Oakley, the whipper-in’s horse, is more like a hare than a horse. He has no topline to his flea-bitten grey neck at all – emphasised by his hogged mane – but a set of hindquarters of which Kim Kardashian would be proud. This is because he spends most of the day going from 0 to 60 as his eager young rider dashes from one place to another, trying to be in the right place at the right time and therefore avoid another explosion of fury from the huntsman.
Oakley, who would beat Usain Bolt out of the blocks, loves it. He hears and sees hounds before any human, little grey ears pricked as hard as they can be and, despite standing still as a statue, quivers continually in anticipation. He doesn’t need a rider to whip-in – he’d do it quite as well on his own.
The field master’s horse
Each September, Flash’s owner declares that he hates him and he’s definitely selling him before Christmas. Flash, a good-looking chestnut thoroughbred with a white blaze, is horrible to hack – he naps, he whips round, he spooks, he leaps into the hedge in terror if a tractor appears. He needs serious sedation to clip and he tries to kick the farrier.
During autumn hunting he is a total nuisance, becoming so impossibly strong that he runs away with his tall, fit jockey. But from the opening meet onwards, there are no more mentions of classified ads. Flash just needs to be – has to be – in front, with all other (lesser, in his view) horses behind him.
Incredibly brave with the gallop of a Gold Cup winner and utterly sure-footed, the Smashington Vale’s reputation as a “thruster’s” pack rests largely on his shoulders. He has never stopped or fallen, and he and his rider cross the country like demi-gods.
The hunt secretary’s mount
Pre-Covid, Jenny’s job was to get her master, who has been hon secretary of the Smashington Vale for 40 years, very, very close to visitors’ horses so he could collect their cap. Jenny is 17.2hh with the placidity of a doped dairy cow, and she leans almost imperceptibly on the target horse, giving her tall, hawk-nosed rider a slightly intimidating air as he towers over a suspected cap-dodger.
She will stand, four-square, in the gateway to the meet as hounds rush between her legs, reins dropped on her neck while the secretary stuffs cash and cheques into his leather satchel. However, she’s no plod. Her raking stride carries them across the vale without effort or fuss, and they never go home before hounds.
The first pony
Garfield resembles not so much a pony as a large, ginger guinea pig with the sort of Shetland mane that, left “native”, hangs to his plump shoulders, but when pulled goes vertical like a Mohican.
His addition to the hunting field is not an eco-friendly one; the groom drives the large lorry in which Garfield is the only occupant, and three-year-old Poppy’s mother brings her in the Discovery. Poppy and Garfield are united, briefly, at the meet; Mummy and Granny feed Poppy sausages, hounds move off, saintly Garfield is ushered back into the lorry and Poppy into the car so her hunting-mad mother can at least car-follow for a bit.
His job is not taxing and takes 20 minutes a week, but it’s an important one. Poppy is the newest member of a family in which there have already been four generations of MFHs; she needs to love hunting as the future of the Smashington Vale depends on it, and Garfield is the first building-block in that progression.
The gentleman’s hunter
The General is a majestic animal; the sort of quality heavyweight hunter it is nearly impossible to find these days. He and his rider, the Brigadier, make stately progress across the Smashington Vale country at the same pace be it tarmac, grass or plough.
They take their own line, ignoring the weak blandishments of field masters who were little squits on ponies when the Brigadier himself was a master to “please, sir, if you don’t mind, could you possibly stay with the field?” Certainly not, thinks the Brigadier – you haven’t got a clue about hunting and we’ll never see anything.
They know all the best – and quickest ways – to get about the country without doing anything unsuitably dangerous, but this means they can attract a train of camp-followers who irritate the pair – who are equally serious about their sport. Then the Brigadier points The General at a particularly trappy hunt jump, and The General, careful not to unbalance his cargo, pops smoothly over it and they disappear, happily alone again.
Bob has legs like iron bars and a mouth of the same substance. Good thing, too – in his job as a hunter hireling, he’s done two or three half-days a week with the Smashington Vale for 10 seasons. It makes no difference to Bob if his jockey hangs off his teeth or completely drops the rein a stride before the fence – he’s going anyway.
He may be no beauty, with a large, plain head, a dipped back and joints as round as apples, but he’s tough and hard and worth his weight in diamonds. He is his owner’s top striker, and she wouldn’t even take a Ronaldo-sized transfer fee for him.
Bob may work hard, but he is greatly appreciated and treated like a king at home. His enthusiasm for hunting is remarkable, he does his best to keep his clients in the saddle and he always trots up sound in the morning.
Ref Horse & Hound; 22 October 2020
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