As increasing numbers of hunts offer a third field - true hilltoppers who follow hounds at a decidedly slower pace - this field master's role becomes more important and challenging. Requiring a steady mixture of patience, competency, teaching skills and a great horse, this critical position has been held at Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club (VA) for years by Sara Bateman. Her cheerful, always-relaxed voice is a soothing antidote to anxiety for newcomers at their hilly fixtures with wide-ranging hound work.
Hilltoppers are all smiles behind Bateman's calm, capable leadership. Melissa Dolan photo.
Bateman started hunting as a teenager, but her military career and raising a family kept her away from horses for 25 years. In 1997, she bought her first horse and began hunting again, eventually joining Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club's second flight where, she observes, "Like many others, I never really thought about the third flight." Gretchen Robb, a beloved Oak Ridge member who enjoyed encouraging newcomers, turned Bateman's interest to the hilltopping field, and she became Robb's "tailgater" - bringing along the stragglers, ensuring gates were closed, and so on. When Robb passed away several years ago, Bateman moved into the field master role.
"It takes a patient person and a patient horse," Bateman responds when asked what skills are needed in this position, "because the third flight evolves through the day, and through the season. I might start the fall with squirrelly horses and squirrelly people, and hope they evolve into more confident partnerships by January. My goal is to promote them up and out to second or first flight."
She emphasizes the importance of the right horse. "He doesn't get rattled, he can handle all the commotion, he can stop others, stand quietly when there's a field reversal in tight quarters, and he has to be able to master the terrain so you can take shortcuts." Bateman adds, "I think it's very important whenever possible to bring third flight up to see hounds at a check or other opportunity. I am a hound person. The riders need to know that we are following the hounds. Not the flask," she chuckles.
Speaking about showing the best sport possible, she acknowledges that depending on what sort of riders are out on a given day, her group may not break out of a walk, "...and there's nothing wrong with that. A lot of times, old Mr. Fox may double back and we'll view him more than the others." She's also not shy about speaking up when a rider from another group doesn't slow down to a considerate speed when passing her charges, calling it a "pet peeve," - though adding that it rarely happens at Oak Ridge, with their excellent first and second field masters.
Bateman feels third flights are an important support for mounted foxhunting. While she hopes to graduate her riders to the more forward fields, she knows that many riders will remain with her season after season. "You want people to be able to continue to enjoy their passion. Hunts need to think about the demographics of their membership. It's not insulting to offer a third flight, or even a fourth flight for a big occasion, if you want to keep your older members going and encourage other people to come out. It allows them to enjoy sport, watch hounds, and have the social aspect."
The single greatest challenge? "Ground bees," Bateman declares. "You cannot plan on them. You can explain the game plan if we come upon them - get the heck out and try to gather again after - but you just don't know what they'll do!"
[Editor's Note: The Spring issue of Covertside magazine, out next week, will include a piece on hilltopping field masters. To receive Covertside magazine, join us online.]