BY ANNA BOWEN
I first went hunting ten years ago, on a grey day in late October, riding a four year old piebald mare bought from gypsies. I fell in love with the sport several weeks later, crossing the ethereal uplands of North Carmarthenshire, following the shaggy hounds of the Towy and Cothi. The obsession was inevitable, as Dire Straits sing the dice was loaded from the start; my mother hunted with the same pack as a child, and back at home a silver cup a century old gleamed with my great-grandfather’s name and the accolade of Best Puppy Walker. In the years running up to the first hunt I followed on foot and dreamt of the day when I turned up on a neatly plaited, glossy horse. For those not born into the hunting world it can seem alien and rigid with unspoken rules and unbreakable etiquette. Here, therefore, is a quick guide for anyone who has ever wondered how they can start hunting.
A person who pays a subscription to a pack is referred to as a “subscriber”, anyone else is a “visitor” and as such should request permission to “visit” their chosen pack. To find your local pack the best option is either to look them up in the hunting directory, or to buy Horse & Hound’s annual hunting special, which has a full list of all packs in the UK, along with the names and contact details of their secretaries and hunt officials. The secretary is the person you should speak to in order to arrange a visit. When I have enough time I like to write a letter requesting permission to visit; with shorter notice a phone call or e-mail is enough. The secretary will be able to tell you the time and location of the meet, the amount you will have to pay as visitor’s cap, and any other important information regarding parking, paying cap, and the running of the day. If it is your first day’s hunting they can also recommend a suitable meet; it is best to avoid busy days such as Opening Meet, Boxing Day, Closing Meet, flashy lawn meets at big houses, and meets in the hunt’s best jumping country.
Forget what you have seen painted by Munnings, or splashed across the papers on Boxing Day; any type of horse can and will hunt. If you are to hunt every week in a specific country then you may end up in a position where you buy a horse designed for hunting and suited to the lie of the land, but for casual days out there is no reason why you can’t take your normal steed. For its first day stick a green ribbon in its tail, keep to the back, and aim to keep out of the way. Autumn hound exercise is generally the best way to introduce your horse to hounds in a more relaxed atmosphere than “hunting proper.” Once you get into hunting you will find that there is no greater delight in the world than crossing country on a really smart thoroughbred.
In order to really enjoy hunting you will need to be proficient in all four paces, able to judge ground, have good balance, and be brave enough after a glass of port to jump safely. In reality people with far less skill than that can and do hunt. The standard of riding needed does depend on the country; there are some packs that are really only suitable for the best riders, while in slower country a rider with no desire to gallop or jump could get along on a good horse if they have the sense to avoid bogs and other perils. Most big packs will have a non- jumping field master as well as one who takes the jumping field; there are myriad reasons why even the most competent riders will want to spend the day without getting airborne, from riding a young horse to avoiding heavy ground to being horribly hungover. Again, if in doubt about your ability ask the honest advice of the secretary or a regular follower.
While out hunting your role in the field is to stay behind, and listen to, the Field Master. The person with this position will be announced at the meet and may or may not be an official Master of Foxhounds. You should do as they say, and bid them “Good night” at the end of the day, regardless of how early or late it is.
The Master(s) should be greeted with “Good morning Master”. You will hear professional hunt staff refer to them as “sir” and “ma’am”, which is enough to start an outbreak of Scarlet Fever amongst even the strongest rider. Horses with red ribbons kick and should be at the back of the field. Children should also keep out of the way, unless they are needed to open gates. Hip-flasks should always be offered around to everyone within a reasonable distance, as should sweets. Turnout requirements will vary between packs, so ask the secretary what is expected. Always be polite to other country users, and especially to foot followers and quad riders; one of them may very well be the landowner over whom’s land you are crossing.
Hunting should be enjoyable for horse and rider; push yourself, but not dangerously, and always bear in mind the immense privilege it is to have access to the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Country Squire’s Anna Bowen is a graduate of the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, from which she has an MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security, and a First Class Honours degree in International Equine and Agricultural Management. Now working as a dairy consultant and freelance writer in West Wales, she spends her time hunting side saddle with the Carmarthenshire and the Croome & West Warwickshire.