing all the tack cleaning and brushing for me!
Much as Bluey and I love hunting with the Croome it was wonderful to be back hunting with the pack where it all started, a hunt that welcomes all, be they wearing navy jodhpurs or Cordings finest, and can always whip out a horse for an old subscriber coming home for Christmas.