Candy goes to Opening Hunt
Another Opening Hunt has come and gone, and I’m still alive!
Saturday dawned sunny and crisp, and I felt optimistic as I headed out to the barn with a perfectly tied stock tie and shiny new tall boots. For once, I was ahead of schedule. I fed the horses and packed away a few last minute things in the trailer while they ate. Candy and Gina could tell something was up, though. They finished eating, then immediately headed to the back of their nighttime paddock and huddled together, eyeing me suspiciously. When I walked out there with a halter, they two of them took off and spent the next ten minutes cantering up and down the fenceline of the paddock. I briefly considered taking unclipped, long-maned, out of shape Moe to opening hunt, as he was more interested in the treats I was offering than the mares’ antics.
I eventually cornered and caught Candy, who was sweating profusely under her blanket. I assured myself I would definitely sell her in the spring as I removed the blanket, replaced it with a cooler, and put her into the trailer while Gina screamed from her stall. Now five minutes behind schedule, I stopped at the nearby gas station/diner/bait shop to fill up the truck and pick up breakfast. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for not being too far off my timetable as I pulled out of the gas station and headed down the road. About ten minutes later, I suddenly remembered that I’d forgotten to grab my hunt coat from the chair I’d hung it on in the kitchen. You can’t show up to the hunt’s most formal day wearing a tweed coat, so I resigned myself to arriving later than I’d planned and drove home to get it.
I pulled in Flint Creek just as the priest was finishing up the Blessing of the Hounds; it’s probably not great etiquette to rattle down a long gravel driveway in the middle of a prayer, so here’s hoping Saint Hubert can forgive me.
Candy unloaded very quietly and seemed totally calm as I tacked her up. I opted to leave my saddle bag, flask, and phone at the trailer. I haven’t ridden her with the saddle bag before and didn’t want the bouncing to unsettle her. My phone is too big to fit in the pockets of the breeches I wear hunting, and my coat lacks pockets to stash the flask. I took a couple of swigs of port and climbed on the horse. She moved off eagerly and we slipped in the big field unobtrusively and just in time for the stirrup cup.
I opted to ride Candy in first field. After riding in second field at the cub hunt, I knew she would be unhappy moving at a walk and trot for a couple of hours, especially if she could see the first field horses galloping. Candy and I started out riding near some of our friends at the front of first field, and she seemed content to keep to a reasonable trot as we hacked out to where the hounds would be cast. Once we arrived there, she became extremely anxious about standing still. She danced around and flung her head before finally kicking out at another horse. Oops. We were demoted to the back of first field after that.
Our company in the back of the field were a couple of polo ponies and their riders and an extremely petite woman on a loud-colored brown and white pinto pony. Candy didn’t seem to mind being at the back of the group; her primary concern was going forward and fast.
The hounds set off at a dead run immediately and the field followed. They led us on a merry chase up some of the steep winding trails that characterize this fixture. We galloped through the woods as the hounds pursued their quarry, and Candy was content to zip along the trails at a reasonable pace and listen to me when I asked her to slow down and stop. The field rested for a few minutes as the huntsman gathered up the hounds and sent them off again. Candy wanted no part of standing still and jigged in place restlessly while other horses grazed or caught their breath. Our pinto friend was just as anxious to be off again- I swear I saw that pony rear at more than one check. When a 13-hand pony is acting like a fool, it’s naughty and kind of cute; when a 16-hand big-bodied Thoroughbred does it, everyone sees you coming and scatters.
For the next two hours, the hounds were in hot pursuit of some kind of game (presumably a coyote, but we never got a view). Candy raced along with the rest of the field and was completely content to canter or gallop across all sorts of terrain. She scrambled down steep hills and exploded up them. She soared over small logs and plunged into the icy waters of Flint Creek without hesitation. She even surprised me with flying lead changes on particularly twisty trail. As we cantered along on a wide grassy trail, I looked up at the sunny blue sky and down at my hard-working bay horse with a smile on my face. In that moment, I felt pure, unadulterated joy.
Candy was far from perfect- she never really settled down at checks and refused to walk at any point. Every step that wasn’t a canter or gallop was a jig. After her kicking incident at the beginning of the day, she tried to kick out again (though the second time, the horse was very close to her hindquarters despite the red ribbon I’d put her tail). I was exhausted at the end of the hunt from her leaning on the bit and from sitting her jig.
However, I’m pleased with her performance on the whole. She’s much better about kicking than she used to be. (She used to kick out if a horse so much as looked at her wrong from twenty feet away.) She felt like she still had plenty of gas in the tank even after two and a half hours’ hard riding over hilly terrain. She didn’t try to bolt and was generally responsive to my requests to rate her speed. At the trailer after the hunt, she drank plenty of water and ate her whole bag of hay. (Gina would never drink and ate very little, which always worried me.) Candy trotted out sound as a dollar yesterday morning, too.
Somewhat related to Candy’s performance, a woman asked me if Candy was a Morgan. Apparently, something about the way she moves prompted the woman to ask me about it. I assured her that Candy was indeed a Thoroughbred. I’ve now been asked if she’s Arabian, Anglo-Arabian, and Morgan, so I can’t wait to see what other breeds people think she might be.
I like to think that Candy will enjoy being a hunt horse as she continues to get miles in on the trail and in the field. Saturday’s hunt gave us enough hours to send in for the 25-hour Thoroughbred Recreational Riding Incentive Program award. Maybe by time we’re eligible for the next award (100 hours), Candy will be standing still at checks and walking back to the trailer!