Live Oak's Hootie, a paint horse who is barely more than 15 hands, proved to be the Snowman of the Junior North American Field Hunter Championships in Lexington, Kentucky last month. Snowman, the bedraggled gray horse saved from slaughter and ridden to international fame by Harry deLeyer, went on to achieve stardom as a stadium jumper, clearing more than 6 feet under saddle. There is a movie featuring his story in theaters today.
Hootie was field bred in Cairo, Georgia. He was acquired by Elmer West, Live Oak Hounds' kennel huntsman and wheel whipper-in for 43 years, when one of two mares Elmer had brought home unexpectedly foaled. Elmer broke the surprise addition to his barn to drive at the age of two, then turned him out to pasture for three years.
Enter 16-year-old Carissa Duncan, a young enthusiast who had worked for years at Ochopee Farm near Tallahassee, Florida. She pulled Hootie out of the field last fall when he was five. In a matter of weeks, she had Hootie hunting with Live Oak Hounds in Monticello, Florida. Carissa, who has had only three formal lessons in her life, and attended two of famed equestrian James Wofford's clinics, spent the year hunting the paint horse with Live Oak.
This fall, which is only the start of Hootie's second season under saddle, Carissa and Hootie qualified for the First Flight 13 and Over Division at the Junior North American Field Hunter Championships (JNAFHC). Escorted by seasoned members of the Live Oak field, they traveled to Lexington, Kentucky with two of Live Oak's younger members, Gavin and Gabbie Sacco, who also qualified to compete at Iroquois Hunt in the First Flight Under 13 Division.
Live Oak JNAFHC entrants: Carissa Duncan and Hootie, Gavin Sacco and Toffee, and Gabbie Sacco and Rosie. Photo by Leslie Ballenger.
To everyone's excitement, Carissa and Hootie placed 6th out of the 58 contestants at their level, among a total of nearly 200 competitors at the event. The trials consist of a three-part contest which begins with a basic assessment of the rider's and horse's capabilities in company and out in the open. Much like the parallel parking test in a driver's license exam, this step is meant to determine if the rider and horse are safe enough to proceed.
Next is a "Mock Hunt," in which the riders follow a master around a long, pre-determined course in hunt country over fences, across streams and up and down hills. At one point, Carissa and Hootie were the first and only ones able to jump a particular fence which proved difficult even for the field master. The fence was ultimately removed from the competition, but not before Hootie had cleared it!
The final test is a "Handy Hunter" course, open only to the top ten horse and rider teams in each Division. The rider is alone for a series of tasks, including dropping and replacing a fence rail, opening and closing a gate and jumping formidable and varied obstacles. Carissa and Hootie, her pasture-bred and pasture-raised paint hunter, completed all of the requirements to near-perfect JNAFHC standards.
Her Live Oak companions, Gabby (12) and Gavin (9), also made the top ten in their Division, riding on to place 4th and 8th, respectively, in their age group. Gavin also placed 3rd in the Horn Blowing Contest.
Live Oak's philosophy of bringing children along in the hunt field is testimony to their commitment to the future of the sport. Young riders learn protocol, hound work and safety in addition to equestrian skills. At one point, when the huntsman reversed direction at a fence, young Gavin Sacco halted the entire oncoming field of riders to enable her unobstructed passage back over the jump. This kind of awareness in the hunt field can prevent injury and is remarkable for a young rider.
The entire group returned to Monticello exhausted, but the pride of their hunting community. Like world-famous Snowman, Hootie proved that humble beginnings cannot prevent fantastic success. He and Carissa Duncan are home at Ochopee Farm and plan to fully enjoy another happy hunting season.