Dear denizens of the eventing world. Most of the time the editorial team at E-V are a bunch of sunny, laid-back, live-and-let-live type characters. You forgot the lime in our G&T? No worries. Your horse just ate our horse’s rug? That’s OK, that’s horses. You forgot your number bib, girth and boots? Don’t fret, borrow our spares. You want to have twenty consecutive goes at the practice fence without letting us anywhere near it? Go right ahead (actually, we’re lying about the last one, but you get the gist).
However January sees a sort of Jekyll and Hyde transformation and for some reason we turn into a bunch of Grumpy Old Bags. Maybe it’s the length of time since our last event, maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the lack of daylight. Whatever the reason our tolerance levels drop through the floor. We have decided to let it all out and so have written a series of articles about things that Get Right Up Our Noses. Deadly serious or tongue in cheek? That’s up to you to decide!
The equestrian press is full of suggestions for keeping your horse fit through the off-season, making it braver and teaching it to cope in different conditions. Most of these seem to view hunting as the answer. For a lot of people this is something they haven’t tried since they were on a pony and many others will be heading out with hounds for the first time ever. I was once a hunting newbie. Then I married the son of an MFH and ended up hunting twice a week, on a variety of horses, for many years. I was kept firmly educated in the etiquette, management and do’s and don’t’s by my mother-in-law. And when she spoke, you took note!
For various reasons I haven’t been hunting much in the last couple of years. However this winter I have found myself with a decent horse and have been out with six different packs since November (four foxhounds, two bloodhounds). I certainly notice an increase in ‘eventers giving it a whirl’. Now I could spout off for hours about the myriad ways that people manage to annoy me out hunting, but that would just make me look bitchy. So for the purposes of this article I will pick the one thing that annoys me most. Not a silly little thing like people not sewing their hat ribbons up, or saying ‘good-bye’ instead of ‘goodnight’ when you leave (it is always ‘goodnight’, even if you go home at 11.30am), or chattering away loudly about whose husband has been up to what with whom when the Huntsman is desperately trying to hear hounds. No, this is Important.
My bugbear is people who can’t balance a horse. People who should know better. Not the newbie hunting farmer who has been riding for 12 months and does blooming well to stay on his saint of a horse past the first covert. No, I mean you lot. Eventers. Those of you who profess to spend a fortune on lessons and training and events but somehow don’t seem to know how to balance a horse at a gallop over a range of going. I am sick of seeing horses pulling themselves along on their shoulders through deep going while the jockey does nothing to help them out. Apart from anything else it is one of the easiest ways for a horse to do a tendon. I suspect the worst culprits are those who also withdraw from the XC at an event as soon as there is mud to be seen and do most of their training on a surface so that neither they nor their horses learn how to balance in deep going.
The other thing you get out hunting is sudden changes of going – from mud onto a tarmac road, then off the other side onto mud again. Again, this requires as much balance and ability from the jockey as popping through a coffin on a BE course.
I do see some people who make a very good job of it. Aside from actual 100% hunting folk (who do not concern me for the purposes of this piece) I have particular plaudits for a 4* rider I saw out after Christmas on a baby who kept it up galloping and jumping with the main bunch but managed to keep its weight up off the forehand and get it going in a beautifully balanced canter, ready for whatever was to come. If the horse had tripped in a furrow it was in a perfect position to stay on its feet. The best people (naturally I guess) were a couple of jockeys – scruffily turned-out on scruffy horses (my mother-in-law would have sent them home to tidy up!), however they kept their horses balanced all day, even through the deepest of going, whether hack-cantering down the road or going flat out along a headland.
My plea to you all is please Come Hunting. There is nothing like it. However use it to educate yorself in feel. No-one can teach you that. Learn to know when a horse is pulling because it is full of it, or pulling because it is tired. Learn how different a gallop feels in mud, on parkland or on a forestry track; uphill and downhill. Learn to read the ground ahead and make adjustments. Keep your blooming horses off their forehands and make it easy for them to cross the country. Your horse will thank you for it. It is a skill which will stand you in good stead on every horse you ever ride cross country for the rest of time.
Jumping photos by kind permission of Emmelleff Photography http://www.emmelleff.co.uk/