Daun DeFrance, joint master of Wentworth in southern New Hampshire and Maine, and Joy Crompton, MFH of Farmington Hunt Club in Virginia, offer their advice on how to be the a safe, polite and well-respected field member. By following a few guidelines of basic etiquette and rules of the road, you’ll have a better experience this hunt season.
Make a Good Impression
From the moment you first arrive at a hunt, you can make a great first impression. Arrive well-ahead of meet time, advises Joy. “Plan to be on your horse at least 15 minutes before move off time,” she adds. “Horse and rider turn out should be neat and tidy--and hopefully, clean!” If timing isn’t your strong suit, check out a few tips to be organized on the morning of the hunt. Try and get as much ready ahead of time as you can—hook up your trailer the night before, have your tack and clothes clean and well-organized and bathe your horse the previous day, if possible, so you only have to minor touch-ups when you arrive at the meet. Consider investing in some “green-spot remover” if you have a grey horse… you’ll be glad you did!
When you arrive at the meet, say good morning to the masters (or introduce yourself if you’re new). At the end of the day, thank the masters and huntsman and consider offering to help with anything they might need. Whether it’s helping to set up the tailgate, sponging off the huntsman’s horse or assisting with loading up hounds, a kind gesture is always appreciated.
Field members are there to observe the action, so make sure you’re not a distraction, especially to the hounds when they’re working. Always face hounds when halted and never to try to talk to a hound during the hunt or get between a hound and the huntsman.
One of the most important things about hunting is safety, not just for the field members, but the masters, huntsman and hounds as well. Action can happen very quickly in the hunt field, so make sure to be on your toes.
“Be aware of your surroundings,” recommends Joy. “Riders need to pay attention to the horse in front of them, but also what is happening further ahead, as well as behind. That way they can prepare for transitions or approaching hounds and staff.”
Remember, staff always have the right of way, and members need to move their horses quickly to let them safely pass. If you see a member of the staff is headed your way, be looking for a spot to get your horse out of their way, especially on a narrow trail which can be tricky to navigate. “Always point your horse’s head toward staff and their rear away,” reminds Joy. “If hounds come though, they often come from behind and ride the same trail. Again, even when moving, turn your horse’s head (or eye) toward the hound and their rear away.” This allows your horse to see what’s coming up behind them and helps a hound or a staff member avoid a sudden kick from your surprised mount.
When on a run and the adrenaline is pumping, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment. But not everyone in the field may be as experienced as you, or if you’re the newbie, then you need to be extra aware of what’s happening around you. Be considerate of the others in your field at tricky creek crossings—make sure to walk in and walk out, and wait for the person in front of you to cross first. If you don’t take your time at crossings, your horse could learn dangerous habits such as jumping creeks and it may encourage the other horses to rush as well. Likewise, if you’re in a trappy situation or you’re with someone who’s opened and closed a gate for you, don’t gallop off, leaving them with a panicked horse. Wait for them and then catch up to the field together. It’s also a good idea to offer to get the gate for a staff member, if you’re able.
Another key safety consideration when hunting is spacing between each horse. “We always remind people to keep a safe following distance, at least two horse lengths,” says Daun. “Most of our issues in the field come from groups riding too closely together and not respecting the horses' space.”
“We really emphasize group etiquette, which starts with educating people about what the various ribbons in tails mean,” continues Daun. A green ribbon in the horse’s tail means he’s new to hunting, so give him a bit of space.
“If you are taking a green horse,” adds Joy, “I recommend securing a well-behaved horse to follow and another that goes behind, prior to heading out. Same for green riders--make sure there are good examples and helpful experienced horses and riders surrounding so that all can enjoy the hunt.” A red ribbon means the horse has a tendency to kick, so you certainly don’t want to ride up on him too closely—you might just avoid him altogether!
One thing you can do to avoid a pile-up at a sudden check, is to put your hand up when the field is coming to a stop. This alerts the rider behind you without you having to verbalize the warning and interrupt the hunt.
Do Your Homework
Unless you have a group of friends willing to jump or travel at speed, it's hard to recreate hunt field conditions at home. However, there are some things you can do to help prepare. Practice transitions at home (especially the day before a hunt) so your horse is tuned-up and listening. “I like to train my horses to my voice and the martingale or breastplate strap for whoaing, so their mouths don’t become dull during the 3 or 4 hour hunt, and my arms don’t get longer!” says Joy.
“I advise people to work on things like turn on the forehand, so they can easily move a horse’s haunches off a trail, quickly and quietly, without drama,” adds Daun. It's an invaluable tool to make space, especially in more wooded territories, where the field may be stopped on a dense trail. “Also, if you are coming to a check and someone is close behind, you can halt and turn your horse’s haunches away in one smooth movement,” she explains. “Most horses won't broadside another horse and it keeps the front horse from being bumped.”
Riders can also practice with small groups at home doing transitions and switching positions. Same with water crossings, ditches and gates. If possible, ride with dogs to get your horse used to them.
Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, a horse who’s new to hunting can still have issues at hunt. Daun says that their hunt tries to have a lot of patience when introducing new members to the sport: “Aside from kicking, for which we ask the rider to discipline the horse and move to the back or make sure they can keep people away from them. For bolting, we ask they move to a slower field. While crossing creeks, we buddy them up in a quieter field. We also allow nervous horses to circle or graze at checks, quietly away from the group. We find that after a few hunts, they settle down. Everyone here has had "that horse" at one time or another, so we try to keep people smiling, which helps the horses relax and most problems resolve themselves as people gain exposure.”
Wentworth has a lot of experienced eventers in their hunt, she adds, and so the biggest difference between cross-country riding and hunting is riding in groups. Sometimes she’ll have to remind a rider, “we are not cross-country schooling, if a horse refuses or runs out, move out of the way to let the rest of the field continue.
“I would ask anyone coming out to hunt with us to keep their eyes and ears open and look for the little details,” says Daun DeFrance, joint master of Wentworth in southern New Hampshire and Maine. “We try to provide good ‘running and jumping’ for our members, but if that's all they are looking for, they will miss half the experience.”
All About Respect
The biggest no-no is disrespecting or not listening to the staff or the landowners. “We have a lot of eventers or newer people come out to try hunting with us,” explains Daun. “We love introducing people to the sport, but they sometimes need to be reminded that this is not a guided trail ride. They may fall way behind, or try to switch fields, or try to take shortcuts without permission, and we have to emphasize that hunting fields are led for the safety of all, and to keep the landowners happy with us crossing their land. It's hard to convey that message without coming across as condescending, especially in New England, where there are a lot of highly competent, independent people out riding for the first time. We want people to have a nice time, but people need to listen to their fields master unconditionally. It's a delicate balancing act.”
Joy stresses the importance of always respecting the property hunted across. “Never shovel out your trailer at the meet,” she warns. “And always leave everything as good or better than you found them. It is for the grace of landowners that we are able to continue to fox hunt. Be sure to leave gates and jumps the way you found them. Report to your Field Master if there is a problem.”
Land preservation is an important part of the foxhunting culture, something which most hunts are passionate about. In fact, Wentworth Hunt works with five different conservation groups, says Daun. “During the meet talk before the hounds set out, we call out which groups are a part of the territory for that day. We also try to point out whose land we cross as we hack between lines. Most of our members are very aware we would not be hunting without active land conservation and they also contribute individually.”
“We have a lot of "hunt to ride" people in the club, so I always try to highlight the hound work, the tradition of what we do, the landowner we saw as we passed, etc.,” she continues. “There's so much more to hunting than running and jumping and the best days out could be punctuated by good voice and viewing and not a single solid run. So, I would ask anyone coming out to hunt with us to keep their eyes and ears open and look for the little details. We try to provide good "running and jumping" for our members, but if that's all they are looking for, they will miss half the experience.”