‘You need a skin like a rhino’: H&H talks to Countess Goess-Saurau MFH *H&H Plus*

  • From peace rallies to being wedged in a tree, Countess Goess-Saurau has learnt that an MFH’s life is certainly varied, as she tells Tessa Waugh in this exclusive interview

    Three years into her second stint as master of the VWH, Countess (Susie) Goess-Saurau is one of the country’s senior masters of foxhounds. “Are you writing about old dinosaurs?” she laughs when I ring her.

    An elegant blonde in pastels and a big hat, Susie draws the eye at gatherings of the tribe throughout the summer. She looks like a Hitchcock heroine, but in person she is fun, chatty and down-to-earth. As the daughter of non-horsey parents, horses didn’t come to her, she explains.

    “I spotted a pony, aged two, and screamed until I was put on it. My parents allowed me to have riding lessons and I became known as ‘the professor’ because all of my knowledge came from the Pony Club manual.”

    She remembers her parents loyally dragging her pony around in a single Rice trailer, some junior eventing and a bit of hunting with the Albrighton and Woodland. She hunted in her 20s, too, but it wasn’t until she moved to Wiltshire with her second husband, Konrad Goess-Saurau, an Austrian count, that she got going in earnest.

    “I looked at all the packs locally, but I chose the VWH because they were incredibly friendly,” she breezes. “All through my 30s I hunted four days a week and I became a master at 40. We were on holiday with Ginny and Mikey Elliot in the Virgin Islands and Mikey said, ‘You’ll be invited to be a master soon.’ Not long after that, Mark Hill got in touch to ask me.”

    Along with Mark Hill, Susie’s first joint-masters included Martin Wood and Chris Mason.

    “Chris was a brilliant mentor and an awesome field master,” enthuses Susie. “I would ring her after a good day or after a bad one if I needed advice. If hounds went somewhere they shouldn’t, Chris would be off her horse in seconds, talking eye to eye with the landowner. I learnt that when something goes wrong, you deal with it as soon as possible.”

    Chris is equally complimentary about Susie, whom she found “supportive, helpful and diligent”.

    Martin Scott, who breeds the hounds, agrees: “Susie is the best puppy walker that anyone can ask for. She loves her hounds and often walks two or three couple.”

    In her ninth season as master, Susie had a fall that could have stopped her hunting altogether.

    “It was late in the day when we came to a dairy farm. I was distracted, thinking about milking and how we shouldn’t disturb them, when we came to a wooden bridge,” she recalls. “My horse slipped over and I ended up with my leg bent backwards over the bridge, at which point it felt like a bag of marbles. I was in a wheelchair for three months and on sticks for 12. It was completely impossible.”

    New skills

    True to the stereotype that hunting ladies don’t really “do” injury, Susie rode in a charity race 18 months later for the Countryside Alliance. But the “nasty smash” took its toll, and she now hunts just two days a week, and jumps “only if I have to”.

    She came out of the mastership after completing her 10th season, but three seasons later she was asked to come back in again. It is now 17 years since she first took up the post and hunting has changed a lot.

    “We do an absurd amount of paperwork now,” says Susie. But she isn’t easily daunted.

    “I’ve become more practised, I file everything and I’ve learnt all kinds of new skills,” she says.

    Susie notes a change in attitude among hunting people, too.

    “There is far less arrogance. We have to work alongside people and make sure they’re aware of what we do. When the ban came in, not one farmer said we’re not welcome. It was more a case of, ‘I’ll tell you when you can and can’t come, not the government’.”

    Susie also observes that there are plenty of new people coming into the sport: “Hunts make a supreme effort to encourage people who haven’t hunted before and there is more far tolerance towards children.”

    Her own daughter, Pumbaa, grew up hunting with the VWH and has evented to four-star level.

    “A great pair of carpet slippers”

    Like many people who devote their lives to hunting, Susie has owned some wonderful horses.

    “Roddy was fearless,” she says. “In our first season, he jumped through a gap and I got wedged in a tree. Poor old Gareth Bow was whipping-in at the time and I was there in the tree, with my breeches practically ripped off while he looked on saying, ‘I think the Countess needs some help.’”

    These days, she has different requirements from her horses.

    “Barry, whom I bought four years ago, is a great pair of carpet slippers. I can go off and go anywhere on him.”

    Once again, she looks after the Thursday country, which is largely arable with some patches of vale.

    “Thursday’s crew are known as ‘the desperate housewives,’” she chuckles.

    Shooting and solar panels are the biggest challenges to putting on a day, she says, adding “most of the keepers are absolutely brilliant. December and January are a struggle.”

    Mark Hill has just stepped down after his third stint in the mastership; he is replaced by Izzy Larthe who joins Susie, Sophie Scruton, Nick Phillips and Alexander Bathurst.

    Susie’s recipe for success? “Communication is very important,” she stresses. “Egos don’t work. The days of the red-faced buffer are over. It’s got to be about the team. Ideally, you’ve got to like the other masters and keep talking to them.”

    Like all experienced masters, she knows the job isn’t always flowers and rainbows. “You need a skin like a rhino, because sometimes it goes wrong.”

    And when it does? “Don’t beat yourself up. Laugh at the absurd and ridiculous.”

    Susie tells a story about being called to a peace commune after the hounds ran through: “I had to sit in a circle doing ‘oms’. Afterwards they sent me a lovely letter inviting me to a peace rally at Sudeley Castle.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 14 May 2020

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