I was honored to be asked to join the panel of judges for November’s Junior North American Field Hunter Championship, hosted by Belle Meade Hunt (GA). The weekend offered social events, hunting, whip cracking and horn blowing contests, the competitive mock hunt and elite final tests, plus the chance to connect with some friends from across the country - so I packed up my truck, loaded Rosie the Connemara/Thoroughbred into the Featherlite, and headed south to Foxboro Farm, the home and farm of Belle Meade MFH, Epp Wilson.
Traffic was unexpectedly abysmal across North Carolina and I wound up pulling in the driveway ten hours later, after dark and short on gas. Gene, the cordial stable manager, greeted me at the gate, assured me I could make it to the nearest gas station on a single gallon, and pointed out the stall reserved for Rosie. Foxboro is a perfect facility to host lots of visiting horses and riders: plenty of room to park trailers, accessible hot water, big overhangs to cover tack trunks in front of stalls, space to handwalk, graze, or turn out.
The barnyard atmosphere was full of friendly anticipation and collaboration: children cleaning tack, helping one another stack bags of grain, discussing with great seriousness whether to wrap legs or take a quick hack in the schooling ring. The stall next to mine had a new, empty child’s play crib in front of it. Was it for a human baby, or perhaps someone selling Jack Russell puppies? The answer would have to wait for morning.
Returning the next day, the crib’s occupant was revealed to be Remi Macias, attending the championship to cheer on riders from Midland Fox Hounds (GA). That morning’s event was Belle Meade’s Veterans’ Day meet, and a local junior called us to follow her on the 15-minute hack to the clubhouse. Happy youthful commentary filled the air during this ride through the trails.
Sydney Pemberton of Middleburg Hunt (VA). Photo courtesy of Allison Howell, Reflected Glory Photography.
“Oh my God, I wanna jump that.”
“Not the low side. The high side.”
“Definitely the high side.”
“That would be fun to jump. And that would be fun to jump.”
“I think that’s the railing alongside the bridge.”
“Oh. Well then how about that fallen tree off the side of the trail? If you cut all the branches off, and dragged it to the trail.”
“Yeah, I’d totally jump that. The high side.”
After the blessing and presentation of St. Hubert medals, we moved off in search of sport. Hounds drew several good coverts, but nobody was home. Master Epp drew to Wendi’s Meadow, a cross-country schooling field, and one field master told the juniors, “Y’all can play.”
For the next 20 minutes, this rolling clearing - full of inviting fences of various sizes, many leading onto trail spurs in every direction - was the stage for an unchoreographed junior rider ballet. Trios and quartets of riders found their lines over flowing series of jumps, with the second or third riders calling out the next fence like rowing coxswains. Tiny riders urged shaggy ponies over the smaller logs, with many older children patiently offering a lead to one or two who didn’t quite have enough forward momentum.
Hotshots headed off down the trail spurs in pairs, to reappear jumping back into another corner of the field. The potential for mayhem seemed high, but not one voice was raised, no riders hogged favorite fences, and solid eyes-up cross-country awareness prevented chaos. I’ve seen many horse show warmup rings with fewer riders and far fewer fences, but never so much courtesy and encouragement.
Following an overflowing hunt breakfast, we had a few hours to reorganize, then headed over to Pine Top Farm for the Saturday night party and whip cracking and horn blowing contests. After the wise decision was made to relocate the whip cracking outdoors, to spare the pavilion’s ceiling fans, a large and boisterous crowd cheered on every competitor.
Some juniors deftly and smartly cracked the whip with either hand while others took a turn with more laughs than cracks, but all were applauded by their peers and adults alike. The entries in the horn blowing contest also ranged from excellent to extremely green, with lots of giggling and red cheeks, but no one felt excluded or belittled.
The judges confer. Norm Fine, Martha Drum, Jennifer Queen, Ashley Twiggs, David Twiggs, Mary Jo Maloney. Photo courtesy of Allison Howell, Reflected Glory Photography.
Sunday morning had an electric air, with all 50-some riders hustling to get mounted and lined up for a group photo in the unusually chilly temperatures. My horse must have had an excellent night’s rest in her Foxboro box stall, because she performed a fusion of reining/Lipizzaner movements as I mounted and we spent the next 30 minutes unsuccessfully attempting to work down by trotting brisk circles. Even in this less relaxed environment, children kept their eyes up, passing one another safely, making way for the lady judge on the crazy horse and politely nodding - noticeably, with very little parental guidance. These riders had already developed the initiative and problem-solving skills that the hunt field teaches, and that experience allowed them to be controlled and courteous.
During the mock hunt, the teams of judges select their top 10 riders, who came back to complete individual courses. As finalists were announced, one girl was congratulated by her friend, and then the two stood together, arms around one another, until the second child’s name was also called, and they hugged and jumped up and down together. Riders who did not continue to the top ten attentively put up their horses, loosened their ties and then returned to watch and cheer for the finalists.
First Flight 13 & Over Champion Gabriella Sacco, Live Oak Hounds (FL), with Epp Wilson, Liz Howard, Katharine Byron, and David Twiggs. Photo courtesy of Eric Bowles, Bowles Images.
The spirit of the weekend - and of the whole season of qualifying meets - was exemplified by the child who earned the Sportsmanship Award in the group I judged. Near the end of the mock hunt, one of the tiniest riders tumbled from the saddle cantering up a hill. An older rider from a different state easily caught the pony’s reins with her hunt crop and encouraged the little girl, in a patient and gentle voice, to keep trying through several attempts until she had safely remounted.
First Flight 12 & Under Champion Ainsley Colgan, Old Dominion Hounds (VA), with David Twiggs, Manny Blanco, and Katharine Byron. Photo courtesy of Eric Bowles, Bowles Images.
In many ways, the weekend looked like any other equestrian event with tack trunks and trailers, clean saddle pads and course maps. What set it apart for me, though, was what I didn’t see. I didn’t see negativity, cold competitiveness, self-centeredness, or petulance. I saw very little parental or trainer micromanaging. Instead, the 2017 Junior North American Field Hunter Championship showcased the children’s camaraderie, poise, and consideration for others’ needs (along with a little silliness and plenty of galloping fun). This was the best possible result.
Hilltopper Champion Sam Dozier, Belle Meade Hunt (GA). Photo courtesy of Eric Bowles, Bowles Images.
To see all the placings, click here. Many thanks to the Belle Meade host committee, headed by Heather Currier, for creating such a positive conclusion to the series.