I cannot recall an occasion when attending a meet with a fellow hunt where we have not been offered a stirrup cup to send us on our way. The stirrup cup is not only a long-standing tradition but has its purposes too. It is, of course, a welcoming gesture to all riders. But then if you are perhaps a little outside your comfort zone, riding an untried or borrowed horse in the company of hard-riding sportsmen in difficult country, one could almost call this small sip of liquid courage a necessity. Maybe you could go so far as to say just what the doctor ordered and your potential funeral director would advise! Even on the comfortable days when riding your own bombproof horse, the warm glow that the cup provides is reassuring. Your confidence is never in doubt, your companions become the best of pals and every upcoming jump seems to have had the top rail removed!
There might have been a time during Prohibition days when that little welcome booster to a rider was not proffered, although knowing the nature of most ‘A’ type hunting folk, I find this unlikely. It is hard to visualize the adult rider being satisfied with lemonade or some such mild refreshment. Junior riders excepted, such a libation does not sit well with the image of the typical thruster of the roaring twenties. But then I am sure there were many members with good connections to the Canadian border that would have taken care of the situation.
Today the libation of choice is usually either sherry or port. In Victorian days it could well have been sherry or a drink that you seldom see these days called Cherry Heering. This is a sweet blend of cherry liqueur and brandy from Denmark. Probably a little too sweet for today’s palate but a drink that packs quite a punch and certainly warms you up as it goes down. You may wish to try it on those cold winter mornings when the frost is underfoot and numbing your fingers and toes. Port used to be considered strictly for after dinner consumption but it has been my experience that, given the choice between sherry and port, the popularity of port has outpaced sherry in a ratio of about 3:1. A poll of all MFHA hunts might be of interest on this point.
The origins and custom of the stirrup cup date back long before the practice as we know it today. According to G.G. Colton, the author of Chaucer and his England, it is referred to by the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales when setting out on their travels. Then as now it was a farewell drink served while the travelers' boots were in the stirrups to give them cheer and comfort on their way. It is likely that in Chaucer’s day it would have been some form of mead or fermented honey. Perhaps mulled wine or even beer although, as most hunters know, there are certain discomforts and inconveniences associated with imbibing long drinks before a day in the saddle! If there are any scholars of Chaucer’s writings who are members of the MFHA, it would be interesting to learn the old English reference used for stirrup cup.
In later times, both among royalty and those of more humble status, it was also a parting token of good cheer provided to guests as they were mounted and ready to take to the road. Certainly those leaving on an arduous journey on horseback would have appreciated this small lift to their spirits. It is not too hard to imagine that, even for travelers by coach, the journey in a poorly sprung carriage on rough roads would have been the perfect excuse to indulge in more than one stirrup cup at the coaching inn. Provided the next stop was not too far away, of course!
In the Scottish Gaelic language there is also the tradition of offering your guest one for the road. If you were to be handed a glass of single malt by your host as you were about to leave, you would likely be offered a wee deoch an dorais. Translated this would be a small drink at the door. When you think of today’s customs and driving regulations you are unlikely to hear this phrase used now. It would be interesting to learn the Gaelic for today's designated driver?
So when next you down that sweet courage enhancer, give a thought to all those before you who have shared the same experience; the ingredients may have been different but the purpose has remained the same down through the ages.