Hunting – how to take the first step *H&H Plus*

  • Lots of people think they might like to go hunting, but are unsure how to go about it. Abi Butcher explains what to do this summer to get yourself ready for the winter

    HAVE you always wanted to go hunting but not been sure how to go about it, whether your horse would take to it and whether you would enjoy it? If you fancy taking the leap next season, there’s plenty you can do over the summer to prepare and work towards a day out with hounds.

    Where to start? The summer is an easy time to make contact with your local pack and ease yourself in to the scene with social, fun (and sometimes pub) rides where you can meet new people and get your horse used to riding in a group without the pressures that a full hunting day brings.

    You can find out which hunt is closest to you by contacting the Countryside Alliance or the Hunting Office (01285 653001) – or have a look on social media. Most packs are fairly active these days on Facebook and Instagram and welcome new followers.

    “Make contact with your local hunt through the secretary, who will be able to answer all your questions, fill you in on planned events, help with key details such as where to park and perhaps link you up with more experienced people who can help you on the day,” says the Alliance’s Polly Portwin.

    “Hunt rides are a perfect way to meet people, they’re much lower key and don’t have the hustle and bustle of a big day’s hunting. There’s no dress code and it is far less intimidating – you’ll realise that hunting folk are no different to anyone else.”

    Fitness isn’t crucial

    DON’T worry about getting your horse fighting fit for these rides or even for autumn hunting which starts in September. Far better for your horse to get slightly tired than be fresh and out of its skin for the 90-minute or two-hour duration of a ride.

    Tony Stroud, former stud groom for the Heythrop and now manager of a hunting livery yard in Oxfordshire, advises: “Be realistic about how much you’ll actually do. If you’re inexperienced, being on a super-fit horse will cause problems and you don’t want to get bucked off at the get go.

    Also take care with feeding, warns Tony: “Even hunting-fit horses rarely have anything other than standard horse and pony nuts, conditioning cubes and chaff. You want to be feeding for condition rather than speed – plentiful good-quality forage is key.”

    When hunting proper starts, to be clean and smartly turned out is important, so use the summer months to get your horse used to things like a hose pipe, says Tony.

    “It’s not only for the meet,” he says. “You will come home covered in mud in the winter so if your horse won’t stand for the hose pipe when it’s hot, it won’t stand when it’s cold. Practise lots of washing off and even plaiting.”

    Think about your tack. Even if you know your horse very well, going out in a faster group is a very different experience to hacking, competing or schooling – it’s like a party for your horse and some will be unused to being “jostled” around.

    When you go hunting, and on a hunt ride or hound exercise, it’s good practice to wear a martingale and/or breastplate (it gives you a neckstrap and will keep your saddle firmly in place on all types of terrain) and consider a stronger bit and noseband. Even the quietest horse can get excited, but try out your new set-up on a hack to eliminate any further surprises.

    “I’ve never known a horse not to take to hunting, given the right environment,” says Tony. “Try to team up with someone more experienced and plan your route there. And don’t rush your morning – nerves translate to the horse.”

    Get accustomed to new habits

    PRACTISE unboxing in strange places, and get your horse used to travelling while tacked up. While you wouldn’t travel a tacked horse to go to a competition, hunting is entirely different. Your horse’s blood will be up (as will yours) and the last thing you want is to be dragged around a car park – or worse – by an over-excited horse.

    The VWH on the Gloucestershire/Wiltshire border runs social rides every other week which are open to subscribers, visitors and newcomers, before hound exercises and autumn hunting begins in late August/September.

    Secretary Rosie Garton says: “As well as tacking up before you travel, you’ll learn new ways at these rides from experienced hunting people – like not to tie to the outside of a trailer, for example, or to load your horse with a bridle afterwards and not swap to a headcollar until the partition or ramp is safely closed. Even when tired, they may well still be excited and want to stay with their friends.”

    Making new hunting friends will lead to invites to other social events and before you know it you’ll be roped into baking cakes for shows and fairs, jump judging at hunter trials and joining in supporters’ club suppers.

    Hunting is very inclusive and everyone from every walk of life is accepted, invited and welcomed – riding across country, following hounds hellbent on a trail is a great leveller. As is the Tumbler’s Club, something nearly every pack has that helps take the sting out of a fall. The great thing about hunting is that if you fall off, there is always someone around to pick you up, help you back on, tease you and then fleece you for a fiver.

    Work on your own fitness and stamina

    ONCE you’ve got yourself and your horse accustomed to new tack, new routines and got to know people involved in hunting, think about your own fitness.

    Your ultimate goal of riding for a full day in the winter is no mean feat: while autumn hunting eases in both horse and rider, many packs help out on rider fitness with hound exercises on bicycles, so you can go out with hounds (and watch how the huntsman and whippers-in control and work with them) without the pressure of a horse, get a little fitter and have fun in the process. There’s normally a bacon sandwich and coffee at the end.

    Don’t forget the small print

    FINALLY, check with your insurance company that your horse is insured for hunting – it’s a higher category than most activities. The Countryside Alliance gives its members automatic third-party liability insurance. You can also read more about hunting, traditions and dress on the Countryside Alliance’s website, countryside-alliance.org

    This feature is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 10 June 2021

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