Hunting Diary: Balls of Steel

So here we are at week four of the season, fourth time out side saddle, and home with four shoes in place. In sharp contrast to last week yesterday was my most local meet, in an area that I have hacked to in the past. To save “horse miles” we boxed Bluey to my grandparents’ farm about a mile away and I hacked from there. Parking at the meet was restricted by the Eisteddfod, which for those who don’t know, is a day of competitions involving singing, reciting, writing, and sometimes dancing. ¬†One of the most traumatic memories of my school days (and that is saying something) is winning the English “Chair” for creative writing and having to stand in front of my peers wearing a purple velvet cloak while a sword was almost- but-not-quite drawn over my head (and the heads of those who had won the two “Crowns” and the Welsh “Chair”) and the Head Boy shouted for peace.

Enough of that, let’s get on with the hunting report.

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Using a tractor to get on Bluey. They didn’t do this in Downton Abbey…

There were about thirty riders out, a nice number for quite trap country, and ideal for the restricted parking and for the location, which was on the road going through the village. There were plenty of supporters at the meet, including a couple of footies down from the Golden Valley. Weather wise it was the perfect day, the first cold of the season setting in, but the sun out and the sky blue. One of the supporters had brought along some home made quince jelly, Bluey was fed some and ate it, although I think on the whole he would have preferred some mints.

Two of the horses out had just arrived from the Leominster sales the day before, and so a long hack to the first covert was ideal for getting their excitement out. The field was restricted in terms of where we could go because of a new tenant re-seeding a lot of the ground. As a result we waited on the road and shared around hip flasks, watching the hunt staff and hounds follow the trail above the river.

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The covert was a hillside wood with a mixture of trees and a series of leaf- strewn paths, some wide and inviting and others…. Well we’ll go there later. Entry was up and over a bank, which everyone managed with ease. As usual someone had been through the woods before us and put up a series of jumps. Bluey was eager to go and flew over them.

There are two ways to jump side saddle; the first is to fold forward, left shoulder to right knee, and remember to lean back before the force of the downwards movement whips you back. The second is to sit up and back and slip your reins. As I ride Bluey on a long sloppy rein (in a snaffle) I go for the second option. Yesterday I slipped them a bit too much as twice I found myself rein- less as we moved forward.

The first screams of “IN THE BOOK!!!” were heard shortly after I had cleared the first few fences. On the track below us someone had fallen off over a fence, and upon re-mounting had discovered that her girth was a bit loose. So two entries in “The Book” and a few falls closer to the Top Tumbler award.

Soon the jumps ran out and we were crossing across the top of the wood. Here the path was narrow and the branches were low. We were all forced to a walk, and even with a lot of ducking and diving my hat silk was ripped off. Fortunately it was collected by someone behind me, but for the next hour or so I was in a bare hat.

While we stood in a slightly clearer spot the huntsman came through, bleeding rather dramatically from a cut ear. Hounds picked their way through the horses, and with some difficulty riders made way for them to pass.

The track looped back around to a clearing, with a small jump to hop over. The Field Master then led us back through the trees, this time to a narrower and more winding path. A few of the followers, including the lady with my hat silk, had peeled off and ridden down to the road. I was soon wishing that I had followed them as we came to what amounted to a sheer drop through the woods to the path below.

The leaf litter was thick and it looked treacherous, especially perched side saddle on a plunging thoroughbred. The Professor was in front of me and said that he would wait until the rider before him was clear, so that we could go down and not have to pull up midway. I thanked him profusely and decided to unhook my right leg; in the circumstance that Bluey did fall or slide down the bank I wanted an escape route, and not to be stuck under him.

Below us a branch stretched across and I was worried that we would have to go under it as well as pick our way down. With my right leg hanging loose and my apron bunched across my lap we slowly made our way down. I had the reins on the buckle, trusting Bluey to find the safest way through the leaves, following The Professor’s excitable bay mare.

It was with the utmost relief (and a fair few swear words) that we turned to a flat path below. We jogged and cantered along for a bit, very precarious with one stirrup and a leaping head, before pulling up for me to sort myself out. We were deep in the middle of the woods; larch and fir trees pulling towards the heavens and a few beams of sunlight catching the falling leaves of the deciduous trees above. The riders behind us were still finding their way down, and the ones ahead were out of sight.

We all looked a little bedraggled as we found the riders ahead, and it was with a great sigh of relief that I looked at the open path ahead and pulled out my hip flask. Someone asked how I had managed the slope side saddle and asked to see how I could pull my right leg over without dismounting. The Professor remarked that he was pleased that his Lily Warne knitted poppy was still attached to his coat; someone unfortunately misheard him and thought that he was referring to his “willy warmer.”

It was time to exit the woods and so we turned downhill, taking on the fences that hadn’t already been destroyed by the field riding through. One of the teenager girls, riding hunt celebrity horse Raz, was upsides me and remarked “You must have balls of steel, riding side saddle around that!” Coming from her it was very funny, an activity as “lady like” as side saddle rarely draws testicular comparisons. I thanker her for her comment and we rode down, back and over the bank onto the road.

We pulled up near some re- seeded maize stubble and I saw that The Professor was missing. One of the regular followers, a lady who rides a joyful coloured cob named Minty was with me and had not seen him since leaving the woods. We were also missing a few of the younger riders. Minty is entered in the Wobbleberries BE80 challenge for next year and we discussed that over another round of sloe gin. The car followers were still around, and the Earth Master had swapped his quad bike for a sit on the huntsman’s horse.

The Professor caught us up with bad news; two young sisters on their ponies had had to phone their father to pick them up after one of the ponies went lame. They were waiting with one of the older followers and reports from last night showed that the pony is going to be fine.

A lucky byway kept us near the hounds and off the new leys, we passed through the narrow path in single file, the horses stepping around and sometimes jumping the remnants of the hedge trimmer. The path took us to the yard of a small holding, where a pen of piglets merrily cavorted. Bluey watched them carefully for the length of a hip flask round before we were asked to turn around and head back.

The rest of the field had caught us up and I found my hat silk and re-arranged it on my head. A few followers had gone home, but most of us were still out, making the most of the fine weather.

Back we went to the covert. Neither The Professor nor I were keen to take on another lap of the woods, so we found the two whips and asked them if they knew were the field would be heading. Knowing the local geography we thought that if they were going through the woods to the road above we would hack around and meet them. Neither whip was entirely sure although they did know that a trail had been laid above Tengrove Mansion* and that the huntsman would draw there later in the afternoon. Wobbleberry was still out on the road with one of her liveries, riding a grey horse named Geronimo. We made the decision to go back into the woods and follow the field through and over- the worst that would happen would be riding along the flat path with low branches…

When we came to the bank we could see the spotted rump of one of the horses ahead. By the time Bluey and I were over and down it all we could see was Minty’s patchwork bottom cantering towards the first jump. Following we pulled up and realised that we had lost sight of the field.

“They can’t be that far ahead, let’s keep going.”

And so onwards we went. We followed the original path until we came to a dead end. A hound joined us and somewhere we could hear the rest of the pack rustling leaves, but there was no sound of horse- or the shouts of riders falling off and children building jumps. We turned back, finding that the branches seemed lower and the path more winding in that direction. We then cut across the middle path of the woods, both The Professor and me a hand or so higher up than Wobbleberry and Geronimo, and me letting out a stream of commands to Bluey to slow down and stop pulling. Hounds were still near and at one point three ran alongside me, jumping a branch upsides Bluey.

Having ridden along the path to its brambled end we made the decision to head back onto the road and to hack around to Tengrove. I was nervous that we might have crossed hounds or interfered with them, but with no sign of the two whips or the huntsman we thought that they had probably been stragglers and that the main pack was in the field above the covert. One cream- coloured hound ran with us around the road, and local geography again served us well as the four of us and our canine companion came to the bottom of the drive and saw two parked foot followers.

Wobbleberry made the most of modern technology and phoned the Field Master; he had no signal and she was greeted by his cheery answer phone. The foot followers had not seen the field for some time and so we waited, reliably informed that the hounds would come through.

The sound of horseshoes on asphalt had never sounded so sweet, as the huntsman and hounds swept up the road, followed by the two whips, the Field Master, and a few followers. The rest of the field were still deep in the woods. We made our way up the drive, the red of the huntsman’s coat and the grey of his horse bright against the fading yellows of autumn.

The rest of the field caught up with us and The Professor and I decided to call it a day and hack back. It was around 3 and the hosting pub had put on hot cawl for the hunt. Neither of us did partake of the feast once we got back, but I had a ginger beer and caught up with some familiar faces in the bar; Wales were playing rugby and so a lot of people had settled in for the night.

So there’s another enjoyable (if a little hair raising) adventure with the Carmarthenshire. As always, all place names and rider identities have been hidden.

I am not hunting next weekend, so you will have to keep yourselves entertained until the weekend after. I can however promise lots of excitement ahead with another Carms day, a bye day, a day by invitation of the Pembrokeshire, and a return to Worcestershire to hunt with the C&WW on the 3rd of December.

Until next time, good night x