Saturday, June 12, 2010

For Ann - The Foxhunting Story

Before I moved to the UK from the USA, I visited for 3 months on a job rotation with Sun.  While in the UK, I promised myself I would go foxhunting, to have a childhood dream come true.

This is the true story of that experience, something I have never done since that first time.  It is rather long, but I hope you will enjoy reading it.


              My One Foxhunting Experience

              By Kimberley Brown

Stonehenge.  It is quite a sight, this ancient man made formation, especially so as it stands all alone on a grassy hilltop, surrounded by miles of grass fields so typical of the Salisbury Plain area of Southern England.  As I drove over the ridge of one hill, topped by a small woodland area and down the other side, Stonehedge could be seen in the near distance, just beyond the next fork in the road.

A lone guard watched over Stonehenge.  In another hour and a half, visitors would be permitted to see the massive rocks up close.  I videotaped for a few minutes, but soon turned my back on Stonehenge and filmed the fields and buildings 2 miles out in the distance.  The morning mist was still heavy in the air making the distant views appear pale and ghostly.

Stonehenge was not my planned destination for the morning, but a pleasant side trip, as was a quick visit to Woodhenge.  I was on my way to the buildings across the fields.  I had arranged to spend the day foxhunting in Salisbury Plain with the Royal Artillery, a branch of the military.

Entrance into Larkhill Camp was swift.  A simple "Hi there!" in my bold American accent told the guards everything.  They were expecting me and replied back, "You must be Kimberley."

By the time I finished showing my passport and signing in, four more riders arrived to sign in.  Following one of them for a couple of miles, we arrived at the camp stables.  I was soon greeted by Lesley and her fiance and Huntmaster, Major Jonathan Seed.  I was told how the morning would proceed, what to expect and that I would be riding Simon.

Lesley introduced me to another rider, Francesca, telling me that we would be riding together.  Having never foxhunted before, I entered into this with very little idea of what to expect, so when I heard I would have a riding partner, I just accepted that either, as a visitor, I was being given a guide of sorts, or that when hunting, you ride in pairs, maybe for safety reasons.  I didn't know, and didn't ask.  I planned to take everything in stride today; to observe, partake, learn and enjoy.

More horseless riders appeared, most still not yet in their boots or coats.  Like me, all of these riders would be hunting with camp horses.  Two large lorries appeared and 12 horses were loaded up, fully tacked.  Jonathan and Lesley's horses were loaded into their own box which was hitched to Jonathan's car.  Riders got into their gear, and at 10am, a caravan of lorries and cars drove out of the yard.

We arrived in a small village a few miles away and pulled into the car park behind a pub.  There, horses were unloaded and riders were assisted up by the grooms.  Lesley pointed Simon out to me and I was soon in the saddle.

It didn't take long for me to learn why I would be riding with Francesca.  Simon and her mount, Peter, are inseparable when they are within eyesight of each other.  The two of them would become frantic each time we would separate them by even one horse.  They insisted in being side by side.  Fortunately, everyone who would be riding in the field today knew this, each finding it quite humorous.  Many of the subscribers had ridden them both and understood all too well how these two chestnuts behaved, slamming into each other and sometimes trying to exchange bridles during quieter moments.

The hounds arrived in another horse box, were unloaded and soon were on their way down the road, headed for an open field.  Once everyone was mounted, we followed the Huntmaster down into the village, trotting smartly down the road.  Simon and Peter trotted together, probably in perfect step, both quite content!

Villagers watched us trot down the center of their little town.  One woman even stopped hanging her wet laundry and came to the stone wall along the front of her garden to see us off.  Shortly, we turned up a long driveway and towards a large white manor house.  We had arrived at The Meet.

Horses were packed into the side yard as well as the front.  Glasses of hot mulled wine where carried through the gathering and each rider drank.  Near the top of the yard, my video camera was being used by a gentleman capturing the memorous occasion for me.  Knowing this, the Huntmaster, Jonathan, called me and told me to ride over, making it quite clear that we were to leave Peter & Francesca behind.  I wondered if Jonathan might be testing my skills as I rider, as I firmly convinced Simon that I was in charge, and not just today's passenger.

It was a proud moment for me, especially since one does not normally ride his mount this close to the hounds without invitation to do so.

As I approached the Master, he ordered me to stand my horse by the hounds for a nice shot.  Sure enough, to my right, the pack of hounds had returned from the fields surrounding the village.  As I rode Simon towards the pack and turned him to face the camera, Jonathan properly introduced me to the Huntsman, around whose horse the hounds waited.

Returning to Francesca and Peter, it wasn't long before we started off again.  Going up behind the manor, we followed a muddy dirt road into the fields, first at a walk, then a trot.

As we topped a hill, I could see that the Salisbury Plain truly did go on for miles and miles.  There were no buildings in view, short of the village behind us.  Gentle rolling hills of grass lay ahead.  Separating some fields were dirt roads.  Some fields had tire marks cutting across them.  Some fields appeared to be short grass, while others looked to be scruffier in nature.  Every so often, there was a covert of trees and small woodlands.  Some fields appeared to have a bank of thin hedges and brush along one side.  In general, the view was quite peaceful and inviting.  It would be pleasant and relaxing to ride here, or so I thought.

I lost track of time after we entered the Plain, and didn't look at my watch again until 1pm.  During those two hours, alot happened.

The ride started quietly enough.  Early on, I decided I liked Simon's gaits.  They reminded me alot of a certain Dutch mare I am particulary fond of.  And, despite the fact that Simon preferred to stay up with the Master, Peter obediently tagging along, I decided that Simon was quite fun and good at his work.  Simon nimbly side stepped things I didn't see until it was too late and jumped the occasional hole that I failed to steer him around.  He showed no feelings one way or the other regarding puddles and, like the other horses, showed no signs of concern when surrounded on all sides by other horses in very close quarters.

The field consisting of approximately 50 horses, cantered lazily along the muddy dirt roads while the hounds worked quite a way ahead of us.  It was quite pleasant.  The morning sky was a bit grey, but the air was not too cool.

Shortly after reaching a long slender wooded strip of land that separated two fields, a few hounds spoke.  Our Huntmaster yelled a command to the field which I didn't understand, but obeyed instantly.  We all cantered down the sloped field, halting our horses at different points and turned to face the woodland.  Francesca and I were midway down the field, leaving half of the field on our left and half to our right.  All was quiet except the occasional voice of a hound.

Francesca explained that we were lined up to face off and turn the fox around if it tries to enter the field.  Ah!  I understood the plan now.

Soon, the horn was blown signaling the hounds to return to the Huntsman.  The fox had won.

It was a nice break, our pleasant rest in the field while we waited as the hounds did their work, but I was anxious to get going again, as were the horses.  We were once again on the move.

It wasn't too long before the hounds went into full cry.  Halting his horse and holding his hand up, the Huntmaster yelled "Hold!".  Simon heard this and stopped!  Everyone was quiet.  The horses all stood perfectly still, ears pricked forward.  We stood at the top of a rise and watched the hounds work on the next hillside.  I whispered to Francesca, wondering again why we were never closer to the hounds.  She whispered back that we were waiting to see which way the fox would run.

As I realized that we were at the top of a hill covered with very rough ground and started to wonder how long it would take to carefully walk down this nasty hillside, Jonathan gave the signal to follow and started cantering down the hill!  Simon followed instantly.  And here we were, at least 40 of us, charging down a rather steep hillside towards a muddy track used as a road, yelling "Hole!" whenever you spotted one, chasing after a pack of hounds that was out of sight!

I thought of Magic Mountain.  They don't stop a rollercoaster once it's started.  I felt like I was on a rollercoaster.

We made it down the hill and Simon, seeing that the sunken road was two waterfilled tire tracks with a grass section in the middle, treated it as a dropped in and out.  We jumped down onto the grassy part of the track and back up onto the lip of the next hill and galloped on.  Galloping uphill was great fun!  Cantering downhill was scary as hell!

The hounds continued to give chase, and as the fox backtracked, we soon where cantering down the same hill back to the sunken track below.

Oh boy, this rollercoaster goes in reverse!  Fear kicked in for a long moment and was eventually replaced with a sense of submission.  My life was in Simon's care.

We were soon covering new ground, and were at a full flat out gallop.  The footing improved from scruffy wild grasses to lush dark green shortcropped grazing grass.  Even though the ground was wet from the daily rain of England, Simon never slipped.  I soon believed that as long as I stayed balanced and let Simon manage things, I would be okay.  At a full gallop, even though I tried, I couldn't judge the ground as well as he could, and there were a lot of ground obstacles to beware of.

I stayed in two-point, but further back over the horse than I was taught two-point to be.  This, when galloping downhill, felt safe and kept me close to the saddle.  Proper Hunt Seat Equitation was not foremost in my mind.  Survival was.

The fox went to ground along a long natural ditch.  The hounds were unable to get to him.  Since a farmer had specifically paid for vermin extermination, the Huntmaster was obliged to kill this fox.  The Terrier was called in over walkie-talkie.  Once he and his terriers arrived, the hounds were sent off and we would be on our way again.  I learned from Jonathan that the fox would be dug out and shot.  It is against the law in England to rehunt a fox that has gone to ground, as in effect, the fox had won.  However, an exterminator can kill the fox.

We had a good hunt.  Now, while we waited for the Terrier, we rested.  My heart, still racing, finally slowed a bit, and then it hit me.  I was in pain!

My left ankle was screaming at me.  My right thumb was in anquish as I pried the fat hunt crop and thong out from under it.  My hams felt as if they were on fire.  My cheeks were wind burned.  My back was starting to lock up and my neck wasn't very happy.  But, we must be nearly done, I thought, until I checked my watch.  It was only 1pm!  I raised my stirrups another notch and found that both of my ankles approved of this idea.  Next, I wondered if anyone would mind carrying two hunt crops.  Maybe if I just dropped it and forgot about it...

Francesca, seeing my discomfort, handed me a flask and said "Drink this.  It will give you courage and stamina."  Without asking what it was, I drank.  The gulp of homemade sloe gin began to work it's warm magic.

The terriers arrived and we were off again.  This time, the hounds found scent only a hill away.  Some waited at the bottom of the hill, while others, including myself and Francesa on our enamoured chestnuts, followed the Huntmaster to the hilltop.  In the distance, I spotted two deer as well as a couple of army tanks.  At the top of the hill, a sign warned that we were not to leave the road, as the field was mined.

Due to the safety factors, the hounds were called back and put to another area where we followed them at a canter while they searched for scent.  Cantering 20 or 30 abreast at times, the hunt field was quite a sight!  I often found myself behaving more as an observer than as a participant, trying to record it all in my mind.

After a bit, we cantered back at the spot where we had put our first fox to ground.  The terriers were done with their work and the fox was dead.  Now the hounds were given their reward and incentive to find another fox as they tore the carcass apart, rolling on it, eating it and running around playfully with pieces of it in their months.  The hound who was carrying the brush, dropped it.  The brush was retrieved by the Huntmaster who handed it over into the care of the Terrier.  It was a good hunt, completed.

Even though we had several breaks in the action, I was very tired.  My body had had enough.  Some riders said their gooddays to the Huntmaster and headed home.  But, Francesca, who so generously shared her candy bar, sausage pies and sloe gin with me, kept me going.  I was damned if I was going to quit!  American pride kicked in.  Or maybe it was pure Taurus stubborness.  During each interlude, I was offered more courage from different riders.  Sloe gin was tasting better and better!

The afternoon weather was surprisingly mild.  Some expressed concern that the scent might not be so good because of it, but our next fox appeared within a short while of moving off again.  And what a chase it took us on!

My weary body, having already taken enough abuse for one day, was complaining now at a full gallop.  My ankles were okay, but my back, my hams and my shoulders were sore and tired.  Galloping at Simon's top speed, riding in two point up and down hills was getting to be a bit much.  When the hounds are in full cry, when the field is giving chase, Simon has only one speed.  There was no half halt on this horse.  If I put my feet forward and leaned hard, I might have been able to pull him up in an emergency, but then what?  So I just stayed on.  I steered sometimes, hoping to better negotiate galloping across the dirt roads, ditches and mortar holes (at one point we galloped through the artillery shell practice target zone).  I only felt one bobble in the saddle, popping off a track and onto a new hill, Simon taking it at a funny angle, but then I got right back into the rhythm of the gallop and was okay.

It was on this very long chase that several funny things happened.

First, I noticed that I was carrying on conversations with other riders who would gallop up along side and ask how my day was going.  I was engaging in pleasantries at a dead gallop!

Second, galloping straight down a slippery hill of rough grasses, it occurred to me that this was what "break neck speed" really was.  To fall would be disasterous.

Third, I remembered that this hunt country doesn't have fences or stone walls and I wondered what jumping at this speed on a horse with no brakes would be like over walls - and was suddenly thankful!

Fourth, I started to miss my desk job.  It was then that I decided these people around me were all crazy and that I, too, must be a bit crazy.

Finally, I realized that despite the intense beating my body was taking, despite the ever increasing levels of pain I was experiencing, I felt an exhiliaration like nothing I'd ever felt before.  Out of sheer fear, or simple intelligence, I might never do this again, but for now my soul was soaring!  I would never forget this day.

In the end, the fox went to covert in a large woodland at the top of a hill.  The hounds were unable to find him.

Looking back from the direction we came, somewhere way out in the distance I could barely make out what might have been where this hunt started.  It was indeed a long chase!  I marvelled at Simon's stamina.  He was winded, but he recovered more quickly then I.

Now I was done for, totally beat tired, knackered as the English would say.  But still, I stayed on and wished others goodnight as they headed home.  I wanted to be able to say that I rode to the very finish.

More courage, more stamina was passed around.  Then, at a walk, we moved onto another area of the Salisbury Plain, still well within the military zone.  An interesting note to make here is that while some other hunt countries are having trouble with "Anties" (Anti-Foxhunting) and "Sabs" (Hunt Saboteurs), the Royal Artillery doesn't have the problems.  This is partly due to the fact that they are far from suburban areas but also because the area is mostly dedicated to and protected by the military bases.

During another lull, Francesca and another woman asked for their horses to be held, so they could run to a nearby covert.  No sooner did they ask this, and the hounds gave voice again!  Galloping off, Francesca hoped out loud that this wouldn't be a long chase.  I laughed and was thankful that Lesley recommended I didn't eat or drink anything for 12 hours before riding.

At the next break, a gentleman on a massive grey asked if I would like to trade horses.  He could see Simon was full of energy, much more than I had, and his own mount was tired.  I gladly accepted the offer to trade and a chance to lag behind the field a bit.

Trying to get on this grey gelding was a laugh.  I was too tired to climb and he was too tall for me to even reach the top of the saddle!  A leg up failed as I couldn't find the strength to launch myself up.  I apologized and was soon quite ungracefully pushed onto the loin of the horse, who refused to stand still, and I wiggled my way into the saddle.  It was quite a sight I'm sure and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

An older gentleman held the grey from the back of his horse while I looped the stirrup leathers a few times, trying to get them short.  But while doing this, the field left at a trot.  And my kind sir thought to follow!  After trying to adjust my leathers at a jog, I had to ask him to walk again.  Once sorted out, then we galloped on to catch up.

Sure enough, my grey was quite tired, but still capable and safe.  I was thankful for the different saddle, the differing width of horse, the change in gaits, even the different reins.  Any change felt good.  And it was such fun to watch Simon's new rider try to separate from Peter and Francesca without much success.

The day was nearly over, so they all told me.  The sky was getting darker.  One quick chase led to the second kill of the day.  We were at the edge of the base.  Buildings were nearby.  As always, the Terrier was quickly on hand, driving up in his Land Rover.  This time, however, the horse box for the hounds also arrived.  The hunt was officially over!

I watch Jonathan and the Terrier struggle in a tug-of-war that left Jonathan holding a fox tail, the brush, and the Terrier holding the long slender bone + flesh of the tail.  Jonathan called me over and presented me the brush, telling me it was from the first fox of the day and how to cure it.

I was thrilled and honoured!  I thanked him, and for the hundredth time of the day answered "Yes, I had a wonderful time!"

It was over!  I had fulfilled a life long dream.  I had foxhunted and in England no less!  I had the brush!  I had video tape footage of The Meet.  I had mud all over my white breeches and dressage show jacket!  I was knackered, but alive and pleased.  My three month trip to England ended with a truly traditional and exhiliarating equestrian experience.

So why were we all still mounted, I wondered?

As soon as the hounds were loaded up, we trotted off again, away from the buildings and back onto the Plain.  I asked Francesca and her new partner where we were going.  She informed me that we were headed across the field back to the stables, which was not far now, just over the next rise.  I looked at the horizon and saw nothing but Salisbury Plain.

Riding along beside another woman, I looked down and saw that her mount was moving in a gorgeous, beautifully suspended extended trot.  The little mare was covering ground both economically and with grace.  "How far?", I asked, grimacing no doubt.  "Just a short way", she answered, and like everyone else followed that with a query about how my first foxhunting experience was.  When I told her how sore I felt, she recommended a hot bath, a couple glasses of port and codeine.

Several minutes later, still at a brisk trot, I felt ready to just roll off and walk the rest of the way.  No sooner did I start feeling mutinous when the Huntmaster himself, Major Jonathan Seed, trotted up along side to chat.  He could see that I was putting as much of my weight as possible into my hands which were braced against my giant grey's withers to avoid the pains of posting and he recommended a hot bath and whiskey.  Ah, a pattern was emerging.  I smiled.

Three miles later, we were allowed to walk.  We had arrived back at the stables.  We walked the last 200 yards and put the horses into their stalls fully tacked.  They drank a bit and waited patiently for their grooms to untack them before they started to eat the dinners that had already been put in the stalls.  Amazing horses.  I said my goodbyes, my many final thank you's and drove 60 miles back to my flat in Sunninghill near Ascot.

Once home, I discovered how badly rubbed raw the insides of my legs were from so many hours in the saddle.  Dried blood had sealed my jodphurs to my skin.  Getting undressed wasn't going to be possible without a lot of pain.  So, taking advice I'd received from one rider, I poured a Scotch, took a couple codeines, and jumped into a hot bath, fully dressed.  Recovery was going to take time...

The next day, I had planned to drive 4 hours north to Lancashire to find my Great Aunt's birthplace.  Less than an hour into the drive, I turned around and went home to yet another hot bath and more rest.

My heritage could have to wait until my next trip to the United Kingdom!  Foxhunting still had me knackered.  No muscle was without complaint.  But my smile was still strong.

Kimberley R Brown
January 31, 1993