Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Dinosaur Hunt

On Saturday, my dear daughter and I went foxhunting.

When you tell most Americans you go foxhunting, they think three things:  1) Charles Barkley; 2) Downton Abbey; 3) "oh, the poor fox."  I am always having to explain that we don't kill the fox.  If we did, what would we chase next time?  Our particular hunt, like most North American hunts, also chases coyotes.  We've got lots of those, but we still don't kill them.  We are in it for the riding, for the chasing, not the killing.

My horse Sarah was bred and raised to hunt. I bought her as a five-year-old; when she was four, she went out 27 times first-flight with a Northern Virginia hunt.  That is a ton.  Sarah events, also, and she likes that, but she loves riding to hounds.  When I pulled her off the trailer Saturday morning, she looked around with mild interest at the cornfields and the hills, and stood quietly while I tied her to the trailer.  Then, from the huntsman's trailer in front of us, the hounds babbled.  Sarah's ears flew forward: her every muscle tensed, her gaze sharpened.  She stood perfectly still, listening, until she was quite sure we were at a hunt.  Then she took a deep happy breath, looked at me with love, and held perfectly still while I saddled her.  Only the slight quiver of her forearms betrayed how excited she was.

My daughter's horse is a Thoroughbred ex-racehorse turned happy dappy speedy event horse.  I never expected hunting to be his thing.  Hunt horses have to go from dead standstill to dead gallop and back again; they aren't allowed to race each other; they have to cope with bogs, ditches, steep hills, and rough ground; they must never, ever threaten a hound.  It's a tall list for a horse like Mickey.  He went out 1 1/2 times last year.  The first time he pulled one of his shoes partway off 20 minutes in, and had to quit; the second time, he quivered himself into nervous sweat-soaked steaming exhaustion.  I offered to borrow a friend's lovely calm hunt horse for my daughter to hunt this year, but my daughter loves Mickey beyond all reason and declined.

Some hunts are wildly upper-crust.  Some would perfectly fulfill the snobby rich-person stereotypes.  But remember, I live in Appalachia.  We are the Dinosaur Hunt.  The first day Katie and I went out with our hunt, one of the Masters (the leaders of the hunt; we have several) came over to us with a plastic bag full of tiny plastic dinosaurs, and instructed us to each chose one.   We were told that we would be expected to carry this dinosaur in the pocket of our hunt coat at all times: the Masters could demand that we produce it.  "We've found," the woman said, "that it's very difficult to take yourself too seriously if you are carrying a plastic dinosaur in your pocket."

So this was our Saturday:  we circled a cornfield.  Reversed, went the other way.  Reversed again.  Crossed a small stream at the bottom of a very deep ditch.  Galloped up the "Scary Trail."  Stood listening to hounds.  Trotted, then cantered, along some ridges.  Stood listening.  Crossed a river dam.  Went back.  Jumped some small logs, ran around, went back.  Hounds chased a coyote, but we were never in the right place to see him.  My horse behaved impeccably.  My daughter's horse, to my surprise, did too.  A hound went between his legs and he didn't put back an ear.  He went up the Scary Trail and bumped into my mare and got calmer and happier as the day progressed.  As we trotted back to the horse trailers, all of our horses in the low, relaxed, ground-covering trot that is my favorite hunting gait, my daughter brought up the rear with three hounds at her horse's heels.  It was, she told me later, a moment of complete partnership, and complete joy.  And she had her dinosaur, too.