I’m sure many of you will agree that the excitement, anticipation and preparation begins days, if not weeks in advanced before the opening meet. For me it’s my decisions on when to clip, fine blades or medium? Timing is crucial. I don’t want clip marks or the ponies looking like a mole! The “bit” question goes through my head all summer, testing and comparing different bits, looking for the most effective brakes! For some of you, I bet you were asking yourself whether to boot or not to boot. Everyone has an opinion – mine is not to. Maria and Slate encountered a boot “issue” on the first line, a quick dismount from Maria and Kate ended up hunting with Slate’s boot attached to her saddle! To hog or plait? If plaiting, do you plait the night before or get up extra early and plait on the day. The need to know the weather, checking the app on my phone all week!
As we pulled into the long sweeping driveway into the estate, the little ponies on my left seem to instantly know that the hunt goers were arriving, they cantered to the fence and ran along side us. Up over the hill and I was overlooking the turf I was about to cover. Mark and the hounds (noses poking through the trailer gaps, I had been reunited with a familiar sight) were at the bottom of the hill. The excitement within began to grow.
I discovered the hounds were looking fine and had been freshly bathed. Time goes so quickly, trailers, lorries and cars started to arrive, the activity around our little “camp” in the field was in full swing. Catching up with fellow friends and lots of laughs and chatting. We quickly tacked up. The moment I put my stock on, I was in “hunt mode”, the season had begun………….
I enjoy hacking up the hill to assemble in front of the Four Seasons Hotel, a former hunting lodge and monastery. Some plod, some trot, some throw in the odd buck or rear, but for many, it’s a fast, alert walk, ears pricked forward, sensing something awaits.
This year the field seemed bigger than normal, maybe the good weather (but it must have been a Huntsman’s nightmare!) or the reputation that drag hunting doesn’t get any better than being with SC & RMAS. I enjoyed seeing little 11hh ponies all the way through to AVO’s 19hh+ hunter Monty, who towers above all of us, with many admiring comments. Turnout was impeccable, and rightly so. Our Chairman Pat Sutton, chatted to riders about their day ahead.
It was at this point I caught sight of Richard leaving on the quad bike. Setting off to lay the trail for which we were about to cover. This sight always fills me with a rush of mixed emotions. Mark blew the horn; the hounds looked as excited as I was. I had missed the sound of the horn being blown. Horses and riders were suddenly aware of what they had come to do, was happening.
Our Huntsman Mark and the hounds left. We waited as uniformed as we could, as by now, the horses were on their toes, until Jamie signalled it was time to proceed. My mouth was dry and I was grinning so wide, I felt conscious of it! A few minutes earlier I was chatting and sipping my chosen tipple for the season, now my legs felt like jelly and I was about to burst.
Jamie led us behind the hotel, the pace quickened quickly to our first gallop across the open field. I was riding along side Jackie, she asked for a lead over the first fence, which to me seemed larger than last year! Through gritted teeth and a little leg, we cleared the jump. The field were following behind me, I could hear the sounds of hooves on the good ground and the rush of snorts around me. I could relax, slightly. I always find the first jump the hardest.
We soon came to one of my favourite vistas. Slightly elevated, looking into the distance, you can see the hounds working and hotel on our right hand side. It’s a very “do-able” down hill gallop, that gently sweeps back up in front of the hotel with a few good sized timber jumps or the opportunity to have an exhilarating flat out blast! I choose a combination of both! Most riders cleared the jumps with ease, but a few made that horrid run out to the left or right!
We had soon all stopped, hip flasks outs, red cheeks and smiles of happiness and relief! The blackberries were so great this season that a popular choice of tipple seems to be homemade blackberry gin or vodka as there was plenty being passed around! Caroline Bullen was still looking elegant and pristine! Time to move on to the second line. Cantering alongside seeded fields, a super ditch to pop over, and a good few rails undercover of the autumn coloured trees. The hedges were soon in full view. The conversation in front and behind of me becomes one of debating whether to jump the hedge or not. Many take flight over the huge “Swans” hedge with ease, jubilant on landing and for those not so keen, they pass through the open gate, just as jubilantly!!! Pippa Booth proved jumping hedges side-saddle is effortless.
Foot followers and riders mingled. We had a chance exchange our thoughts and hounds rested. Two more lines lay ahead, Richard was off into the distance, and we were soon to follow.
Hip flasks were put away. We were off. Grinning faces and some mud was flying. The pace was fast in the first field with plenty of rails to jump and the second field more sedate if you wanted to give your nerves a rest.
The last line has always been my favourite, it’s a great opportunity to challenge yourself over bigger fences as your confidence flourishes per line and your horse is going strong. The famous “bulls field” looms in the distance and we are quickly faced with a challenging fence to enter. Once in, you’re facing the bull and his herd are watching you approach, for the brave it’s a further two challenging fences to jump out, or once you have passed our “host” the gate to the right can be opened. For the second field an easier route is available.
To end this last line, it’s a fast gallop and a chance to reflect how privileged we are to be riding across this country and returning with our mounts safely.
Whilst walking back to where we started our day, a small palomino pony shoots past me, rider grinning and I thought, this obviously shows a good days hunting is not enough for an 11.2hh!!
Hounds were counted and put away. Mounts were washed off; luckily with the dry conditions we were grateful for minimum mud. That’s all to come! The much needed hunt tea had been thoughtfully prepared in our absence and was very much in need. Honey roasted ham, sausage rolls, the most famous and delicious homemade game soup provided by Simon Wilson was again the talk of the tea. Slices of fresh bread waiting to be dunked beckoned and my tummy was soon feeling full. Followed by delicious cakes and lovely puds.
By Ellie Simpson-Ball
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