If you want your small child to enjoy hunting, a really kind, safe first pony is essential, says Tessa Waugh. But, she warns, they are like gold-dust
How many times have you heard someone say, “Where are all the wonderful hunting ponies like the ones we had when we were young?”
In happy reminiscences, perfect ponies seemed to arrive gift-wrapped, as if by magic at exactly the right time in a child’s riding education. Although, of course there was some clever work going on behind the scenes to ensure that this was the case.
There are wonderful hunting ponies around, but they take some finding and you need to be on the ball – or just plain lucky – to get hold of them. First hunting ponies seem to be the most elusive.
To secure them you need to stake them out while the future jockey is still in the womb, add your name to a waiting list as long as a phone directory and hope that you will pass the test as a suitable home for “Super-pony”.
Sarah Austen first spotted 11.2hh Ellen when she belonged to her previous owner, Laura Redvers, wife of Qatar Racing manager and Ledbury master, David. Their son Chralie, eight, was on his first day’s hunting on the new pony.
“I remember watching Laura trot across the field with Ellen, off the leading-rein, behind her. “Laura hadn’t put grass reins on or anything and Ellen was just pootling along. Later in the day, a little girl dropped her whip and Charlie got off to pick it up, leaving his pony grazing while he handed it over.
“A rather strict lady came along and told him he shouldn’t leave his pony like that, but he just replied, ‘Don’t worry, Ellen will wait.’ Which of course she did.”
Ellen went on to give three Redvers children the vital start they needed. Sarah Austen remembers an open day at Tweenhills, the Redvers’ stud, in aid of Brooke.
“All these amazing stallions like Roaring Lion were brought out and then David said, ‘I’m now going to show you the most valuable animal on this stud.’ There was a hushed silence and out came Ellen.”
Before the Redvers, Ellen belonged to the Dollar family and lived at Newsells Park Stud near Newmarket, run by Julian Dollar. The Dollars have a similar affection for this special pony, but she came with a warning.
“Julian’s wife Georgia told me that lifelong friendships have been broken by people who didn’t get hold of her,” says Laura, who was equally selective when it came to choosing the next family.
“I couldn’t let that pony go without knowing that she would be treasured,” she says.
Ellen is 26 now and there are still families clamouring for her. Sarah, whose four-year-old grandson Seb is Ellen’s current lucky jockey, adds, “One of my daughter’s friends from the Heythrop rings me virtually weekly to asked about her.”
Round and perfectly formed
The perfectly named Pumpkin – an 11hh strawberry roan with a very round stomach – has a similar reputation in the north of England. Amanda Odd spotted her on Facebook.
“It was the most brilliant image of Pumpkin out hunting. She was trotting down the road with a mouthful of grass and a beaming child on her back, with her hands on the buckle. The photo sold her to me,” she says. When she arrived, Pumpkin didn’t disappoint.
“Pumpkin likes to do as little as she possibly can. She doesn’t have to go at anyone else’s pace and that makes her a perfect first hunting pony”, explains Amanda. “A horse could be doing anything beside her and she doesn’t react. One of my favourite pictures of her is of Isla, our youngest, out autumn hunting. Isla is trying to get on with her reins looping down to the ground [she had got off to pick up a dropped sweet] while Pumpkin is grazing away with no intention of going anywhere.”
Pumpkin’s chilled out approach has not gone unnoticed and at Tynedale meets, children and parents would swarm, with the smallest children plopped on her back for pony rides around the meet before the hounds moved off. Despite many overtures from vigilant mothers and grandparents in that part of the world, Pumpkin has now moved north to Amanda’s sister-in-law Frances Pardoe for her son Hugh, aged six.
“I first took notice of Pumpkin when I saw Isla out hunting on her with the College Valley,” says Frances. “She was on her own, a remote mile behind the rest of the field, loping steadily downhill. She goes entirely at her own pace. It’s just a case of putting the child on top and making sure they’re attached. Hugh came off the leading-rein the first time he rode her.”
Amanda agrees: “Her pace is perfect when you are just off the leading-rein – the field or hill will continue after she has run out of steam. She does a very high-speed trot and eventually she will break into a canter.”
On one day that sticks in Amanda’s memory, her three children were asked to go on with Tynedale master Charlie Shirley-Beavan.
“There were a row of drainage ditches in the field and Pumpkin did the first one and then the second but when she got to the third – which was wider – she said ‘no’. She knows her limits and that is very reassuring for a mother.”
This season Pumpkin took her new pilot, six-year-old Hugh, for his first gallop.
Frances takes up the story: “The field had gone past at great speed at the exact moment Hugh hoofed her. Pumpkin launched into a proper drum roll gallop; it was a belter, but she was properly out of breath by the time she got to the second rise and slowed up for a breather while the field whooshed on. Hugh was fine.”
Pumpkin’s fans have not forgotten her, as Frances recently discovered when her mother rang to say that the new Tynedale hunt calendar had just come out.
“Apparently Pumpkin features on nearly every page,” she chuckles.
“She’ll jump anything”
The Beaufort seems to be a hotspot for saintly first ponies. Eventer and H&H correspondent Beanie Sturgis had 11.2hh Nellie for her two children. Nellie now lives with the Clark family and is hunted most Saturdays by their son, seven-year-old Arthur.
“Nellie is wonderful”, enthuses Kitty, Arthur’s mother. “I couldn’t believe it when Beanie rang and said, ‘Do you want her?’ I felt very honoured because I knew that lots of Beanie’s eventing friends had their eye on her.
“We didn’t really need Nellie at the time because the children were so young, but when someone offers a pony like that you don’t turn them down.”
Kitty attributes her son’s love of hunting (it is all he talks about) to the fact that they have Nellie.
“Arthur hunted her when he was four but he was off the leading-rein at five because she is so trustworthy,” she explains. “Arthur goes with his Dad, who unoffcially whips-in. He is not jumping anything yet apart from the odd log and she goes along at one pace and stops at the end.”
Dollar is another stalwart of the Beaufort. Nicky Bush bought her from a hunting home in Shropshire.
“She will jump anything out hunting,” says Nicky of the 12.2hh, who was ridden by her two children, Rufus and Rosie.
“Both children jumped their first hedges on her. You had this slightly alarming situation where people on big horses would tuck in behind her because they knew she would always jump.”
On one memorable occasion Nicky recalls, “One Christmas Eve meet, there were a handful of the field left at the end of the day when hounds ran back from West Kington towards Badminton. Before we knew it the field master was jumping a rickety rail tacked on top of two posts over sheep wire and two strands of barbed wire on to the road. Rosie was on Dollar just behind the field master and next to Charlie Dando, the amateur whipper-in, who shouted, ‘Kick on, Rosie!’ and they both flew over it.
“It was pitch-black when hounds got back to Badminton after one hell of a run and Dollar managed to keep up.”
Dollar is one of those special ponies that can pull it out of the bag for a more experienced rider but is safe as houses when it comes to bringing on a younger model. When Rufus and Rosie outgrew her, she went to eventer Nick Gauntlett and his wife Amanda for their soon-to-be seven-year-old son Henry.
“We’ve had her two years so that we could get Henry hunting,” explains Amanda. “He’s hunting- mad so we needed to find a pony on whom he could learn to go off the leading-rein.”
This has been slightly curtailed this season, but Henry has been doing plenty of hacking around the farm with his mother on her retired point-to-pointer, practising walk, trot and canter on the gallops. This season they have enjoyed a handful of days, including the children’s meet where Henry was off the leading- rein. When they are out and about Dollar, rather like Pumpkin, always draws a crowd.
“We are always being approached by children and adults who know her and want to say hello,” says Amanda. “In lockdown we are trying to juggle homeschooling and horses. Henry can clamber up on her from the water trough, muck her out and she won’t barge out of the stable. She is a very generous pony.”
If you happen to be looking for a Dollar or a Pumpkin, be vigilant, prepare to play the long game and keep your fingers crossed. You might just get lucky.
Ref: 18 February 2021
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