It was a friendly bet that found Ben Skailes sat on a horse at a local riding centre. He had just six weeks to learn to ride before his first day’s hunting on Exmoor.
“I bet my friends, who all had young children, that they couldn’t persuade their partners to let them come on a lads’ weekend to Ibiza with me, and amazingly, they did,” explains Ben. “We had a blast, but then it dawned on me that I’d have to stick to my side of the forfeit – to go hunting with them on Exmoor in six weeks.”
Not one to let the side down, and despite his mother’s desperate pleas to pull out, Ben headed to his local riding school.
“My neighbour, one of the Quorn masters, sent me off to Vale View Equestrian to have a crash course in riding,” muses Ben. “He assured me that it was only Exmoor, so they don’t jump, and I only need to trot. How hard could it be?”
True to his word, Ben, 37 at the time, turned up for lessons every week for six weeks.
“Wade Barley was my instructor at Vale View, and he couldn’t quite believe it when I explained why I was there for lessons,” says Ben. “Even a few days before I was due to go, he begged me to put it off. I think he was genuinely concerned for my safety, especially as I was still on the leading rein.”
Despite everyone’s concerns, Ben fulfilled his forfeit on a hireling with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds.
“I was given a very sensible mare, but despite being told I’d only have to trot, she left the meet in canter,” Ben remembers. “I got separated from my friends and the next thing they knew, I was charging past them, out of control. Amazingly, I didn’t fall off.”
Having survived his ordeal, Ben found himself contemplating the day’s events in the pub later that evening.
“I completely understood why people got into hunting,” he says. “The adrenaline rush was incredible. I was hooked.”
Ben returned to Quorn country and continued his riding lessons, having an occasional quiet day at the back on a loaned horse.
“Then, one of my neighbours said he knew of a good horse for sale,” says Ben. “I took the horse out hunting and fell off, so I removed my spurs, got back on and ended up jumping a huge hedge. At the end of the day, I took a deep breath and wrote the cheque.”
Ben rode Joey, a 17.2hh Irish Sport Horse, through the summer but “hadn’t improved enough” and the following season was a disaster.
“I was wholly unprepared and fell off on virtually every outing,” says Ben. “Joey had no confidence in me and stopped at fences. I was terrified and wanted to give up.”
It was then that Ben was introduced to eventer and Quorn subscriber Jo Carlin.
“Jo took control and I moved my horse to her yard,” Ben says. “One look at me in the school and she knew she had her work cut out.”
Ben was “allowed to attend the last two days of the season, with strict instructions not to jump”, before boot camp started.
“As well as taking my riding back to basics, Jo schooled Joey and sorted him out,” says Ben. “I used to ride in my lunch hour and Jo literally brutalised me around the school.”
It was a tough summer of lessons, but by the following season, the pair were ready.
“I was happy and confident and loved every minute,” says Ben. “Although I still fall off, I pick my days carefully, so I have more chance of staying on. Hunting and the Quorn have given me so much, and I will always be indebted to Jo Carlin and the many friends who helped get me going.”
“Townie” to huntsman
Tom Wright, huntsman of the Cheshire Forest, learnt to ride nine years ago, purely to get a job in hunting. Starting out as a “townie from Wrexham” and “petrified of horses”, Tom moved to the country when his father took a new job as a gamekeeper.
“I would go out with local foot packs, and decided, aged 18, I wanted to do it properly, but I couldn’t ride,” explains Tom. “I started helping at the local kennels and it was there I started having lessons.”
He had 14 lessons on a 14hh cob called Cariad.
“After my 14th half-hour lesson, I was thrown up on a safe old mare called Donna, for my first day’s hunting and whipping-in to the Tanatside,” says Tom. “It went great – I didn’t fall off, I just got towed about all day. I even had my first few jumps.”
It was on this day that Tom met fellow amateur whipper-in Ben Furnival, who ran a breaking and schooling yard.
“I learnt the ropes, sitting on a few quiet breakers and racers,” says Tom. “My riding came on leaps and bounds.”
Tom then started his career whipping-in and grooming for the South Notts. “It was another immense learning curve and I often had seven horses to look after,” he says. “Fortunately, my now-fiancée Georgie showed me the correct procedures.”
Here, Tom faced stone walls and steep ditches, before arriving in Warwickshire having undergone “a seriously good apprenticeship”.
“Several years later, I was appointed master and huntsman of the South Wold, and a year later, I was appointed professional huntsman of the Cheshire Forest.”
Despite having an affinity with horses, Tom admits he only rides to hunt.
“On horseback it is more about keeping up with hounds, whereas hunting on foot is for watching the hounds,” he says. “But I do value the connection you get from a horse. I recommend anyone to do it and give it a go because you do get the bug for it.”
“The hardest thing was staying on”
A lover of country sports, Andy Byatt took up riding so he could join his mates on the hunting field, and five years later, he is now MFH at the Surrey Union.
“I’d just turned 50 and after my wife started going for lessons again, I decided to go and watch,” says Andy. “A few of the girls at the yard encouraged me to get on the biggest horse they had, and after a couple of hairy moments, I started enjoying it.”
Having a few friends who went hunting, Andy decided he’d take up riding with the aim of getting good enough to go out with them.
“I wasn’t at all interested in poncing about in the arena, but hunting looked quite gung-ho,” he says.
Andy took a horse on loan, a black Irish Draught called Guinness. “The hardest thing about learning to ride was staying on,” laughs Andy. “When I first got Guinness, we went out on a hack. As we went around a corner, my saddle slipped right round and I came off.”
Despite the falls, Andy stuck with it and after “about 20 lessons”, he made it out for his first day’s hunting.
“I really enjoyed it,” remembers Andy. “I fell off a couple of times, mostly going over jumps. It was sheer determination and port that kept me going.”
Guinness was eventually replaced with a bigger model in the form of Magnificent Milo, a then five-year-old grey gelding.
“We were both a bit green, but I got him schooled and we learnt together,” says Andy. “I definitely struck gold with him. He’s the kindest horse, knows his job and is fantastic with hounds.”
As is often the way, Andy got involved in the hunt behind the scenes, starting with building new kennels, followed by becoming a director and then last year, a master.
“It’s all a bit surreal,” he says. “The thing I’ve learnt most is that hunting is so inclusive, and I’ve made some amazing friends. I certainly miss it when the season is finished.”
Bucked off at the meet
After watching the fun his two sons were having out hunting, farmer Joseph Hodges decided to learn to ride so he could join them.
“My wife Ingrid is an experienced rider and found me a wonderful horse to learn on – Duke, a 12-year-old 17.2hh Irish Draught/thoroughbred,” explains Joseph. He’s a true point-and-shoot type.”
Regular lessons from Ingrid followed. “Ingrid taught me how to walk and trot in the arena, but I was struggling with cantering and was getting bored in the arena, so I pestered her to take me hacking,” says Joseph. “It was all going fine until we attempted our first canter and Duke decided to take off with me. Needless to say, I hit the deck.”
Joseph stuck with it, and after just three months, attended his first meet with the Bicester with Whaddon Chase.
“A friend of ours, Lucy Goodie, nannied me the first time and although I was nervous, it was a local meet over country I knew from farming,” says Joseph. “It was a great day despite being bucked off at the meet.”
From then, Joseph hunted weekly with two of his four sons until the end of the season.
“My boys are keen thrusters and leave me behind when there is a lot of jumping,” he says. “They often shout commands like ‘sit up Dad’ or ‘kick on’, and they sound just like my wife.”
Learning to ride to hunt
- Find a good riding centre to learn.
- Get a good teacher and a good horse – don’t scrimp on your mount.
- If in doubt, close your eyes and hold your neck strap.
- Port helps, too.
- Get out as much as you can to build your confidence.
- Get to know your horse.
- Ride other horses, too, because it improves your riding.
Ref Horse & Hound; 15 October 2020