25 October 2007
We're taking a bit of a break from the garden this entry, and getting exercise of a different sort. Doesn't this look like fun? Let's join them. You need a horse, English tack and attire, especially boots and helmet, and a sense of adventure. It's the weekly gathering of the Annapolis Valley Hunt, a group of dedicated and enthusiastic equestrians who meet on Sundays throughout the fall, and ride to hounds over some of the most beautiful country in the province.
I've ridden with this group a few times, though not in the last few years; my horse isn't used to travelling fast in large groups and I don't ride English any more due to my knees. I can't see turning up in English gear and a western saddle, though I suppose I could borrow my friend's Australian stock saddle....But this is a hectic, demanding pace and you and your horse must be fit, because the hunts normally last three hours or so, and there's a lot of cantering and galloping--and frequent rest stops, of course.
Now, before anyone worries--no wild animals are injured in the hunt. This is a no kill hunt, known as a drag hunt, where the hounds are trained to follow a special trail (the drag) over kilometers of terrain. Each week the hunt is hosted at a different location, and the hosting member arranges the trail, gets permission from various landowners for the members to cross lands. At hunt's end, the hounds are rewarded for their hard work with meat scraps before returning to their kennels.
Before the hunt, perhaps you want to school your horse a bit, to make sure he's listening to your commands. Heels down, knees against the saddle, into hunt seat position please, and can-ter! Can you feel the horse's exhileration as he gallops across the field? And yet when his rider asks him to whoa, he does, and stands quietly too. He's a fine horse, a big handsome warmblood...makes my horse look small in comparison.
The club welcomes new members, guest riders, and any sort of horse; I've seen draft horses, ponies, Appaloosas (there's a paint on this ride), Arabs, Morgans, quarterhorses, and of course the usual thoroughbrd/warmblood mixtures.
Although some of the riding is fast, there are frequent breaks, called checks, to give the Master of Fox Hounds and his Whippers in a chance to rest their hounds, as well as the horses. Sometimes a hound, especially a young one, will get distracted and go off on a separate trail, and then the whippers-in will go and herd the straggler back to the rest of the pack. The hounds all wear radio tracking collars too, so there's no chance of having one get lost somewhere. They're lovely animals, extremely well behaved and smart; the only problem I found was trying to take their photos, and having them all come to me to give doggy kisses and get pats.
When the hunt is complete, the riders and horses and hounds return to the hunt host's home; the animals are seen too, and then everyone gathers for a potluck meal, known as the breakfast--even though it's late afternoon. This is a nod to hunting tradition, where hunts generally go first thing in the morning; but the AVH members prefer to have an afternoon event because members come from a variety of professions, from farmers to teachers to veterinarians to homemakers.
Every time I go to watch and photo the hunt, I wonder if I can get my horse and I fit to go...maybe next year my knees will be better. If you are a rider, and ever get a chance to join a hunt for a ride, go--because as one rider told me long ago, it's about the most fun you can have on a horse. And that's a perfect description of a Sunday afternoon's exercise.