Tally Ho! Release the Hounds!

Ok, from the very first fence I ever jumped when my age was still in single digits, fox hunting was an activity I desperately wanted to try. Our house had all the traditional hunt prints, I rode a giant dapple grey gelding straight up out of those prints, and I couldn’t imagine any classier form of riding than fox hunting. It was the ultimate equestrian high society activity, that you just didn’t see much of growing up in rural WV in the heart of Appalachia. I mean why even begin riding hunters if you didn’t actually ever hunt? Its one of those must do Old World traditions every equestrian should get to experience. So when Dressage Queen and I found out Cloudline Sport Horses and Cloudline Hounds boasts a spring and fall hunt season we both jumped on it.

After a four hour drive, one full hour spent creeping at 15 mph in six lanes of North Dallas traffic, we arrived at our destination in Celeste TX. Cloudline was a beautiful property with rolling hills bordered by wooded areas, the perfect fox hunting location. The bunkhouse was fully decked out in those traditional hunt prints and décor with a fully stocked bar, my idea of the perfect equestrian heaven. The horses spent their night in a grassy paddock directly in front of the bunkhouse, where you could hear their snorts and snuffles as they grazed through the night.

Dressage Queen and I didn’t fully know what to expect. We had a rough idea of the basics and were told that everything else the hunt masters could guide us through. As the trailers began rolling in, the excitement started to build. As eventers we were no strangers to galloping long distances over fences, but doing it following a pack of hounds while surrounded by twenty or more other horses is a whole other experience! The majority of our group included veteran fox hunters and experienced riders. This hunt was not for the faint of heart. No hill toppers here..

We inadvertently breeched a few points of fox hunting etiquette. The dressage queens showed up in white breeches, because they were our most formal. Hunters don’t wear white. They wear beige, khaki, brown, and just generally darker colors. Bling is a HUGE no on tack, and both of us had our dressage bridles with rhinestone headbands. From a distance, we still looked the part though.

The stirrup cup is one of my favorite fox hunting traditions. Its called a stirrup cup because it is given to the rider at stirrup level while you are sitting on the horse. The cup is filled with alcoholic liquid courage for what you are about do, and at the time, I didn’t even realize I would appreciate the liquid courage. No amount of eventing experience could prepare me for my first fox hunt. The hunt master told us our horses would find extra gears no matter how seasoned they were as cross country mounts.

The horns sounded, and the hounds ( Do not make the mistake of calling them dogs!) bayed as they led us out onto the field. So the horses take the field in “flights.” The first flight follows directly after the hounds and jumps. At this hunt the second flight jumps as well, they just follow along slightly slower than a flat out gallop. There was no third flight or “Hill Toppers” here, because on this day we meant business. Also, in Texas sometimes the hounds hit on a fox, but more often than not, they hit coyotes. Apparently coyotes are a more extreme hunt than foxes because they make longer wider circles meaning your horses get to really open up in the gallop.

As an equestrian that practices and competes in events that will usually have twenty plus total jumping efforts, I realized that I was not in prime hunting shape. We started the hunt out at a brisk trot for about a half mile, just long enough for the hounds to pick up the coyote trail. From there on, it was wide open. In the four hours we on the field and in the forest, my horse probably spent three hours going no slower than the canter. We were barreling down deer trails and cattle paths I just prayed that the people in front of me knew intimately. By myself, I would have been terrified to ride my horse that fast in those conditions, afraid my horse would step in a hole and break a leg.

The hunt master had told us that when she takes kids on “mock hunts” going no faster than a slow trot, their favorite part of the hunt happened to be the “ditches.” I wondered what a kid would find so fascinating about a ditch until we hit the first “ditch.” Not ditch, it was a ravine steep enough to re-enact the more exciting moments of the Man From Snowy River going down with a four to five foot splash through belly deep mud just to climb up an equally steep incline on the other side. We soared over jumps I didn’t even know were there until the horse rear inches from my horse’s nose lifted off the ground. I would have pulled out of this insanity if I hadn’t had reassurances before we started that heights or spreads would not exceed two foot six, something I knew my horse could clear with air to spare.

The other interesting thing about hunting is there are periods where all you do is stand and wait on the hounds, followed by an all out charge once they hit on the trail. After nine plus miles and almost four hours the hounds had had enough. I was whupped, but Odessa still had gas in the tank. Thankfully the hounds were ready for their kennels or we would have been cranking out at least one last gallop. Fortunately we were headed back to the hunt brunch and liquid muscle relaxers that would help take the edge of the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I swear the adrenaline high lasted the entire four hour drive home, probably for the next forty eight hours. Every time I stopped to think about what I had just done, my heart started to beat a little faster.

Its a good thing that we don’t live closer. I could seriously become addicted to the adrenalin rush that is fox hunting. The hunt was everything I thought it would be and so very much more. I’m glad I took my tried and true mount Odessa. I’m not sure that Comanche could have contained himself in that much excitement, and we definitely would have left the second flight for the first. There’s no way I could have held him back with the second flight even though they were mere seconds behind the first. I do feel that this should be at the very least an annual traditional outing!

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