The Gods considered my last entry to be excessively confident. They felt it necessary to remind me that pride comes before a fall. And never more literally than from horseback.
It may surprise you but until recently I’d only fallen off once this season (see part 7) and that was during Autumn hunting. Other than that I’d managed to stick between mane and tail.
But with regret I must report I’ve notched up another two tumbles.
Let me take you to a Meet relatively near to the end of the season. I had no chaperone. He was jumping hedges and I was watching from the opposite hill in the non-jumping field (yes, my Hunt has one of those on the big days).
We got to the Meet. There was lots of food and I decided to take the sum of all my experience and go for quiet competence at the back. I figured that if the day was mind bogglingly dull because I had kept it cool for the full day (yes, the FULL day) then I'd consider it a success. This was to be my Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for the day.
Well, dear readers, I owned it. For 90 minutes I was exemplary (at least in my mind). I maintained distance from other horses. I declined conversation to concentrate on my riding. I controlled appropriate speed and direction. I could hear the Huntsman. I could understand what the various Hunt Servants were trying to achieve. I was not confused or baffled by a single event. I felt comfortable in the Field.
I was particularly pleased at one point to be able to make my horse trot in the wake of the cantering Field. While he was a little bit spirited I maintained control. A few months ago I'd have been heading full flying gallop into the back of those other sweating horses.
In short, I was hunting, and hunting well.
I was feeling pretty smug.
So well had the morning gone that I sat on one side of a hedge as the first rider went over it and I heard a little voice in my head. I felt the big fella move into position. He knew what should be happening next and I had a series of quick thoughts:
"...go on, give them something to talk about!”
"...leg on, gather him up, yes, yes, it looks like a good idea"
"...the wife will have something to say when she catches up"
"...this horse won't refuse, let's do it, how hard can it be? It’s just a larger, wider fence"
"... sit back they said and give him his head - right?”
"...glory ahead, William, glory ahead! GLORY!"
My wife, mounted nearby, was nibbling on a snack waiting for me to mosey off into the non-jumping field. She noticed all of this in the blink of an eye and rebuked me with a quiet but definite "Don't you bloody dare! You were thinking about it weren't you?”.
I denied it but you and I know that I was. Maybe next season.
I took my place in the non-jumping Field. My chaperone, fresh from his own toss at that very hedge, came by with the call "come on up front, follow me".
A little open-field overtaking? Now this I know. Leg on and off we flew. Just as I was thinking about how well things were going the horses around me moved sharply to avoid something. The terrible realisation came that I was riding nearly flat out and now approaching the broadside of a man in a scarlet coat with his horse stood stock still in the way of the moving group. Three metres and closing. I had nowhere to go and my horse tried his best to swerve. It was 650kg of horse and another 100 kg of man. We turned but slid. I struck the hindquarter of this unexpected obstacle with the side of my leg. Luckily the bulk of the impact was avoided but I was tossed headfirst over the shoulder of my horse (and the rear of this bloke's horse).
Bugger. There will be no avoiding this one. This was an in-season fall in the middle of a field with no good reason. I took a knock on the head and was a little confused (again). I was sent home and one of the ever-patient livery yard operators rode my horse back.
Glory was within the grasp of my hand but instead I took a fist full of defeat.
New hat ordered but then snow came and hunting was postponed. Two Meets were cancelled and I couldn't get the final Wednesday off work.
Time was running out and I was dangerously close to ending my season how it started; with a bump on the head and "well at least he tried" platitudes.
The final Saturday Meet came. I was nervous again but I wanted to finish the season on a horse. There was a lot of rushing downhill through woods and I went through at least three discomfort levels I didn't know I had. At one point I nearly burst into tears. Please remember I’m a middle-aged man, not a pony clubber on his first day. But then I’ve learned pony clubbers in the hunting field laugh in the face of danger and also terrify me.
Through the day, uphill and downhill, I had the repeating thought ‘I will stay mounted. I will finish the day.’
Sadly it was not to be. As the joke goes: ‘How do you make the Universe laugh? Tell it your plans.’ I was unbalanced and turning on a downward slope. The poor horse could do no more. He slipped and fell on his side. I went over and landed on all fours. There were no blinding lights, my head never touched the ground. I was fine. The horse was fine. I jumped back on (well, OK, I heaved myself up in wet breeches with a pulled hamstring and a horse trying to following the Field) and tried to finish the day. Alas, I could not succeed. I could not keep up. I could not hold my nerve. I could not hack the pace. I was at the edge of my ability and needed to end the day. My wife came with me. I was pretty annoyed with myself but I've got a mortgage and two kids. I need to live to fight another day.
Happily we had a lovely hack out of the bottom of the forest. The wife was seriously impressed I knew the bridleways back to boxes. I proved my usefulness as a navigator if not a champion jockey. As we reached the last gate before boxes the entire Field rode up behind us. We joined in at the back and so in the end I did get the finish I wanted: on my horse, with the Field, and more or less having ridden the full day.
That's all she wrote folks. My first season is complete. I will cease making such a public fuss of revealing my concerns and drama. I shall do what everyone else appears to do when they have no control, simply not mention it, or suggest that the uncontrolled manoeuvre was entirely planned and appropriate. I see your game everyone.
ps: As my season came to a close I was asked if I would share a summary of thoughts and advice for anyone thinking about hunting so that’s what is coming up next week in a final posting.