A forty-year member of Sewickley Hunt (PA), Sonya Thorbecke continues to care for her own horses at home while enjoying the shared passion for foxhunting she passed on to her children and grandchildren. Carrying on her tradition, daughter Noël Estes, former Master at Old North Bridge Hounds (MA), and granddaughter Katie Estes today belong to Norfolk Hunt (MA) and in turn, welcome new converts to our sport.
Thorbecke, left, aboard Mac with a friend enjoying the ride on her horse Nicholas. Photo courtesy of Katie Estes.
My grandmother, Sonya Thorbecke, grew up in New York City and always wanted to have a horse. Her family traveled all over the world and when they came back to the United States they got the first family horse, named Pegasus, in 1960. She started foxhunting with Fox River Valley Hunt in Barrington Hills, IL in the 1970s. Thorbecke moved to Sewickley, Pennsylvania in 1976, built an eight stall barn on 70 acres, and joined the Sewickley Hunt Club. She has been a member of Sewickley ever since.
Thorbecke's daughter (my mother), Noël, started riding when she was ten years old, but it wasn’t until the family moved back to the US that she started taking lessons when the family got Pegasus. Noël and her sister, Chris George, competed in local hunter/jumper shows. Noël stopped riding when she went to college and took 15 years off. When she picked up riding again after having three children, she rode Pickle, a Thoroughbred that Thorbecke bred at her farm in Pennsylvania. She started hunting on Nicholas, Pickle’s cousin, in 1997 with Old North Bridge Hounds and became Master in 2012. She joined Norfolk in 2015.
The third generation, I started riding at age four and showed ponies and horses in the hunter and equitation rings through college. I was captain of the Tufts University Equestrian Team for three years and began foxhunting with Norfolk in 2016.
Mother and daughter: Noël, left, and Katie Estes out with Norfolk Hunt. Photo courtesy of Katie Estes.
My grandmother, who turned 97 last month, is already planning her 100th birthday celebration! She still rides and owns a farm. She currently has two horses on her property, one of which she owns (a Quarter Horse named Rusty), and she feeds them and turns them out daily. She likes to go down to the barn to hang out with the horses and feed her deer. Her barn is called Deer Haven Farm and she has several dozen deer that live on the property that she feeds corn to every day at 3:30 p.m.
Nicholas was a wonderful horse that all three of us rode. He was the first horse I ever rode, and the last horse my grandmother ever hunted when she was in her 80s and he was in his 20s. Mac was a German bred, 16.2 hand horse that was her main hunting mount. Both she and my mother hunted him for five-plus years.
Noël’s sister, Chris, who is a former professional rider in Texas, found Mac. Chris and Shane George run a 40 acre farm called Show Sports outside of Houston. And another branch of the family, my two cousins, Juliana and Lexie, rode with the Sewickley Hunt from a young age. Lexie was a whipper-in for several seasons and Juliana is now a professional hunter/jumper trainer in Maryland who continues to hunt occasionally. Thorbecke enjoyed teaching them the traditions of foxhunting and enforced the etiquette.
Thorbecke stays active with horses - here stepping in to groom for her granddaughter, Katie. Photo courtesy of Katie Estes.
Asked to reflect on the challenges facing riding to hounds, my grandmother noted that all of the land is getting developed in western Pennsylvania so there are fewer and fewer places to hunt. Sewickley traditionally was a hunt that everyone hacked to and since they have had to find new areas to hunt, more and more people have horse trailers to be able to make it to the meets.
Thorbecke also finds great joy in taking care of her two dogs. She has a Whippet, Blitz, and a Scottie, Jamie, that keep her company. She stays active gardening and caring for her animals. My grandmother's advice for younger riders or those new to foxhunting is, "Get out of the ring and enjoy nature!"
Covertside Online wishes Sonya, Noël, and Katie many more years of good sport together!