Rory Knight Bruce finds out how some of hunting’s leading lights learnt their skills in the saddle
IT was over supper in Herefordshire with former Four Burrow master and amateur huntsman John Williams when he said, with his customary modesty: “I had a famous father and a famous daughter; whatever happened to me?”
He was referring respectively to Percival Williams (legendary Four Burrow master and huntsman from 1921–64) and the successful National Hunt trainer, Venetia Williams. The answer, of course, quite apart from his own Four Burrow mastership (1955–77) is that, in 1988, he wrote Riding to Hounds. In short he offers the following advice: pay attention, walk rather than canter when you can, have “an eye for the country”, and the courage to jump what has to be jumped.
That is the theory, but in practice, how did so many who hunt actually learn to ride to hounds? For myself, it started when I won the Derby. It does not matter that this was a Donkey Derby at Belstone on Dartmoor, where you encouraged your mount with a carrot on a long bamboo cane and kicked him, legs flapping like a tadpole. I wish I had read then another essential book, Riding from Scratch by Martin Diggle, published in 1987 and full of practical advice for achievable improvement.
“It is physically and mentally impossible to ‘learn to ride’ overnight,” Martin wrote. “Indeed, if one were to ask top horsemen from any sphere, ‘Are you still learning to ride?’ It is likely that they would all have the honesty to answer in the affirmative.”
“THE HOUNDS WILL TEACH YOU”
THIS is certainly the view of Lauderdale master and huntsman Claire Bellamy, who was brought up on Dartmoor.
“I am still learning every day and it is the hounds that will teach you,” she says.
Before moving to the Scottish Borders, Claire Bellamy was kennel-huntsman to Mike Weir at the Dartmoor for 10 seasons.
“He was very old-fashioned, seldom spoke unless it meant something and always had gleaming old tack and saddlery. I am a bit like that myself today,” she says.
But her early hunting life was, she says, instrumental in her career. Aged 10 she was breaking-in show ponies for her mother.
“I would meet up with my friends at Ivybridge, with no saddle or bridle, just a halter and mane, and ride the ponies across the moor for hours,” she remembers.
At 12 she was allowed out without any chaperone with the Modbury Harriers. Her mother’s words, when she asked what to do, still ring in her ears: “Just stick with the hounds.” She has done so ever since.
Thomas Scott, master and huntsman of the Border, and widely recognised as one of the best across country, is another huntsman brought up in the old ways.
“We never spent any money on our horses or our rugs. They were just hessian, left over from the war,” he recalls. “I have spent much of my life hunting in leggings, a big coat, and a horse on some string.”
Sometimes, he would be joined by the hill shepherds when hunting in their area.
“Their horses never had shoes,” recalls Thomas. “They couldn’t afford them and we weren’t going on any roads. To them, a horse was a horse.”
For those who hunt in Ireland, many have stories of their early years which could come from the pages of a Roddy Doyle novel. Michael McGrath, now in his 11th season as joint-master of the Fingal Harriers, is no exception.
“I was privileged to grow up on our dairy farm north of Dublin in some of Ireland’s finest hunting country,” says Michael. “My father attended the local cattle marts and would often bring us home wild ponies to break in. Then we would wait for whichever hunt was nearby – the Fingals, Ward Union or Meath foxhounds – and join in. This is where I, and my brother Seamus, found our passion for hounds, horses and hunting, all at a very young age.”
Michael’s first job on leaving school was to drive the deer cart for the Ward Union staghounds. His mentor was their former huntsman, Charlie McCann.
“We grew up hearing of the legendary days of hunting,” recalls Michael.
His first horse proper, Smithie, he bought from the Smithfield Horse Fair in Dublin, where it was trotted up in a back street. To the purists, such a “catch as catch can” approach may seem the stuff of romance and story books. But, it shows the spirit that dwells within to go hunting by whatever means that budgets will permit.
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
QUORN professional huntsman Ollie Finnegan looks back to his Meath childhood for his early hunting knowledge. From a racing background, he was hunting from the age of three with the Meath foxhounds, and cites huntsman John Henry senior and whipper-in “Speedy” O’Rourke as mentors.
“As a child we were chucked on our ponies and away we went,” he recalls. “We never wanted to come home.”
John Henry said to him one day: “You will go your own way, and do things your own way, but learn from our mistakes – and don’t make them.”
Heythrop joint-master and huntsman, Charles Frampton, modestly says he thinks he is not a particularly good rider.
“It was while hunting the Stowe Beagles that I had my lightbulb moment that I wanted to ride to hunt hounds, not just to follow hounds,” he says.
To this end, in his gap year, he was second horseman to Captain Wallace on Exmoor, where he was brought up, and hunted 146 days. Credit must also be given to his mother who, in Charles’s childhood, brought him home a pony from the Quantock sales in the back of her Land Rover.
“Quantock, as he was named, would frequently set sail in a straight line over two miles with the Blackmore Vale,” he recalls. “A brilliant pony, but probably not up there with the current guidelines on health and safety.”
Another essential element, alongside having a hunting mentor, is to – if possible – have a hunting companion. They may alert you to dangers and encourage you to greater feats.
One day, with the North Ledbury, my companion was Grand National jockey Ronnie Hyett – third in 1980 on Pilgarlic – his company much enjoyed by me. I hunted three horses that day.
“I see you ride long,” he observed at tea, himself, as a race rider, used to riding short.
“Ride long, live long,” a Quorn farrier had once told me, and I have always done it.
International event rider Harry Meade, who runs successful pre-season one-day hunting courses in Gloucestershire, now in their 16th year, has a different take on this.
“Shorten your stirrups. If they’re comfortable hacking to the meet, they’ll be too long when you get galloping and jumping,” he says.
I do it the other way round, shortening them slightly as they stretch, but each to their own.
Martin Scott, a mainstay of the Duke of Beaufort’s, has been on several of Harry Meade’s courses (which will run again this year, from September).
“I owe so much to the Pony Club, followed by an advanced riding course with the Household Cavalry,” says Martin. “But these courses, and all their patient instructors, did not try to change my dreadful style but gave me the confidence to still be hunting in my 73rd season. And my best riding advice? Always have a neck strap.”
“I love teaching these courses at all levels,” says Harry. “They are a bit like getting your eye in on clays before the shooting season.”
Completely bereft of jargon, Harry inspires confidence in his pupils, who come from all over Britain.
“The courses are fast-moving, a journey of personal self-discovery if you like,” he says.
He aims to change no more than three things in a person’s riding habits.
“But these are things that will make you feel, ‘Yes, I can do that,’” he continues.
BERWICKSHIRE joint-master and huntsman Gareth Watchman was so determined to go hunting as a 10-year-old that he got his father, Gary, to buy him a pony.
“You’d better have someone to go with you,” said Gary, who then went on to be field master for the South Durham for seven seasons, and master for 10. Gareth, meanwhile, rose up the ladder of showjumping to international level, competing at the Horse of the Year Show and in Europe.
“Hunting definitely gave me the balance to achieve what I did,” says Gareth.
On one of his earliest days hunting, on Katie, his dun pony, he took a fall over a wall.
“I learned from that day forward to sit up straight,” he recalls.
Martin Letts, joint-master of the College Valley and North Northumberland since 1964, was inspired to a hunting life while a schoolboy at Marlborough College, where he followed the nearby Tedworth foxhounds.
In his memoirs, he recalls the huntsman, George Goodwin, as: “a kind man, adept in nursing schoolboy interest in hounds and in their care.” One element of Goodwin’s conduct, however, need not concern us.
“A lighter moment for vulgar boys came when George rose in his stirrups and watered a bramble bush at considerable range from his saddle.”
If I had a hunting tip, which has always stood me in good stead, it is to be early. If you can’t be early, then be earlier still. What hardship is it to share coffee from a flask – and perhaps a small “fence reducer”, and take in the gates and gaps, the signposts and church spires, while waiting for the master, huntsman and hounds?
This exclusive feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, 18 March 2021 issue
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