Ride of my life: James Lewis

  • Career highlights: James rode many good horses in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as a hunting and travel correspondent in England, Ireland and other parts of the world. He has also played polo on top-class ponies in England and South Africa. Between 1966 and 1970, he wrote for Country Life on hunting, shooting and polo.
    Ride of my life: St Hubert’s Day chase in November 1975
    Horse: Epigraf, a seven-year-old chestnut gelding
    Breeding: Half-English Thoroughbred and half-Wielkopolski
    Career highlights: In 1977, he was Polish junior three-day event champion, and also won the bronze medal in the European junior three-day event championships at Fontainebleau that year.

    James Lewis recalls his ride in a 1975 Polish draghunt

    A St Hubert’s Day chase across the woods and fields of Pomerania in Poland at the height of the cold war, followed by a banquet and a dance, is one of my happiest memories of that great and irrepressible country and its sporting, brave people.

    I was on my first visit to Poland, one of 30 riders from a dozen nations, dressed for the chase and mounted on an assortment of half-bred and Thoroughbred horses.

    The proceedings began easily enough. We went into adense forest with good, broad rides, hounds eager, as they always are, horses on the bit, and my new four-legged friend, Epigraf, insisting that we saw things from the front. Hounds were let go on to an artificial scent, but promptly picked up awild boar and were not seen again for hours.

    The pace quickened and we jumped some fences, galloped a bit and then halted for a snack and a tot of vodka. After this interlude for hospitality (an unfailing trait of the Polish host, whether indoors or out) we rode on, jumping more and bigger fir branches, bundled up like Grand National fences and laid across the forest path.

    And then it happened: I fell off. It wasn’t a jumping fall, but departure from the saddle as Epigraf went left at the moment I thought he was going right. Where were my aids? Where indeed; I can only plead in mitigation the unexpected effect of a swig of vodka and a loosened grip. I came down hard and lost the reins. Luckily, the ground was soft, and I was none the worse.

    However, I was shaken and also mortified, because I was sure I had lost my steed. But he had stopped in his tracks and was standing beside me, reins over his ears, waiting for me to get up.

    I have often suspected that the best horses have a well-developed sense of responsibility towards strangers. This was a perfect example. Now the real excitement began. I re-mounted, sober, confident and full of pride in this trusty chestnut horse.

    If Epigraf had shown aturn of speed in the forest, it was nothing to the pace we gained in the open. Here was classic cavalry country. Slightly undulating, still under stubble, it stretched to a wide horizon.

    We achieved a speed that I had never before experienced in the saddle. We rode on, leaving the competitive field behind, in pursuit of a distant rider with a fox’s brush pinned to his back. Knowing Epigraf to be faithful and true, I let him fly away as fast as he could go.

    I can only say after myPolish experience that a horse with courage, speed and determination arouses feelings that are not easily daunted.

    Don’t miss this week’s Horse & Hound (6 March) where David Machin talks about his ‘ride of a lifetime’ at an invitation meet with the Meynell hunt.

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