Most foxhunters have experienced some kind of time-bending moment out in the hunt field. An 11-year-old girl by the name of Sydney Pemberton eloquently summed up that feeling when she recently recalled one of her favorite hunting memories.
“We were going so fast, everything seemed slow,” remembers Sydney, who hunts with Middleburg Hunt in northern Virginia. “I could hear the hounds and see Richard [Roberts], the huntsman, in the woods.”
Sydney had kept up with second flight aboard Sadie, her first hunt pony. “Sadie was rolling along and then the field stopped,” she recalls. “I stood there long enough to tell her she was a good girl, and then we were off again. There was nothing super special about the day, but I just remember it being great because everything seemed perfect. My pony was great. We had big runs, we put a fox to ground, and I got to hunt with my dad.”
Perhaps in that moment, Sydney had found the joyful spirit of the sport. But for those around her, it was how that spirit manifested itself through Sydney’s actions that led her to earn the honor of the Lynda Johnston Perpetual Spirit Award at last fall’s Junior North American Field Hunter Championship in Middleburg, Virginia.
Those moments that seem to feel so perfect to Sydney look charming to her mother, Sarah Pemberton, who grew up showing hunters but discovered foxhunting later in life. “I just started hunting with Sydney this past year, and I am only sad I did not do it sooner,” Sarah says. “Being able to see her gallop across the countryside with her pony is something special. I hope every parent who rides gets the opportunity to hunt with their child because it is magical.”
Sarah and her husband, John, own a boarding barn in Middleburg. Sydney first sat on a pony when she was one year old and hasn’t left the barn since. “I swear Sydney was born on a pony,” Sarah says. Sydney was a seasoned pro by age 3, showing at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show in Upperville, Virginia. “I can't remember her not being on a pony or in the barn with us,” Sarah said. Sydney’s older brother, Hardy, also hunts in addition to playing polo and working at polo barns.
At age two, Sydney settled into a sidesaddle because it was all she wanted to do, Sarah remembers. She eventually started riding with Devon Zebrovious at Cherry Blossom Farm in Middleburg, who is locally known as the go-to person for all things sidesaddle. “For me,” says Sydney, “riding sidesaddle is more comfortable and it’s just what I have been doing for forever. I feel safe.”
She has been riding her Quarter Horse pony, Luna, aside for a few years now. Owned by family friend Mara Hagan, Luna helped Sydney grow as a foxhunter after Sadie. Reliable, sound, tried, and true, “Luna is an ‘old soul,’” Sarah described, “and is keen to do whatever Sydney likes.”
“She's good with the hounds and she likes being out in the field and going fast,” Sydney said. “Luna will stay to do gates and is also really nice to jump aside because she jumps very flat.”
Sarah watched Luna lift Sydney’s confidence as she learned to navigate second flight. She watched Sydney connect with her pony in the field. She talked to her and fed her treats from her sandwich case.
As Sydney’s connection and courage continued to grow, so did her interest in riding astride. When she decided to swivel ninety degrees in the saddle, a Farnley-bred Welsh pony named Tinsel helped her see the hunt field from a new perspective. “I think she knows that I am learning to ride astride, and I know she’s still learning to be a foxhunter, so we help each other. Sometimes she can be a little fresh, but she seems to know just what to do when we’re out there.”
“It’s been good for her to be able to switch back and forth,” Sarah said of Sydney’s saddle ambidexterity. “It’s a real confidence booster for her.”
Even out of the saddle, Sydney spends her time admiring the hounds. She often helps in the kennels at Middleburg Hunt and has grown fond of two hounds in particular, Winston and Wishes. “I got to show Winston at the hound show last year. He is so cute,” she said.
So, as Sydney beamed and glided aside across the open fields at last fall’s Junior North American Field Hunter Championship, perhaps time slowed again for her. Perhaps Heather Heider, one of the competition’s organizers, saw the same magic that Sarah does, not only in Sydney’s growing confidence and connection with her pony, but in her continuous love of the lifestyle and the hounds. During the awards ceremony, Heather presented Sydney with the Lynda Johnston Perpetual Spirit Award, an honor bestowed annually to the junior rider who best exhibits the joyful spirit of the sport.
“That was a huge surprise,” Sarah says, “My husband and I are so incredibly proud of her. Sydney being picked to win that award was as high an honor as you could get. We’ve always tried to make sure our kids put in the work with their horses and the hounds, and that they know being helpful and kind to everyone is a huge part of foxhunting. We encourage them to tell their friends that they like their stock ties, offer to help with gates, and pass around extra stashed-away Snickers bars when standing at the checks.”
While Sarah and others still appreciate seeing those magic moments in the hunt field, Sydney has since also found a different type of joyful spirit at a slightly faster pace. “She has done the pony races at Piedmont twice now and is planning on doing them again this year. She can’t wait to be 16 so she can race with all her sidesaddle friends,” Sarah says. She paused. “Pray for me....” she smiled.
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