am always looking for "pony adventures" -- new and fun
equestrian experiences. I enjoy the solitude and obsession of
arena work, the focus of refining an average trot into a buoyant,
swinging, free floating rhythm. I like being with just the horse
and myself, or the quiet rider friend. But, the child in me
remembers the sheer joy of galloping through an open field and the
dry oat grass crackling as the horse rushes through it. I really
love the times when I'm not focusing and refining my skills, the
times of just enjoying the horse as he was meant to be in nature
and being the fortunate passenger of a good natured beast.
A few years back, one of my clients
was told an exciting story about hunting. Not about rifles and
deer, but about hounds and horses, field hunting. Being a
California Native, this was a pony adventure I had yet to try. I
had heard of, or read about hunting in childhood books. It
conjured up mental pictures of riders in red coats, dew-dropped
grass, green hedges and long legged sleek horses gallivanting
across the country side.
When I took a trip to England some
years back, I had purchased a hunting flask. Well, with the
excitement of my client's story, my imagination and the wild
possibilities that I could mix in that little flask, hunting
sounded like something that would be a very fun "pony
adventure". Luckily, my client forwarded me some email from
the local pony club with an entry to the hunt club's Hunter Pace,
and that is how my newest pony adventure began.
I'm not going to tell you about
field hunting, because I've yet to get that far into my new
adventure. To date, i've ridden in several hunter paces and most
recently a mock hunt. The mock hunt is what I'm going to tell you
There are no hounds, it is just the
Field Master and his field of riders. There may be several
different fields of riders who ride at a particular pace or speed,
with or without obstacles such as logs, ditches, fences, coops or
water. Each field has a Field Master who sets the pace and in a
mock hunt, determines the route and obstacles that create the best
training opportunity for horses and riders, and then the master
makes adjustments to pace or route that accommodate any horse or
rider having difficulty.
My Mock Hunt was like a semi
private lesson. It was just the end of the club's formal hunting
season, and so the turnout for the mock hunt was small. There were
five of us. The protocol of dress was "formal", a black
coat, field boots and black helmet. However, the invitation to the
mock hunt welcomed varied attire and tack as long the rider wore a
helmet and proper footwear, making the introduction to the sport
most hospitable. In our small group we even had an Australian
saddle. The weather was warm and coat's became optional. I dress
up so infrequently, that it was fun to keep my coat on.
We met on a beautiful spring
morning at a private working cattle ranch in Portola Valley. The
grass was fresh and green, the earth soft and damp, the sun was
warm, the sky was clear; the makings for a perfect riding day. Our
Field Master, Jef, introduced me the other riders and talked about
how the day would go. Some of us would be jumping. The other
riders would ride along at our pace but forego the obstacles. The
ride would be comprised of "runs"--moderate canters
across varied terrain for durations of a few minutes or perhaps a
mile. Between each run, we would have a "check"--an
opportunity to check on every horse and rider, to check the
surroundings, to check our girths. In a real hunt it would be the
time to check that all the hounds had returned to the pack. There
was time for asking and answering questions, and then Tally-ho,
down the road we began.
Our first run was a warm-up of an
easy trot, up and down some very gently rolling hills. Then we all
convened atop a small knoll and looked out over the expanse. After
our check, Jef pointed out logs and coops on the distant horizon.
Truthfully, I couldn't see what he was describing; I trusted that
as we got closer I'd figure it out and take it in stride.
We began a gentle canter, popped
over a log, down a hill, up a hill, over a coop and checked again.
In the distance were some beautiful homes and small clusters of
cattle grazing the mountain side. Before our third run, Jef
explained that we would be dropping down to cross a small creek.
He explained that in the water shed, there was more greenery and
brush where birds may be; we should always be aware when
approaching this terrain that the birds might scoop upward and
startle the horses.
We walked and jogged easily along
as I listened to stories about the hunts of the season. Just the
week before, at the last formal hunt of the season, there were
three fields of 20 horses that worked a 12,000 acre ranch near
Sacramento. The little stream we crossed was crystal clear and
calm. Two ducks took flight from the under growth. Above us a
black-shouldered kite floated above the fringe of the giant oak
branches. They told me just last year, there was a nesting pair of
kites that could be seen. After ascending the stream bed, we
cantered to the next hilltop.
Looking down to the next valley was
a shimmering lake held captive by a damn of large, irregular
shaped rocks that formed a levy. We would go down and cross the
lake, taking care not to disturb the grazing cattle.
The water was clear and the footing
was firm. The field of riders rode together through the water. My
horse, Pickle, loves the water. We stopped long enough for him to
intently enjoy splashing everyone!.
Civilization buzzed in the distance
as Highway 280 sawed a path between the rolling expanse.
After each check we walked and
talked. We met other riders out for a hack and chatted with them
while we walked along a gravel road. Then we crossed under the
freeway, through a tunnel. We had several gates and according to
the "rule of the country", we left each gate opened or
closed as it was found.
A great blue heron skipped over the
grassy knobs in front of us, teasing the tufts of grass before it
finally flew up over the horizon. We looked over to the red roofs
at Stanford University. The Field Master's wife told me Mrs.
Stanford wanted all the roofs red so she could see them from
Master Jef explained to us during
one of our checks that we would be cantering up some steeper
inclines. To avoid stressing the horses, we would canter, winding
along the side of the hills gradually climbing, rather than facing
directly uphill. When we traveled over flat open terrain, he told
us to make note of densely tufted grassy areas that might be wet,
the bottom of swales that might be boggy, or mounds of loose dirt
where squirrels might live. Jef and Gil, another rider told me the
horses learn quickly to avoid problem areas, and even though my
horse was quite excited he never took a bad step.
One more tunnel under Highway 280
and we ambled an easy walk down the road, back to the stable area.
A sip of port and a bag of carrots were the toast to a perfectly
delectable ride, my newest pony adventure, the mock hunt.