I started using horses for falconry in 2001, by mistake, really. I had just set up my outfit, Dartmoor Hawking, doing falconry commercially, as a change of life after the death of my first wife, and had got back to my parents' farm where I kept my horse at the time. I was riding a Thoroughbred mare named Toffee (Takethetopoff), and a girl who worked for me at the time was having problems with a young peregrine falcon. Without really thinking, I said "Pass it up here," and there I was: on a horse with a falcon, and a little thing went ping in my head.
Photo courtesy of Recyled Racehorse Falconry Team.
I contacted Dr. Nick Fox (now a recipient of the Order of the British Empire for services to falconry) who ran the Northumberland crow falcons. He was the only mounted falconer in the country at the time, who gave me a lot of very good advice. I was already flying falcons at crows, the fastest and most exciting form of falconry. On foot this could involve a lot of walking and following disappearing flights, and he told me how much a horse would enhance this. And yes it did, suddenly I could get into position to engender the best flights, rather than just grabbing an opportunity. We could follow the flight well - these raptors could be covering Dartmoor at 60 mph.
This brings me on to the Thoroughbred. When I first started telling people about what I was doing, a woman who rode a rather large cob told me that ex-racehorses would not be suitable for falconry, and that I needed something like she rode. This is so wrong, you need a fast horse, quick on its feet. Dartmoor has some very unforgiving riding for a clumsy horse: bogs, rock clitter, very uneven terrain. While following a flight you want to be looking up, not placing your horse's feet. Brains and a steady temperament are essential, too, so the whole package is hard to find in a horse. This is where the ex-racers come in so well.
Thoroughbreds often get bad press for being flighty, scatty, highly strung, etc. A lot of this comes from them falling into the wrong hands due to cheap prices and people not understanding what they’re working with. Retrained properly, most are excellent when given a new job. I’m presently working with a team of four: one ex-chaser, and three flat horses (one with one eye, who won in Group 2 and raced in Group 1 [similar to Grade 2 and Grade 1 stakes in the US]), all of whom have taken to falconry really well.
The horse is mainly a carrying platform, used to transport myself and a hooded falcon, or eagle, until our quarry is in sight. Then the hood comes off, falcon goes and the horse has to keep me in touch, until the flight ends. Then the horse must stand quietly while I deal with the hawk on its kill or retrieve it after a missed flight. Finally, he carries myself, hawk and what was caught back home (in the case of eagle hawking this can be something quite large).
Our horses live next to our hawks and if we’re exercising them, we normally stick a hawk on board as a standard thing. We have to have complete control with one hand at all times and this makes everything second nature. As part of their education, all our Thoroughbreds go hunting, as it’s a slower, gentler way to teach them to keep their feet with lots going on, and how to behave in a crowded and exciting environment. All our horses are also used to give main arena displays of falconry , which is a fantastic platform to show how versatile the recycled racehorse can be.
The Dartmoor falcons meet on Fridays and a bye day from mid-August to the end of January. Visitors are more than welcome, but we do have a field limit of 12, as too many riders can spoil the hawking.
To learn more about Dartmoor Hawking, visit their webpage here.
For more images, including stirring video from the saddle, visit their Facebook page.