The rat catcher is packed away (read: flung on the floor somewhere), the plaiting bands and tail cotton are out, and the mud of opening meet has been brushed off. That’s right; the season is open, tally ho!
You will note the #1 in the title. That is because, lucky as I am to subscribe to two packs, I have two opening meets. Saturday’s was the turn of the Carmarthenshire, with a splendid parade of over eighty riders.
I rode side saddle for the first time this season, remembering that the meet in the past had resulted in lots of galloping on open fields and some plough. A lot of the hunting in Wales is up and down steep hills or through the sort of woodland and scrub that makes it more practical to ride astride.
I was one of the first people at the meet, keen to get there early and find a space to park. With the nearest pub closed there was no pre- meet drink and so we waited and watched the trucks and lorries file in and park before mounting up. Tom (the lovely thoroughbred mentioned in last week’s dispatches) had stayed at home but his owner was at the meet and held Bluey for me to get on. Before mounting one of the followers had mentioned that a number of jumps had been prepared and expressed some astonishment that I was able to tackle them aside. I am not one to jump unnecessarily, but following this exchange I knew that I had a point to prove.
In the absence of a pub a cafe on the square brought around stirrup cups and sandwiches. I accepted a port gratefully. Some of the other followers had taken matters into their own hands and were quenching their thirst with cans of lager!
One of the last riders to arrive and be hurriedly directed into a parking space was my neighbour, an agricultural college lecturer who will go by the moniker of The Professor. For many a meet he had his fellow followers convinced that he was actually a male model, spending the working week in London. Alas his cover was blown when Horse and Hound came visiting and his true calling was revealed. Once parked he was swiftly mounted on his bay eventing mare, who was very excited at the prospect of hunting.
With everyone mounted up the hunt chairman and one of the joint MFHs gave speeches of welcome and thanks. We were joined by a local hunt monitor who was introduced at the meet. Personally I think that having a good relationship with a monitor is a positive thing. If you have nothing to hide they have nothing to find and it is far better to have someone there who knows what they are doing and does it in a peaceful manner, happy to see hounds following a trail, than be harassed by a trespassing gang in balaclavas who film children and scare horses.
Opening meets are always riotous, whoever you are hunting with. Not everyone can get to hound exercise to shake off the start of season excitement of their horses, and there are always new horses out and those for whom the occasion is a little too much! Expecting casualties and some chaos The Professor and I moved off as soon as possible, a handful of horses behind the field master.
My memory of previous meets seemed to be that we had trotted up the road and into some ploughed fields. On Saturday we moved through the town, waving at a few locals who had come out to watch, and then pulled up at the bottom of a tree- flanked track. The field master announced that there were around a dozen jumps ahead, and that non- jumpers should wait and the jumps would be disassembled for them.
If you have always hunted wide open country you will not understand what is meant by “a few jumps ahead” in this context. Jumps here are put up for the duration of the jumpers riding through, and are made generally from branches and logs that are dragged from the surrounding woodland. As a result they are of varying degrees of solidity. They are generally good for encouraging horses to jump as the banks on either side prevent run outs, the speed keeps the momentum coming, and as you don’t stand and queue for the fence there is not time for the rider’s mind to make the jump bigger and wider. The danger is of course that there is rarely a way around the fence and if someone stops or comes unstuck the whole field is stopped; there is no option of stopping and then going to the gate.
Did I mention that I was riding side saddle?
Anyway I thought that it would be sensible to ask about the height of the fences, having not been out last season and unsure as to how the fence building had evolved. I was assured that the biggest would be about a foot, which I knew to double for a more reliable estimate. Someone suggested that I hang back and wait for other riders to knock some of them down to size. That was all the encouragement I needed to commit to jumping.
Bluey was keen to go and tossed his head coming into the first fence. He tends to get quite close to the jump before taking off, and with his round jump he is probably not the most suited to side saddle. None the less we were over the first with no problem and were cantering around to the next.
The ground was ideal, soft with leaf litter but not deep and I didn’t think that it would get too cut up, even with eighty riders filing through. The rider behind me always gives his horse a running commentary of encouragement and I could hear him chatter as we came up to the next, another branch pulled across the track.
The jumps seemed to get bigger and Bluey did put in one stop, at a sizeable plank. From our time at the Croome I have taught him that a stop means that he has to be prepared to jump from a stand still- quite often he stops because he seems to want to look at the fence. He leapt it from a halt and we were off again, but now with a bit more space between us and the rider in front.
Eventually the jumps came to an end and we cantered up to the five or six riders who had been in front of me. I hadn’t looked behind to see what was happening but on stop I could now see the rest of the field coming through unscathed. There had been a fall (unsurprisingly) but nothing too serious so all was well.
We kept going on lots more woodland tracks. There were a few more jumps and the huntsman’s daughter got a bit wet falling off into a small stream; her horse’s saddle ended up somewhere around its neck. One of the regular followers entertained us with his best Welsh and showed everyone a pair of binoculars that he had brought along to watch hounds/”birds”. Unfortunately the tracks were a bit too leafy to see much of the hounds, and the horses did scare off most of the birds.
So far we had been lucky with quite open tracks, we then found ourselves on one with lower branches and I did get dragged through them face- first. I thought I got away unscathed but by today a faint bruise that looks like a dodgy food stain has come up on my chin. Definitely glad to have been wearing my hard hat and not a veil!
It was great to be off the road and to not have any real idea of where I was- except for the fantastic glimpses that we occasionally got of the sea. With such a massive field out I didn’t speak to too many people but those I was riding with were all having a fantastic time.
Without having had a good blast Bluey was getting quite strong, throwing his head around an showering me with white foam. Moving out of the woodland and behind hounds we rode upsides The Professor, who’s mare was lathered in sweat but cantering on the bit and the very picture of good manners. Bluey had a loose shoe and now that we were out of the leaf litter someone else pointed out that it was looser looking than it sounded.
Back on the road I bid the field master good night and waved off the rest of the field as they rode through a gateway and onto a very inviting stretch of grass. We had an uneventful hack back to the trailer, Bluey jogging a little but settling down as he realised that his day was over.
From what I heard afterwards the rest of the day continued with great success, riders finding some small hedges to jump and lots of galloping. There were several more fallers, including a repeat offender, and a young woman who managed to break both ankles. Later on the car park flooded and the final riders drove out through the rising sea!
All in all it was a good meet for Bluey and was both the most fences and the biggest fences that he has ever jumped side saddle. Riding down the line of jumps I reminded myself that I choose to ride side saddle and accept the limitations that it poses. In these situations I always feel incredibly grateful to live in a time when I have the choice to ride whichever way that I choose, and it is with great respect that I think of the women of yesteryear who had no choice but to ride side saddle, and for many of them it was only when following hounds that they could be the equal of men.
With such a huge field and so many people enjoying it looks like it will be a busy season for the hunt. That night we went for drinks in the local town- again I left before the carnage, tired after cleaning tack and milking with my brother- so the social side of the hunt is also flourishing.
Bluey had his shoe put back on this morning so all being well we will be out in Wales again on Saturday before taking our first long haul trip to the C&WW’s opening meet. I’m hoping that I will be out longer and have a better and more eventful round up!
Until next time, good night!