Leslie Wylie’s English fox hunting adventure continues in Part III, in which Leslie and Lady Martha Sitwell head out with the legendarily-terrifying Ledbury Hunt.
Intrigued by a photo of a British foxhunter with smoldering eyes and apparent ice in her veins, Leslie Wylie reached out to its subject, the Lady Martha Sitwell, in hopes that she could arrange for an interview. One thing led to another, which led to Martha inviting Leslie to come hunting with her in England (see “Part 1: How I Got Invited to Foxhunt with British Royalty” and “Part 2: Darling, You’re Mad!“). In part 3 the story of their epic weekend continues.
Breakfast of Champions
“So, let me get this straight: This is your first time foxhunting in the UK and you’re going out with the Ledbury?”
Around the fourth or fifth time someone asks me this, accompanied by a snort of laughter, I begin to feel a pinch of concern. I grew up hunting and have jumped plenty of proper-sized fences in my life but… it’s been a while. The Ledbury is widely regarded as one of the formidable hunts in the world. Was I in over my head?
On the morning of the hunt Martha comes floating down the spiral staircase into Manor Farm’s kitchen looking like she’s just stepped out of an antique foxhunt painting. Smartly outfitted in a canary vest and those vintage balloon-thigh breeches that no woman has been able to pull off since Jackie O, she exclaims “Good morning, darling!” then leans in conspiratorially.
“Do you know what we need?” she whispers. “A drink.”
Martha isn’t talking about a cappuccino. In the world of foxhunting a quarter past 10 a.m. is well into happy hour, and today’s riders have already begun fortifying their courage reserves with assorted libations.
Despite the Lord-knows-how-many hours Martha has spent on the back of a horse in the hunt field, she admits that she still gets a few butterflies in her stomach before each meet — which is a healthy thing, I think, indicating respect for the sport, your horse and yourself. And while drowning those butterflies is obviously counterproductive, moistening their wings a little never hurts. Especially when you’re about to go have a one-day giant-hedge-jumping stand with a horse you’ve just met.
We drain a glass or two of champagne and head out to collect our hirelings. I’m handed the reins of a tall, red-headed Irish horse with floppy ears and a kind eye who is introduced to me first as “Charlie” and later as “Leo.” Alice Pearson, a fellow eventer/foxhunt moonlighter, suggests that he looks more like a “Bert.” I agree, so Bert it is.
When I ask Bert’s trainer if there is anything I need to know, he shrugs: “He knows his job. He’ll get you to the other side.”
The handsome bay that Martha is mounted on, on the other hand, requires a more nuanced ride. He’s a keen, game-on, “I’m doing this with you or without you” type, and the trainer has cautioned Martha not to try to pull him off of any jumps.
She laughs, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because she recognizes a little of the horse in herself. If Martha sets her sights on doing something, you’d be a fool to try to stop her, too.
Before mounting I give Bert a peppermint as collateral: “There’s more where this came from if you get me home in one piece, buddy.”
After one final toast there’s a loud clattering of hooves as we set off into the English countryside.
Hedge Fun Managers
With the first succession of mercifully small jumps popping up maybe 30 seconds in, Bert and I don’t have much of a getting-to-know-you period. Luckily my first impression of him is that he’s push-button as advertised; he gallops along on autopilot, slowing down and speeding up in sync with the horses in front of him and leaping each obstacle in stride.
Once settled in on my high-speed equine tour bus, I take the opportunity to enjoy some sightseeing. I imagine that if you looked down on the area we are hunting from above it would look like a chess board, some squares spring-green with crop and others tilled the color of dark chocolate. Each is outlined by the hedgerows for which the Ledbury is known, horses bounding from one into the next like chess pieces moving across the board.
No two game trajectories are ever the same, which is wild considering the fact that hounds have been hunting this area for at least 300 years. The Ledbury Hunt itself can trace its origin to 1846, when a committee was formed and a huntsman engaged to hunt 14 couples of hounds, five days a fortnight.
Then and now, the hunt has functioned as a cornerstone of its community. During one of its most prosperous periods, under the Mastership of Sir George Bullough from 1908 to 1927, it was the largest employer in Ledbury with 40 full-time staff. This symbiosis remains integral to modern foxhunting, which could not exist were it not for the generosity and support of area landowners.
On this peculiarly sunny, warm February day, the locals are out in full force. Families have parked their cars along roads to watch, some of them scaling the hills for a better view. And it’s a sight to behold, no doubt: some 50 or 60 horses and riders going hellbent for leather in pursuit of a pack of hive-minded hounds.
The hedges seem to be getting bigger and bigger as we go along. Before I left the States an eventing friend gave me some good advice: “If you ever start feeling psyched out, remind yourself that they’re just bushes.”
Just bushes. Uh-huh.
Lucky for me, when it comes to jumping Bert is an energy conservationist. He puts in the bare minimum effort required to get us from one side of the fence to the other, which suits me just fine. Frankly, I have no desire to ride a horse that feels the need to clear a six-foot hedge.
“Over, under or through” has always been my cross-country mantra, and while not many horses have taken me up on the latter two strategies, Bert seems to have his brush jump belly-surfing technique down to an art.
Bert’s Big Finish
I’m not going to lie — I saw plenty of fallen soldiers out there.
Bert and me, though, we have a good system going. If we’re jumping a straightforward hedge, I just put my leg on, slip my reins and let him sort out the fine print. But when we come up on a solid fence, or a brush that looks like it might have wire in it, I make sure to give him a heads up by whispering in his ear: “Alright, Bert old chap, you’ve got to pick your feet up over this one.”
Just kidding. I’m glad that technique worked out for Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet but comprehending subtle messages isn’t really in Bert’s skill set. By “whispering,” I mean I get in the back seat, pick up his ears and boot his hind end underneath him, setting him up for a tidier, more powerful jump.
For four glorious hours Bert and I are on fire. We hang with the big guns, don’t weenie out at a single jump and, despite the risk of getting my front teeth knocked out by a clod of mud, I can’t wipe the grin off my face. Truly, it is some of the best fun I’ve ever experienced on the back of a horse.
When Martha heads back a bit early I take up with Manuel, her Portuguese gentleman friend, who keeps me wildly entertained during checks with stories about bull fighting and swigs of what may be radiator fluid from his flask.
It’s not uncommon for the Ledbury to stay out until dark but we were supposed to have the hirelings back to the lorry by 3, and the time was drawing nigh to hack home. When the Huntsman sets off again, Manuel and I agree that we’ll hop one last jump to catch up and get directions back to Manor Farm.
One last jump = famous last words. Perhaps when two people in front of us fall off at the fence, we might have taken it as a hint, but from a distance I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. It looked straightforward enough. I’d “whisper in Bert’s ear” and we’d be fine.
What I don’t realize, until it’s too late, is that this “straightforward” fence is actually a 4-foot vertical rail, built out of something like a telephone pole, and the approach is knee-deep mud.
Poor, sweet, true-blue Bert gives it his best effort… but it isn’t quite enough. He catches his knees and goes somersaulting over the top, ass over teakettle, and after 20+ years of riding I experience my very first rotational fall. Luckily he rolls off me straightaway and sets himself back upright, ambling a few steps to where Manuel’s horse is standing then turning to look at me sheepishly.
Having determined that I was, in fact, still alive, I stand up and waggle my whip in Bert’s direction. “I told you to pick up your feet!”
I manage a flimsy laugh before the world gets dark and spinny and I have to plop back down in the mud (to which I probably owe a thank-you for cushioning our fall).
A few feet away Manuel is looking at me, politely aghast. “You seem to be bleeding from your nose,” he notes in his wonderful accent that makes everything sound sort of floral and warm, like a cup of chamomile tea.
Huh. I mop off my face, hoping I won’t have to go the hunt ball tomorrow with a black eye or sideways cartoon nose. A quick inventory of other body parts confirms that I am mostly intact (my elbow may be a little bit fractured but don’t worry, mom, I’m getting it checked out later today), and to my great relief Bert trots out good-as-new.
Bloodstained, mud-spattered and grinning like a maniac on the long walk home, I’m sure I am quite the sight to behold.
On to the Next One
Martha meets Manuel and I at the lorry and I explain to her what happened. “Oh, the Badminton Fence!” she says, nodding her head in recognition.
The first thing I would like to point out is: I’m very certain that any jump on a modern Badminton cross country course is much safer than the Ledbury “Badminton Fence.” But do go on, Martha.
She proceeds to tell me that she broke her finger there a couple years ago. Apparently the horse in front of her had fallen and was “rolling around in the mud” on the other side, but it was too late for Martha to do much beyond steer her own mount clear and try not to die in the process.
“So did you fall off?” I ask.
“Did your horse fall?”
Still no — Martha explains that he apparently found a “9th leg” and got himself over.
“So how did you break your finger?”
When Martha had shared some hunting words of wisdom with me the night before, much of it revolved around “just keep kicking.” Especially when things go pear-shaped. But sometimes, apparently, even kicking isn’t enough.
Martha broke her finger at the Badminton Fence because she punched her horse in the neck.
Apologies in advance, Martha: I know you used to take boxing lessons and I’m sure you’re very strong. But the idea of this slip of a woman thumping her horse in the neck for emphasis is almost too much to bear.
“If I had heard this story BEFORE we went hunting today,” I say, gasping for breath between giggles, “maybe I would have gone AROUND that fence.”
Poor Bert, or whatever his name actually is. Before we head out I gave him a big pat and a peppermint. To his credit, he DID get me to the other side.
To be continued…