Have fun in the off-season while reaping some great benefits for you and your horse, enthuses eventer/foxhunter Laura Millerick.
Top: Shakertown Fox Hunt. Photo by Matt Wooley/EquiSport Photos.
Don’t know what to do this winter? Take your eventer foxhunting! I know, I know, it may seem crazy, but hear me out. What to do when the competition season ends and it gets cold is a question that plagues all of us. Like most, I will not be making the Great Migration to the south for the chillier months, but that’s okay with me since I look forward to hunt season as much as the start of event season. There’s a lot of reasons why trying hunting with your eventer may be a really great thing for both you and your horse, and they may surprise you.
1. Improve your horse’s independence
When you listen to top riders and trainers talk about starting and educating young horses, you’ll hear a lot about how important it is for them to be able to think for themselves, to know how to be quick on their feet and get themselves out of a sticky situation that may not have gone exactly as planned. You won’t be able to micromanage what your horse is doing much since there’s a lot you have to be paying attention to, like what the Field Master is doing, where the hounds are and so on. You may be surprised at how your horse steps up to the plate when left to make some of his own decisions.
The first event horse I took hunting was young and somewhat aloof when jump schooling. He was a great jumper, but he didn’t pay attention to striding at all or where he was putting his feet, and he was really hard to adjust. I will always distinctly remember my shock when we were going to a coop in our second season of hunting together and I felt my horse do a flying lead change and balance himself to the base of the jump without me doing a thing. His improved awareness of what he was doing not only improved our cross country, but also our show jumping quite a bit.
2. Conquering bogeys and resetting expectations
It’s easy to form impressions of our horses that will never go away if we never change our approach. We can get used to thinking certain things about our horses — that they hate mud, they get spooky at shows, they hate grass arenas, they’re terrified of ditches or water, etc., etc. These behaviors often turn into a vicious cycle since we begin to expect it of them, which they then pick up on. When you’re out in the hunt field traveling with a group of other horses, you’d be shocked how quickly your horse will forget how much he hates mud or is TERRIFIED of water when he’s more focused on keeping up with the field. They will remember that experience and learn from it the same as if you were working through it cross-country schooling and, hopefully, it will be a completely positive memory since you didn’t have to work through him stopping and snorting at a water jump.
Events may not be so stressful anymore after he survived hunting in a big group with hounds running and baying everywhere. This will then reset your expectations of your horse. You’ll no longer think of him as a horse that spooks at water or stops in the mud because he blazes through it in the huntfield, and you may find yourself riding more confidently and successfully as a result. You’ll likely improve across country as well, particularly in your balance riding over terrain, and may even get over some of your fears. Uncomfortable riding down hills at speed? You won’t be after hunting — that I can guarantee from experience!
3. Staying fit without a bazillion trot sets
Unless you’re intending to give your horse the winter off, keeping him and yourself fit can be a boring routine of trot sets, over and over and over again. Trust me — hunting will completely change that. Hunting is hard, for both the horse and the rider. You spend a lot of time travelling quickly across very varied terrain, which will keep the horse fit for obvious reasons, but it will also keep you fit since you’re spending a lot of time out of the tack. It will almost completely eliminate the period of legging up we usually expect at the start of event season if you’ve been hunting all winter.
4. It’s FUN.
To me, this is the most important factor. It’s fun for you and it’s fun for your horse. Hunts generally are made up of wonderful, welcoming people that ride because they love it and are first and foremost there to have a good time. It will turn winter from that boring season where we do trot sets and work on dressage to hunt season and give you something to look forward to year round.
Of course, there is the necessary disclaimer that not all horses will love hunting. A horse that HATES dogs, kicks or loses his mind in groups would probably not be well-served by being taken hunting. Your horse may take a couple times out to realize how much fun it is, but a lot of them really do take to it, and there’s lots of great lessons to be learned in the hunt field. So, if you think anything that I just mentioned above sounds like it might be good for you or your horse, email the secretary for your local hunt and ask about permission to cap (hunt as a visitor) with them. Once they’ve given the okay, throw in some road studs and kick on; we’d love to see you in the hunt field!
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