Category: hunting

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 4

The Terminator

Even with 120 hooves splashing with thunderous gusto along the rutted muddy farm track I could still distinguish that 4 of them were gaining on us from behind. This isn’t normally a concern but my ears informed me that this horse was becoming dangerously close to the rear of my horse. I took a swift look behind and saw it was George on his strapping great piebald cob. He met my swift gaze with a look of apologetic dread as he pulled frantically on the reins. But from my view point it may as well have been a new born kitten pulling on the horses mouth, it had no effect what-so-ever. In that instant we both understood he was out of control and there was nothing anyone could do to help.

The tightly packed field on this narrow track should have made it impossible for a horse to pass us safely… or even politely. Obviously his horse hadn’t read the book on hunting etiquette. No, the large well-built gelding would indeed have a gap if my pony could be pushed out of the way. The intention was completely clear as he menacingly advanced on us like a low flying airbus.

Usually when two horses clash sides, remaining seated is entirely possible even if the stirrup is torn from one’s foot. The major problem with being completely barged out of the way by an animal weighing 650kg is that it hurts.

The gelding was close now, just as his flaring nostrils were 6 inches behind my left heel, I felt my mare being pushed to the right. All thoughts of an impending crushed leg vanished from my mind as I looked in that direction, I had bigger problems. With a good deal of horror I realised this side of the track was flanked by a very steep embankment. Not to imagine Dover Cliffs, but I would estimate it to be a drop of approximately 30 to 40 feet. The short stout tree’s growing on the slope could perhaps stop my pony plunging to her death, but I reasoned it diminished my chances of being thrown clear should she tumble over the edge. Images of myself sandwiched between a tree and a flailing horse flooded my mind as adrenalin levels reached an all-time high.

This was the first hunt of the season hence the large field, and like everyone else I had been looking forward to this day. But here I was, feeling sure this would be my last ride…ever. However this wasn’t the first time my mare had experienced horses attempting to push past us.

Exactly one year previous to this a similar situation had developed in which a horse had come galloping up behind my mare. The red ribbon that adorned her tail is actually quite useless during hunting. As while every rider may know the significance of it, argy-bargy dominant horses fuelled by oats and adrenalin, do not. Unfortunately this particular huntsman’s horse would not be taught the danger of galloping up behind my cantankerous mare this day. Albeit with admirable aim, my horse delivered a killing shot with enough power to incapacitate an adult buffalo. It would have under normal circumstances put paid to high spirited shenanigans…had there not been a human knee in the way. Regrettably the rider suffered a fractured knee cap and was out of action for the rest of the season.

One year later I’m staring down at this steep embankment at full gallop, we are so close that the edge is breaking away causing soaking wet clumps of soil to roll and bounce down the slope. My mare’s ears are pinned flat to her head and she has one eye on the piebald airbus, there’s a silent exchange of equine swearing occurring between both horses.

I don’t care if she is angry, I don’t care if she’s gesticulating to the horse to move away. I want to know if she’s seen the bloody steep drop, I want her to concentrate on that as opposed to arguing with George’s horse!

George is also aware I am about to be pushed over the edge, he is both terrified and furious at his horse and is panic-shouting something of an apology. It occurs to me I could use my stick to crack the horse across the muzzle in an attempt to move him away. But as it turns out my horse had other plans. Just as I’m certain we are both about to plummet to our deaths if I don’t intervene, my mare delivers a formidable blow with a back left.

The sound is audible even above the many hooves travelling at speed in 8 inches of water logged mud. This isn’t the dull thud of a hoof impacting muscle either. This sound is comparable to the discernable crack of a whip, expertly and powerfully used by the likes of Indiana Jones when relieving a gun-wielding bad-ass of his weapon.

My mare doesn’t strike the riders knee as in the previous year, no she booted the knee of George’s horse.

Let’s just say this horse fully understood the perils of galloping up close behind someone’s horse that day, because he was instantly crippled. The horse pulled up immediately on 3 legs hopping lame. I’ve no idea how long it took poor George to negotiate his way back to the lorry with his broken steed in hand. Although news did reach me some weeks later that the horse was likely to recover after 3 months of box rest.

It is at this point I should point out, if you haven’t guessed already, that the owner of the fractured knee cap from the previous year was also called George.

The same George in-fact.

Yes for 2 years straight my horse is responsible for making one particular huntsman hang up his riding boots right after the opening meet, and entirely missing two seasons in a row.

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 3

The Rogue River

Of the many rivers that snake their way through the English countryside on their journey to the sea, this river was a rogue. A rebel amongst the well behaved picturesque rivers we all love to sit by and have a picnic. This river stuck two fingers up to the likes of Constable and Monet. Dare I say, this river would spit on your cucumber sandwich and whisper to the wasps that you will be having a Victoria sponge for dessert. The grassy verges were harassed and bullied until they upped roots and moved to a better neighbourhood. It pulled down the beautiful Willow which now lay fallen, spanning the river like a macabre bridge. The torrent of water proudly displayed other fallen vegetation within its clay-brown swirling tentacles.

This day the Rogue River was about to capture a new kind of prey.

James sat on his high horse looking down at me from his 17.2 Warmblood. The horse was a beautiful chestnut with cannon bones the size of tree trunks, and his mane was plaited to perfection. I doubted James had completed the exceptional presentation of this horse. People like James didn’t appreciate fiddling with plaiting bands or having remnants of clipped hair down their pants.

My neck was becoming stiff while looking up at him from my 14.2 pony but I continued to smile and feign enthusiasm which may have wavered slightly as he loudly announced that his new horse had cost him £12 grand. But apparently he was of good stock and out of Fanfaron Sac De Vent, at least that’s what I thought he said. Somewhat conveniently I then spotted Rupert who had his hip flask out and I was trying to catch his eye. A nip of whiskey right now would be just the ticket. James could tell I was becoming distracted and thankfully rode off to impress someone else.

The time came to end discussions and to tuck away hip flasks as it had just been announced there was no way around this river, we would have to cross it. The entire field went quiet, even the hounds seemed to understand and probably for the first time in their entire lives… stopped barking.

The bravest riders went first, which unfortunately made things worse for everyone that hung back. It became obvious the water was deeper than expected, and the horses became agitated as the cold water lapped at their bellies. The first two horses struggled up the muddy bank, legs were splaying, slipping and again trying to get a grip. It looked awkward and horribly unseating and we all cringed at the near falls of both horse and rider. The bank became wetter and further churned up as more horses flailed and soaked the ground.

I admit I pushed in, I was going to cross this river right now, rather than wait for it to be a dead certain we’d both fall at the steep muddy bank on the opposite side. Disastrously, everyone else had the same idea! The next few minutes were mayhem, I found myself stuck in the middle, and the deepest part of the river. Horses were clambering up the other side so there was no room for me to move forward. By now horses were falling, and of course unseating their riders. Hunters found themselves on hands and knees crawling up the bank caked head to foot in mud.

I stayed put in the middle of the river with water filling my boots, fortunately my pony remained calm. I caught glimpses of her wide eyes as she looks left and right at the spectacle before her. She seemed to be assessing the situation, in my heart I knew she was. James charged past us both. His stirrup iron would leave a bruise on my upper leg for the next 5 weeks, but at least it didn’t get my horse.

His plan was to rush the bank in the hope his horse would jump up higher onto sure footing, but I already knew his plan was flawed. I may have even told him if he’d just pulled up beside me, instead of tearing my thigh muscle in half. The bank and the area beyond was a quagmire, there was no sure footing for man or beast.

Both horse and rider fell in spectacular fashion. The horse lost his footing and flipped sideways into the water, and James was thrown a good 3 feet into the river. Probably due to being somewhat dazed and bewildered that the son of Fanfaron Sac De Vent was unable to jump clear, James was unable to gain his footing so was swept violently along in the current.

His hat. That image will remain as sharp in my memory as the day it happened. The Rogue River had captured James in its tentacle-like grasp, and took him on a white water ride toward The Macabre Bridge. He made some attempt to grab the decaying bark but to no avail. We all lost sight of James as he was dragged by the current under the fallen willow…but his hat remained, dancing about like a black buoy on a choppy ocean.

It was now my turn, I wasn’t keen but we couldn’t stand in a river for the rest of our lives.

No reins, no leg just a handful of mane to stabilise myself I let my pony find her own way, and she did.  Once on level ground I spotted the horse that belonged to James trotting about waving his head and snorting to shouts of ‘loose horse!’ We cantered to his horse and cut him off and I was able to grab his reins. The 3 of us returned to the soaking wet, muddy throng just in time to see James clambering out of the river some distance away. A little cheer went up amongst a smattering of giggles.

I handed the reins to James who seemed surprised my little pony and I had made it up the bank, and indeed caught his horse without incident.

Yes, I replied ‘Not a bad little horse considering she only cost £250’

Confessions of a Hunter: Part 2

Hedge Dwelling

The earliest records of the now almost extinct sport of Hedge Dwelling can be dated as far back as 1540. It is widely believed the sport coincided with the sport of fox hunting that had been growing in popularity in Norfolk since 1534. Traditionally hunting on horseback mainly focused on tracking deer but due to the decrease in deer populations open land was subsequently enclosed for protection purposes. This proved something of a hindrance to the hunters that ideally needed vast areas of open land to track deer successfully. Subsequently hunters began focusing their attention on hunting fox and hare. However this sport relied on flushing out small prey from hedge-rows which unfortunately hindered the hounds that had difficulty penetrating the dense foliage, due to the thorny and abrasive nature of the plants.

Records show around this time the sport of Hedge Dwelling rapidly grew in popularity as people were needed to flush out the prey that would go to ground in almost impenetrable undergrowth. Traditional attire of the Hedge Dweller consisted of a hat made of a hard substance which researchers theorise could have been made of whale bone, a thick tightly woven woollen jacket which was both water-proof and could protect a person from thorns, knee high leather boots and leather gloves. A stick with a deer antler handle was often carried to knock away thicker branches.

As said previously this sport is almost extinct, but I myself had the privilege of partaking in this ancient past time very recently. It is an early start for most people that hunt as there is much to do, which ultimately culminates in both horse and person attending the meet with the strictest punctuality and with a good standard of presentation. With this in mind the responsible hunter would expect to retire to bed at 9 pm in order to be at the stables at 6 a.m.  For reasons that escape me, although I have a vague recollection that whiskey may have been involved, I ‘retired’ to bed at 3 a.m. Therefore I was feeling somewhat bewildered that I was being prodded just 2 hours later by someone insisting one should adorn a pair of jodhpurs and to stick ‘that mess’ under a hair net.

My trusted steed was on true form as usual and is at best a handful even for someone that is compos mentis. However a thoroughbred intoxicated by whiskey fumes is a thing of nightmares for the rider that is non-compos mentis. As the previous night’s mascara was migrating down my cheeks and the hair-net struggling to do its job it appeared my reputation with this particular hunt was also about to unravel. Fortunately I was somewhat relieved to notice the hedge-rows consisted of a particularly dense and thorny variety of plant. Remembering the ancient sport of Hedge Dweller I was quick to grab the opportunity to redeem myself and volunteered to take my sturdy stick with the antler handle and be Chief Hedge Dweller for the day. I had planned to ask the Master permission but unfortunately he was not to be seen, nor the hounds or indeed, anyone else. I had unwittingly galloped off in another direction entirely away from the rest of the field during a lapse of consciousness. I put this partial black-out down to a dodgy prawn from last night’s malaba curry.

Hunting 2

My horse took her semi-conscious rider back to the lorry to which she quite happily loaded herself, and enjoyed the full hay net that had been tied up there. Fortunately there was a troublesome hedge-row quite close by that was crying out for the services of a Hedge Dweller and I was keen to carry out my duty post haste. By happy chance the traditional attire of this ancient sport was almost exactly the same attire worn by hunts in modern times, so I was well protected.

After a length of time being Chief Hedge Dweller I realised I was been prodded for the second time in just a few short hours. My friendly lorry driver had returned from following the hunt on foot, and felt a little baffled to find a horse on his lorry but no client in sight. According to him the sound of gentle snores were emanating from a nearby hedge and on investigating…found me. I vehemently dispute his recollection that I was asleep! No, I stand by the fact that I was an asset to the hunt this day by volunteering to flush out prey from the under-growth and felt proud to be upholding the ancient tradition of Hedge Dwelling.

Confessions of a Hunter

The blood curdling screams tore through the air like a hot poker being driven into fresh snow and exceeded the sound level of a glacier calving off the Antarctic Peninsula. If those screams had been heard at 2 a.m on a housing estate in Milton Keynes the police would have been called, an ambulance…heck, it would have warranted an armed response. But there was no reaction from the 30 something people that were in close proximity to this woman. Was she on fire, or was she witnessing the skies ripping open to reveal Jesus and the 4 horseman of the Apocalypse?

No she was experiencing a downhill, 30 mph flat-out gallop with the The Kimblewick Hunt. This screaming woman was behind me, as nearly everybody was considering I was riding the fastest pony ever to exist in the entire history of the planet. My 3 ring gag was about as much use as a sandbag used to hold back a tsunami. Even years later I am on occasion still jolted awake by the sound of the Master shouting “If you can’t control that horse you will go home!”

Fox_Hunting_-_Henry_Alken

I do not turn my head to the sound of the terrified screams because things are going well for me. At least I tell myself that if my hearing is still intact I am therefore still alive. I daren’t move a muscle because in these situations ‘that image’ always pops into the equestrians head. Yes, you are in the midst of a flat out gallop and you imagine the horse tripping. It becomes apparent my nightmare pony has a plan to keep us both alive, for at the bottom of the hill is an open gate. If this had been a Sunday afternoon stroll with the labrador, this innocent looking gate would have proved no threat what so ever. But unless the laws of physics could be miraculously re-written in the next 20 seconds, 30 horses passing through this gate would be the equivalent of a speeding elephant trying to successfully negotiate a cat-flap. As we both passed last year’s winner of point to point (easily) while simultaneously committing the cardinal sin of passing the Master, we both pass through that opening unscathed. Well nearly, my ears stung quite considerably at someone shouting, but I hastily reassured myself that the person ‘who should go home’ wasn’t me.

We pull up and look back, and its carnage. Knee caps have been removed and indeed it’s now apparent it’s the Master himself that needs to go home. Well technically he needs a hospital and 6 months bed rest. He’s not alone either as I spot various people that have been ungraciously torn from their horse by every hunter’s worst nightmare…the fence post. There are even stirrup leathers and irons now adorning both posts. Hunters are sensible people and we always know how to react in such harrowing situations, yes we break out the whiskey and fags.

Theresa May has recently declared she would like to lift the ban on hunting and that she will renew the Tory pledge to hold a free vote on overturning the ban. This will undoubtedly upset various animal rights groups. Admittedly politics isn’t my cup of tea and I am happily perched on the fence over this, and can actually see reason in both arguments regarding ‘for and against’ hunting. I have seen a hare killed once by the hounds and the entire event of this animal departing our gracious planet lasted approximately 2 seconds. From half a mile away it resembled a hurricane of hounds dancing in a dust-bowl, and then it was over. The animals ate the hare and it would have barely been a mouthful each. The articles I have read depicting hunts chasing a terrified fox relentlessly for 3 hours was something I have never experienced.

Animal right activists may even gain a little comfort in knowing what the average hunter experiences out in the field. A small number of riders leave after the opening meet, more leave after the first hour. Add to that those that retire early when losing a shoe, and those riders that get lost or left behind. I can assure you 4 people will fall at the first hedge, another 3 will be wiped out by a fence post, and another 6 will be terrified at that downhill gallop.

To_the_Craners_of_England_-_Henry_Alken

Talking of which, what did happen to the screaming woman? After the whiskey and fags, and mopping up of various ungraciously dismounted folk, and bagging up an assortment of knee-caps she was last seen walking up a country lane toward the direction of her horse-box. Was she ever seen out hunting again? No.