I hope this finds you safe and warm in the midst of The Beast. I’m sorry to be losing some of these last hunting days to the weather.
My publisher has kept me abreast of the readership of this diary and, while the numbers are not comparable with viral videos of a cat rolling over, it’s a highly experienced crowd which is also generous, warm and committed to my hunting development. I thank you for your support from the bottom of my heart. Occasionally people make the connection between me and my hapless tales though as far as I know it's not only on account of seeing me ride.
Anyway, as this week’s Meet was cancelled, I thought I’d update you on my season so far.
After a painful fall and a knock on the head - which you’ve now caught up on - the target for my inaugural season shifted. My goal was to not quit. The strategy was simple. I would head out on all Meets that were generally felt to be suitable.
The rules for suitability were:
- The country was not considered entirely lethal
- There must be a non-jumping field to join and opportunities to go around all obstacles
- I had pre-arranged a riding chaperone for on-the-spot assistance and advice
The other key element of the confidence strategy was the recognition that a short day finished in the saddle having fun was by far better than a long day and crushed dreams. In any case, I have just one horse and he will only be asked to carry his burden three days a fortnight. Between work, family, weather and Meet location it all worked out.
As I write I have amassed 26+ hunting days. The end of the season is just a few weeks away. That’s a lot of hours in the saddle but not quite as many as you might think.
You see, the hunting day in my country is a game of two halves. And I rarely see the second half. I make a lot of excuses but the reality is I'm shattered after two or three hours (*cough, 90 minutes). Such is my adherence to the short day tactic that I've picked up the moniker ‘One O’Clock Will’. This has been seized upon by the more jovial end of the hunting Field with great enthusiasm. Hayley, my wife, laughed but Halfday Hayley can get stuffed.
Anyway, I’ve still spent enough time in the saddle to be able to pick out a few season’s highlights for you. Or lowlights as the case may be.
The first and most spectacular of these took place at Opening Meet. My horse is a strong type, as you now know, and if you let him he will tank off down the Field. Somewhere in the first hour of Opening Meet he did just that. One minute we’re trotting sedately crop-side before breaking into a gentle canter across a field, and the next I’m being galloped from the left back flank of the Field down the entire length of 90 riders, past the Field Masters and straight into the Huntsman himself. Yes. Not great. I can’t even say I wasn’t deliberately aiming for the chap in the end. My choices were to use him as a stopping block or jump straight over the enormous hedge which was clearly the animal’s intent. The horse has been both a Whip and Master’s steed before as well as a Field horse so perhaps he just assumed his job. Either way this incident highlighted my biggest issue - understanding how to prevent this kind of behaviour.
The Mastership have been very patient with me. I can only imagine in other hunts I'd have been ticked off more than a few times, possibly even stood down entirely. During one apology / post-mortem call one of the Masters said: “Don't apologise. You are simply hilarious. Most people talk about hunting and never come. Or, if they do turn up, they turn up on a plodding aged cob and walk at the back. You turn up on a strong, well-bred animal and go for it. Good for you".
Very encouraging. But between us, I’d take the plodding, aged cob. And if you’re a riding novice thinking about taking up hunting next season then PLEASE TAKE THE PLODDING, AGED COB.
But anyway, I’ve been lucky enough to have been chaperoned by some fine, experienced riders and the biggest lesson learned is that I need to concentrate. Instead of chatting, pointing, laughing, high-fiving and making jokes I need to ride my horse. I need to position him sensibly, gather him up and hold him before the standstill-to-canter-to-gallop across the open field occurs. This was all news to me and something you cannot learn in a sand school lesson.
I can charge around fairly happily but I'm not learning anything if I do, so very early on I knew I had to go to the back of the Field and learn to keep that control.
Most days I have one or two occasions where I wish I'd had more control but generally speaking I'm improving. There’s lots to work on over the summer, stopping being the first of it, but I can stop him when we’re ‘happy hacking’ or in an arena. It is a different ball game to Hound and horn and the only way I'll learn is exposure to the crucible.
How's the jumping? If the approach is solid and straight, and the jump not too large, with relatively few other riders I will jump. I'm starting to get that feeling I want to do a lot more but I'm saving jumping for next season. It's not a goal for this season and I'd rather tentatively increase the amount I do.
When I have jumped I've done mostly timber fences, some logs (when I couldn't avoid it and everyone else went over) and tiger traps. NO HEDGES. I'm terrified of hedges. The very word makes me nervous. In time I'm sure this will improve but right now I'd rather walk home then jump a hedge.
How's the galloping? If you'd have told me a few months ago I'd enjoy the action of charging around full-pelt I’d have called you mad but I'm really starting to enjoy myself. I can feel my horse enjoying it too. Like me he has unattainable aspirations. He'd like to overtake my wife on her ex-racehorse. It ain't going to happen, buddy. He simply isn't that fast.
In the right (wrong) circumstances his speed can still feel terrifying (through woods downhill, though gateways downhill, over ditches downhill, in fact anything downhill) but he is a powerful Irish Sport Horse and not a sprinter (although he does a bloody good impression sometimes). I firmly believe he steals an early run just to level the playing field.
I'm happy to report the Huntsman rarely sees me these days and if I'm charging up the outside its likely because secretly I want to. Blaming my horse works well. I'm not sure for how long the latitude will stand but I intend to abuse it now and again either way.
One O'Clock Will