It all started at a glorious ball - a masquerade ball. As I sauntered up to the open bar in my sparkling vintage “Jessica Rabbit” dress and gold sequined mask, I noticed I was not the only one in red. A number of gentlemen donned their unmistakable scarlet coats, including the bartender.
“Just a couple beers, please,” I said.
“Do you ride?” the bartender asked. “You should come hunting!”
I was honored at the thought and thanked the gentleman, but it wasn’t until the evening concluded that I learned the bartender in red was a Master of Foxhounds. I was appropriately disappointed for being unable to accept the invitation, being without a horse trailer and possessing zero hunting knowledge. I needed a friend to guide me through everything.
I grew up riding and spent most of my adolescence eventing. Now I’m 25, and I have not actually evented in close to seven years. My only hunting experience is last Christmas, when I joined my mother and the Midland Foxhounds on a holiday hunt, where I spent most of the day teaching Bailey, my former eventer turned mom’s foxhunter, that yes, he can and will stand quietly at the checks.
I received a text message from my friend Katy on Saturday afternoon: “Can you cap next Saturday?”
“What does cap mean? I’m so ignorant,” I replied.
Hunting in beautiful Northern Virginia, in the valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sounded like a lovely way to spend a colorful fall morning. Coincidentally, the Saturday meet was within hacking distance from home. My little Appaloosa pony mare was fit enough for a couple hours second flight, and Katy promised to hunt with us as the horse she was taking that day had not yet been out this season. She called the powers that be and arranged permission for my participation, and so preparation began!
Opening hunt had passed, and as I understand, formal attire is now required, though I assumed the Jessica Rabbit look would not fly. When I moved to Virginia from Georgia two years ago, I brought along my eventing competition gear, you know, just in case, and wonders upon wonders, the stuff still fits.
I proudly told Katy that I have a nice show coat I can wear - it’s blue. She explains I should wear black. Later, I discover the sorts of show coats we wear in the humidity of the Deep South are not appropriate for early morning gallivanting around Loudoun County in November. Katy offers to lend me a black wool coat.
Additionally, she has a hunt bridle that I can borrow. I still don’t understand the point of the flat noseband and crown piece versus a round one, but Katy has seen the makeshift flash I have attached to Pony’s bridle. She also strongly suggested I borrow a breastplates - she never hunts without one.
As the big day approached, I went through my mental check list: hunt bridle, check; breastplate, check; tan breeches, check; black wool coat, check; tall boots...ch-...oh no.
I forgot about tall boots. I don’t actually have any, and tall boots are a much more difficult item to borrow than a bridle or breastplate.
I did have two pairs of tall boots, but you could color me Goldilocks because the one pair was so big I could fit two legs into one boot and the other pair fit beautifully on the right but was unbearably tight on the left. One day last month I got so frustrated I took both pairs to the Middleburg Tack Exchange thinking, “I won’t need any tall boots for a while! I’ll sell these in a jiffy and buy a nice, used, broken-in pair from the Exchange.” Which is dumb, because now I’m going hunting, and I have also entered at least one schooling show before the year’s end.
I needed a fast solution. So I returned to Middleburg Tack, took back the pair of boots that could fit four people together, dub them my “backup-boots-that-I-never-should-have-discarded-and-why-don’t-I-just-get-them-taken-in-like-a-normal-person,” thus the boot problem was solved.
The night before the hunt, I washed and bleached my white saddle pad that I used in my last horse trials all those years ago, laid out my tan britches, checked the fit of the borrowed coat, and make a mental note to get up early enough to wipe down my tack in the morning. Things were looking good! I just need to find my stock tie.
I searched my coat bag. I searched my sock drawer. I searched my “junk boxes” that I never unpacked after moving. No stock tie. I started to wonder if I ever even had a stock tie. I definitely wore one last hunting last Christmas. Why would I bring all that competition gear from Georgia to Virginia and FAIL to bring a stock tie?!
Thankfully, my oft-hunting landlord sorted out the stock tie problem for me, and I added “stock tie and pin” to my Christmas list.
Miraculously, I did just so happen to have a hairnet.
I treated the next morning like a horse show morning: I worked backwards from the time I was to be at the meet, to the time it takes to hack there, to the time it takes to clean and tack up Pony, to the time it takes me to get myself put together, to the time it takes me to clean my tack, to feeding, to coffee, to GET UP!
I was on schedule all morning, and I hadn’t even practiced!
I wonder what to wear underneath my wool coat... it is chilly outside but not unbearable. I texted Katy and she cautions: “there is nothing worse than being cold.”
This is true, but I have also passed out from heat exhaustion at more at least one concert banking on this same theory. I opted for a long-sleeved Under Armour shirt with a pinstriped short-sleeved show shirt over that. Yes, it looked silly.
Now with the Pony groomed, the tack clean, my coat on, and stock tie tied, all that was left is the hairnet... but the hairnet did not fit over my head. I was confused, but then I remembered the last time I wore this particular hairnet, near seven years ago (gross), I had short hair and cut the excess hairnet material to avoid the lunch lady look. Now, however, I have a tangly ponytail that needs to be tamed with said hairnet. I wrapped the ponytail in a bun, shoved it under my hat, and away we went.
As the crow flies, the meet was maybe a half-mile away, but we must cut through fields and woods to get there. I tried to take it easy since Pony had a big day ahead of her. As we picked through the woods we come upon a gentleman and his three dogs. Pony got a little worked up at the drama of it all so I let her trot up the hill to blow off steam. When we get to the road, the GPS on my phone suggested we take a shortcut through a field rather than follow the road the long way around.
As we walked through the field, I thought about the perfectness of the morning so far. The sun was shining, the temperature was invigorating, Pony and I were turned out well, and I was excited for what lay ahead.
Admiring the house to my right, I noticed a collection of tall, narrow drawers nearby. I remember my landlord once talked about a neighbor with honey bees... I encouraged Pony to trot once again.
Emerging from the field, I spotted trailers gathered on the hill beyond. (Oh good, I’m not lost, and I’m still on time!) A trailer drives up behind us and Katy stuck her head out the window: “Woohoo! You guys look great! When is the last time you got all dressed up?”
It had been a long time.
Pony and I arrived at the meet and several people welcomed us with smiles. I signed a release, paid the cap, and tried to stay out of the way. Katy introduced me to lots of kind people on nice horses, and we had a sip from a stirrup cup.
To hear my mom tell it, there are strict rules in the hunt field, and hounds are sacred animals. The rules are not to be broken, and the hounds are not to be harmed by a horse. Truthfully, I do not know how Pony will react to some 40 hounds running loose. We take many of our regular rides with a dog or two, but this is a whole different ballgame.
I was delighted that Pony seems unfazed by the hustle and bustle of the meet. She was curious, but not nervous. As first field started off, the children and their ponies line up behind the second flight field master. I slotted in behind Katy, and Pony and I were the caboose for most of the day.
Right away we cantered up the road before a long first check, which Pony did not understand - she wanted to be moving, and she bumped into Katy’s horse, Harry, a few times in protest. Harry did not mind a bit. The next few checks were on trails in the woods. Pony and I could hear the hounds, but we couldn’t see them. I was thankful that we were in the back of the field, where we can walk a bit since Pony was antsy. Soon, however, Pony starts to understand that the checks are a nice opportunity to rest. Katy commented on how well Pony is behaving, and we start to relax into the ride.
The experience became a pleasant discovery session with Pony. I found she has an excellent gallop with a light contact and good brakes. She learned as she went, paying more attention to the terrain and where she put her feet. She was also sound on the gravel roads, a testament to her solid Pony feet and lots of Venice Turpentine!
I only planned to stay out for two hours, and at the hour-and-a-half mark, Pony was tired; tired like a cranky child, and she was getting fussy. Until then, her only objections had been the first couple of checks, a couple of horses that surprised her when they galloped up behind her, and a huntsman galloping towards her on the road (she was certain there would be a head on collision and nearly dumped me on the road spooking sideways). We are checked at a farm I know off a road that will take us straight home. The field changes direction and I decide it is a good time to call it a day, am excused by the field master, and we head down the road for home.
As we made our way, I heard a twang and a thud. A large buck had jumped a barbed-wire fence in an attempt to escape the field. He misread the height, hit the top of the fence, and somersaulted into the road barely ten feet in front of us. He jumped up, looked at us, and took off again.
Suddenly hounds were upon us! The field had changed direction again, now moving parallel to the road Pony and I are traveling. The huntsman was trying to rally them, and I suddenly felt as though I was breaking all sorts of rules and that I will be asked not to return. I encourage Pony forward, thanking her for not getting upset about having hounds between her legs, and silently pray we don’t follow the field all the way home.
The trek home was two miles, and the Pony did not walk a single step. “I thought you were tired!” I said to her. I let her trot, and she finally settled when we return to the farm. Concerned she will be very sore I give her a nice warm liniment bath and massage.
I put the Pony back out into the field. She pricked her ears towards the hounds speaking in the distance, and trotted towards the sound until she meets the fence line.
“The third time will be the acid test,” my landlord said, which is fine with me, because that means we ought to go again.
Leslie Threkeld is Editor of Eventing USA, the official publication of the United States Eventing Association. She lives in Round Hill, VA and, once the snow and ice melt, plans to chase Reynard again.