On Walking: On Hunting

We’re heading up over to the Orchard Field, and Pants and Dora are swinging and straining on their leads.  They’ve caught the scent of the hounds who lolloped through the village yesterday, leaving their big paw prints over the wide grass verges. Dora’s father was a Hunt Terrier, and I wonder if the scents provoke any ancient instincts. I hold her lead tightly, in case she shoots off down a drain.

The rain is falling in an unfriendly curtain, and I can barely see out from my hood. I fit my boots in semi-circular divots left by the horses, and wonder what glory was to be had, riding to hounds on a grim, grey Wednesday in North Oxfordshire.

The topic of hunting makes my heart race. It makes people so incredibly angry – far more than illegal deer hunting, or mole-trapping (which makes me FURIOUS), or dog-fighting.

I’m ambivalent about foxes. I’m not very good at killing things. But I’ve been around chickens most of my life, and as a child, I remember my mum picking up the poor, headless bodies of the pullets in the side paddock, putting them in a black plastic sack. She had tears coursing down her face, and was shaking with rage. I had that same rage, twenty years later, when I caught a fox half-in, half out of my chicken pen, one summer’s dawn. My birds woke me with a tremendous noise and I shot outside in my knickers, then chased the fox (a whopping dog) out of our garden and across the cricket pitch. I was so angry I didn’t feel any pain in my bare feet, nor care that any early walkers would have seen me; breasts bouncing, buttocks wobbling – streaking and shrieking, ludicrously waving a gardening trowel. If I’d have caught that fox, I’d have squashed it flat, shoved it in the van and driven into Banbury for it to live outside Iceland and be urban.

But to be honest, I’m not at all sure that general anti-fox hunting feeling has anything to do with foxes. I was at the school-bus stop yesterday, when the Warwickshire came up the Wroxton Road. Every single one of the women I stood with made hissing noises and took a step back into Bob and Brenda’s driveway. The Huntsman waved and called hello, and the hounds were merry and controlled, but still the others didn’t call hello, just shrunk back further. I stood alone, with my phone camera, grinning, loving the ancient treat of seeing horses and hounds trot briskly past in the rain.

When they’d gone (the last rider was a lady, who looked as if she were wearing an old Scout tent) I asked the others why they didn’t like them. There were mutterings about hounds meeting the school bus on the bends, and horses shouldn’t be on roads at school-bus times, and that they think they can ride where they like, and they don’t shut gates. No one mentioned foxes.

‘Bunch of knobs,’ came the last comment, and we hastily turned the conversation back to types of dining chair. But how interesting.

And then there’s my own thoughts on hunting. I went out as a child in the late eighties with Pony Club chums, and frightened myself silly, but I still love the whole glamour and bravery of the thing. I have all sorts of unsuitable crushes on men in tweed jackets with shiny-topped boots, and my heart races ridiculously when I hear the horn, or the shoes of trotting horses clipping past. I’d love nothing more than to be at the back, giving the fences and ditches a go, spitting mud out of my mouth, swigging a hip flask behind a blackthorn copse. I don’t want to kill a fox, though. Or see a fox being killed. In fact, I’d like to take foxes out of the equation altogether.

We reach the Orchard Field and I let the dogs go as I stand beneath the little oak. Mid-wee, Pants suddenly does his funny half-collapse before going on point, and I start running to catch him before he mullers the cat from Meadowsweet Farmshop, next door. But I’m far too slow. He’s off like a rocket, bendy rubber-toy body flying over the yellowed goose-grass. Dora goes after him, a second bullet, complete with yapping. They’re heading towards the spinney, away from the farmshop – it’s too far – the cat won’t stand a chance. I dash the rain from my eyes, reach the top of the hill.

I see their quarry; it’s getting away and I stop shouting and laugh, my breath coming in heaves. Not a poor little cat. A bloody great fox.  Go Pants, go. Point it towards Banbury.

Riding The Hairy Ginger

I love riding, even though I’m very unstylish, and my feet stick out from the stirrups like a duck’s.

Every now and then, one of my horsey-set friends will get pissed in the pub and say I must come out with them on a hack, or mess around with some jumps or something. Usually, I’m there, next morning, hat crammed on hung-over head, desperately trying to figure out a new horse before it recognises a hobby rider, and chucks me off.

This Saturday though, I was not hungover, and I was invited to ride out with Lucy, the yard manager for Prickett’s, in Horley. The owner, Caroline, is an Eventer, and they have hordes of impossibly shiny Eventers in the stables, as well as a few very glamorous livery horses (complete with glamorous owners).

I was HUGELY excited, and very nervous in case I goofed in such professional company.

I turned up at 9 o’clock sharp, and instantly realised I didn’t quite look right. My ancient navy jodders have more darns in them than a shark net, and my daughter’s hat (I couldn’t find mine) had long ago lost its silk.

‘Riding for the disabled, darling?’ said Lucy.

She popped a silk on my head as if hiding an ugly teapot.

Her telephone then rang (it rings constantly), and I was left to eye up my mount. Bucky, an ex-champion race horse.

He was very tall and thin, covered with orange fluff like an Orangutan.  I went into his loose box and made friends.

‘You can tack up?’ said Lucy, bowling past and leaving saddle and bridle.

‘No worries!’ I called. But I didn’t really get a chance to find out, as an indomitable lady with a busy air and sweet smile appeared. I stood there looking useless whilst she hauled on bits of Bucky’s kit.

‘What hole’s his flash band?’ she said. I dithered and she sent me a pitying look.

The next moment, Bucky was securely trussed, and the lady whisked out, off to meet her daughter from the London train.

‘Thanks,’ I called. Bucky tried to eat my anorak.

Just as we were leading the horses out, a voice called to see if she could ride with us.

‘We’ll be going slow,’ yelled back Lucy. ‘Carles is on Buckaroo.’

The voice laughed, and I quailed further when she came into view. Beautiful blonde, with an impossibly handsome bay. She very politely didn’t mention the two inches of hiking-sock sticking out between my boots and jodhpurs.

We mounted and started off, me frantically trying to remember hands-down, heels-down, arse-in-the-saddle mantra. The combination of extremely capable Lucy and extremely glamorous Belinda made me very shy. I barely spoke as we walked out of the village.

Bucky kept dropping his right shoulder because his poor old bones were stiff, and I kept lurching to the side and grabbing his lack of mane. Belinda’s Perry insisted on skedaddling sideways and Bucky eyed him with disparagement.

Gradually, I got used to Bucky’s uneven gait, and relaxed enough to enjoy myself. My favourite thing about riding through villages is to peer into all the gardens and see what everyone’s planting. I was gawping over one wall at emerging daffodils when a grumpy brunette revved past in a silver people-carrier. ‘Bloody horses, ‘ I lip-read.

We headed towards Wroxton, smartly trotting now, and Bucky had warmed up enough to keep pace with the other two. Belinda turned out to be not at all scary, and to be a Humanist Minister. Her and Lucy’s conversation was so interesting I totally forgot to steer, and Bucky kept diverting to open gateways, like an elderly motorist pulling over for a break.

We reached the Drift Road and turned around. Bucky immediately changed gear, and pulled like a train to the front, shaking his head if I tried to check him.

‘Race instinct,’ called Lucy, as we shot off up the verge. ‘He just wants to be in front.’

I manned up, and sat like a stone, pull-leave, pull-leave on his bit. He heaved a sigh and slowed.

Belinda was talking about her counselling practice now, and I kept hearing tantalising snatches of advice for one of Lucy’s friends.

All too soon we were back in Horley, turning up the drive for Sor Brooke Farm.

‘There’s Caroline,’ said Lucy, as we passed a blonde doing some very s-l-o-w fancy cantering in the school. But Bucky wasn’t keen on stopping. At least no one was down in the yard when I slid inelegantly off his back. I landed heavily and staggered when Bucky turned to rub his lovely face up and down my body. Grateful for his shambling kindness, I put my arms round his neck, kissing him thank you and covering myself in ginger fluff.

Happiness is found on the shoulders of champions.