It was 6:00 a.m. when my alarm shrieked and I rose, bleary eyed, glancing at the weather report on my iPhone. It was only four degrees, but the day promised to be sunny and reach a high of 15 – unseasonably warm for November and a perfect day to spend outside riding.
A few weeks before I’d contacted Andrea Dreger, secretary and whipper-in at the Hamilton Hunt Club in Caledonia, Ontario, telling her I wanted to try riding in a hunt meet (also known as riding to hounds).
“We love having newcomers!” she said, and promptly set me up with a loaner horse for my first ride out with the club. It was decided I’d come on “newbie day” – a day set aside for those interested in the sport to try it out free of charge, instead of paying the typical capping fee, which is $60 during formal season and $40 during cubbing season.
I stuffed myself into old show clothes a few sizes too small – relics from my younger days – and wrestled to squeeze my calves in field boots not worn in 10 years. My mom had left out an old stock tie for me to wear, but I had no clue how to tie it, so I left it and just did up the collar of my blouse.
Andrea had told me that newcomers didn’t have to be dressed in formal attire – breeches, blouse, stock tie, jacket – on their first few rides. “We really just want people to come out and give it a try and not everyone is going to want to buy a whole kit,” she said, noting the only strict attire rules were to wear an approved helmet and boots with a heel and to look “neat and clean.”
I was equal parts excited and nervous to try this sport. I’d watched videos of hunts in Ireland, where horses and riders tumble head over heels attempting to clear stone walls at a gallop. But Andrea assured me the riding was only as extreme as the rider wanted it to be, explaining the riders were divided into two or three groups – known as ‘fields’ – depending on their skill and comfort level.
By 8:30, I was at the Hunt Club’s stables in Caledonia, meeting my mount Maximus – a shiny black 16hh Percheron/Morgan cross owned by Corey LeClair, one of the club’s other whippers-in. Andrea handed me some elastics and asked me if I knew how to braid a tail. I assured her I did, despite not having tried to in many years, but half an hour later, I had a passable French braid that wound all the way to the bottom of Maximus’ tail bone. Andrea handed me some tape and together we taped the ends of the tail up against the bone. This prevents the tail from getting caught in brush and burrs during the hunt. Maximus’ mane was roached, so I escaped braiding that, but when hunting, there’s an expectation the horse’s mane will be braided too.
“We’re really representatives for the club. So it’s all about looking sharp and showing respect for the neighbourhood and landowners,” said Andrea in reference to the importance of good turnout for the horse and rider.
The next task was for master of foxhounds and huntsman Richard Christensen to load the hounds in the trailer, in a separate compartment from the horses. We were trailering the horses and hounds over to a neighbouring farm, about a five-minute drive from the Hunt Club where we would move off to start the hunt at 10:00 a.m. As soon as Richard opened the kennels, dozens of hounds burst out, babbling with excitement. He separated them and counted them, occasionally yelling out a wayward hound’s name: “Wonderbread! Pretzel! Tea Time!”
I stood there, enthralled, watching Richard in a sea of hounds, rattling off each canine’s name like they were his children. I asked later how he kept track of them all and he just shrugged. “It’s easy, they’re all a little different,” he said.
Hounds are counted in pairs or a ‘couple’ and Richard counted 13.5 couple (27 hounds) and loaded them into the trailer. He said this is an average number taken out on a hunt, though the number depends on the amount of land that needs to be covered. “The more noses on the ground, the better,” said Andrea.
The Hamilton Hunt Club usually tracks coyotes, not foxes, and rarely makes a kill. “It’s more of a chase,” said Andrea, adding the coyotes are very quick and wily and seem to easily escape the hounds. In her 10 years riding with the club, she’s only been on three hunts where there’s been a kill and those coyotes appeared sickly. “The hounds dispatch a coyote very quickly,” she said.
When we arrived at the neighbouring farm with the hounds and horses, there were already several trailers parked and horses unloaded. In another half hour, about 40 riders were mounted and milling about, waiting for their stirrup cup – a drink of port or sherry to warm the belly and give some liquid courage before setting off.
And We’re Off!
While Maximus’ owner, Corey, assured me his horse is a gentle giant, he was prancing and feeling tense, and I spilled half my sherry as I tried to drink it and maintain some control. As a hunt horse with a season already under his girth, Maximus knew we were about to set off. After we posed for a picture in all our hunting finest, Richard moved off with the hounds and Andrea guided me to the first field, to ride up front with a field master. The order of ‘go’ is huntsman and hounds first, then the field master, then first field, then a field master with a second field, and, if there are enough riders, a third field with another field master. The field masters lead the groups of riders, ensuring everyone has a safe ride, and etiquette dictates you are supposed to stay behind this person. “This is for safety reasons,” explained Andrea. “The field master knows the terrain. They know where there are gaps in the fence. If you get ahead of the field master you could end up tangled in wire or some other trouble.”
The whippers-in ride on the periphery of the groups, keeping an eye out for the hounds and guiding them back on track when they fall off the scent or start chasing prohibited game like deer.
I put Maximus a horse length behind the field master and in another minute we were off. We started at a brisk trot, but within a few minutes we were cantering on the edges of a ploughed field. The field master turned back to me and told me to shout down the line when we encountered hazards. No sooner did she say this than I smacked my helmet hard on a low lying branch. I was a little dazed, but managed to shout back “BRANCH!” to the riders behind me, and the field master gave me a nod – I guessed I’d done my job.
We picked up a little more speed and Maximus proved to be a wonderfully steady and responsive mount with just the right amount of ‘go’ for my tastes. We galloped down a hill and at the bottom was a ditch. I don’t jump much anymore, but we were going at too fast a speed for me to avoid the obstacle, so I grabbed the breast collar and yelled out “DITCH!” – more out of fear than to warn the riders behind me, although my shouting served this purpose, too. Maximus cleared it, I was still alive, so I let out a whoop and pushed him to go even faster. I may have found my new favourite equestrian sport!
Up ahead, I heard the hounds calling and a horn blare. They had picked up a scent. We continued at a more controlled canter as Richard disappeared over a hill with the pack. Soon we slowed to a trot and then a walk, as the field master watched ahead for a signal from Richard. We were a field away from the hounds when we saw a coyote pop out from cover and cross another field. The hounds started calling and the chase was on again.
In many ways, hunting is similar to team sports like hockey that require intense bursts of energy and then rest and recovery. The next four hours were spent like this – bursts of thrilling speed and then stops and walking, waiting for the hounds to pick up a scent again.
Aside from the first instance of seeing the coyote cross the field, we never did see it again.
The morning was spent chasing scents, enjoying the scenery and taking a few swigs of whiskey out of a fellow rider’s flask.
Are You Ready to Try?
Your horse needs to be fit and capable of these quick bursts of energy over a prolonged period of time, especially if you are riding with the first field. In the second or third fields, which go at a slower pace, the horse’s fitness doesn’t have to be quite as high.
Andrea said that when she is looking for a hunt horse, the most important qualities it needs are four strong, clean legs and a cool and collected head. She prefers Thoroughbreds because she likes their quickness and athleticism and ability to jump, but admits many people prefer the draft mixes. “I think it’s because they have more bone and they tend to stay sound longer, but it’s also a look. People like that typical picture of a little bit heavier horse, a little bit more like a knight’s horse,” she said.
Andrea also wants a horse that’s brave. “I’ve been stuck in areas where I’ve had to lay a red coat over a wire and jump that, so I want a brave horse. Not every horse is going to do that,” she said.
But Andrea also insists that riding to hounds is accessible for most riders, provided they have a secure, steady seat. “You should be confident and secure at the walk, trot, and canter,” she said of rider preparation, noting that jumping isn’t required if you are riding in the second or third field. The most important skill is having control of your horse and having the confidence you can rein him in if he starts getting strong.
Overall, Andrea says riding to hounds is a great option for riders – especially adults – who want a challenge, but don’t like the show scene. “I didn’t like being on display and all that,” she said of showing. “But I liked the idea of setting goals and getting better, so hunting was perfect for me. You get the adrenaline, you get lots of riding and you get the camaraderie,” she added.
To learn more or to find a hunt club near you, visit www.mfha.com.
Check out horse-canada.com/desk-to-derby/riding-to-hounds for some GoPro footage of the ride, and stay tuned to the May/June issue in which Liz gives vaulting a whirl.