After four horses, I’m still not sure how I made it to the hunt field in one piece.
I think we can all agree that foxhunting is the perfect combination of seat-of-your-pants badassery and pleasingly common-sense tradition. Plus, there’s nothing quite like day drinking enjoying nature with friends. But how do you actually get started in the sport?
- a horse who won’t completely lose his marbles when you bring him to a new place with dozens of horses and hounds,
- transportation for such a horse,
- enough riding skill to walk, trot, and canter outdoors without being a hazard,
- a saddle and the right clothes (if you don’t have them already), and
- you need to know a hunt member who can assure the Master that you will not embarrass yourself or others, and who will ‘babysit’ you if need be.
Sounds easy. Not.
But somehow, after four horses and three barns in the space of one year, I finally found all these things–on a writer’s budget.
My fascination with foxhunting began when I would stay up way past my bedtime as a kid reading Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries with talking horses, foxhounds, and cats. Yet since I grew up as a weekly lesson-taker at a hunter-jumper barn, disciplines that required your own horse and trailer seemed far out of reach.
Fast forward to age 23. I had a full-time job and a little extra cash. I started leasing a dressage horse…who turned out to be a terrible fit for me. I needed a change, and during some procrastinatory Chronicle of the Horse forum browsing, I heard of Hunter’s Rest, a bed-and-breakfast-and-barn that leases out hunt horses by the day in Virginia. I sent an email, and a month later I found myself hilltopping with Old Dominion on a saintly school horse named X. I had the time of my life, and even viewed the fox. I had to hunt again.
But it was $100 to lease the horse for a day, $100 cap fee to Old Dominion, and about $30 in gas round-trip–for some, that’s just the cost of a show, but for me, it was nearly the entire amount I normally spent on my horse habit each month!
Hence my dilemma–I couldn’t manage the extra cost more than once or twice a year on top of riding regularly through lessons or leasing. And if I gave up riding close by in exchange for hunting more in Virginia, I feared my riding skills would go down the toilet. What if I lost my confidence, my horse spooked, and I ended up as a lawn dart…or worse, on a runaway passing the Master?
Once I did some research and found out that hunt horses for long-term lease are very rarely advertised online, I started looking into hunts closer to where I live, hoping that by some magic, I could find a Hunter’s Rest closer to me. Well, I did–but at slightly more cost. That’s what I get for living near DC. It was time to veer into uncharted territory for a Millennial like me.
I picked up the phone. To make an actual call.
Potomac Hunt was closest to me, so I asked one of the masters if she knew of any hunt members with horses for lease. She did! I made another call, and set up a time to try the horse–a GIGANTIC Shire mare named Polly.
She was green, and awful to catch, but a straightforward ride–which was great because I spent my spring and summer building my confidence on the trails with the foxhunters who boarded at that barn. We rode through the woods, hacked over to the kennels, and managed to overcome my irrational fear of coops! (It probably helped that Polly was so big she could have stepped over them.)
It all seemed to be working out according to plan. I was slowly accumulating the clothes through tack trader groups online and trips to the Middleburg consignment shops. I even acquired a pair of VERY old, VERY stiff–but still BROWN field boots!
In the fall, I planned on taking advantage of Potomac’s free cubbing whenever I could catch a trailer ride, and I had saved up gradually for Potomac’s $475 six-cap package to use during the informal and formal hunting season. It was an amazing deal, considering I would have only been able to hunt about three times for the same cost if I had to lease a horse by the day.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan. Polly was sold, and no other hunt horses at that barn were available to lease. I backtracked–I would contact Pleasant Prospect, which leases out hunt horses for the Howard County Iron Bridge Hounds. It was a little farther away from me, and a little more expensive, but hey–I was still thrilled at the chance to ride regularly and I could use the money I had saved to hunt a handful of times, even though I was sad not to be riding with the Potomac Hunt friends had I made over the summer.
Back to square one–convincing people at a new barn that I did indeed know how to ride reasonably well. It shouldn’t have been that difficult…but for some reason, I was always a little nervous, and it translated into my riding. I was stiff, and bouncy, and second-guessed my jumps–and the normally quiet Thoroughbred I was riding did not like that. Logically, my apprehension made no sense, since the horses I was riding were incredibly well trained. And the surroundings were amazing.
The manager ran a tight ship, and was very accommodating–she would tack up your horse and trailer it to hunt trail rides for you–but I just wasn’t feeling that same connection I had at the previous barn. Though everyone was friendly, I sort of felt like I was trespassing on the golf course whenever I was there.
This is where knowing hunt people came in handy, especially as a young person–they want new people to keep the sport going! One of my friends from Polly’s barn had been on the lookout for horses for me to ride. She found not one, but two–and for free! Suddenly, the pieces seemed to be falling back into place for my original plan at Potomac. This time with Windsor Castle, a Roman-nosed draft cross belonging to the hunt secretary, who was laid up due to a broken thumb, and Tango, a dead quiet pony whose owner was looking for a buddy to go on conditioning rides with.
Unexpectedly, I found myself riding more than I had all year, helping both mounts to get fit for the season. I was invited to all kinds of hunt events, from trail rides to walking out hounds and eventually, cubbing–and all at the right price (free)!
When the Bank of Mom and Dad closes its doors, riding at all can be tough for young people. But a combination of luck, the kindness of friends and my unwillingness to believe it was impossible has gotten me into the hunt fields three times so far this year–and counting! I feel like I’m living a dream even when it’s 5 a.m. and I’m stumbling over my cats to try and find a hairnet in the dark.
So for anyone dreams of hunting–or eventing, or cutting cows, or whatever–keep trying, and keep talking to people about your dream. You never know who might be able to make it come true!