The best hunting horse used to have the head of a Duchess and the bottom of a cook. Does the maxim still hold?
Finding the best hunting horse can be lifetime’s quest. But when one does manage to find the best hunting horse what does it look like? Does it conform to the traditional maxim of ‘face like a Duchess, bottom like a cook’?
In the London flat where I occasionally stay, I am lucky enough to be able to drink my morning coffee looking at a watercolour by Lionel Edwards of two of the best hunting horses, a grey and a bay, jumping a hairy-looking place with hounds far away in the distance. I am especially fond of the grey, who is being ridden on a long rein and is obviously both taking care and looking ahead to where hounds are running. His big, intelligent ears are pricked, his eyes wide open. The bay has already landed well out and is about to gallop away. The rider has plenty in front of him, so reassuring when you land over a big fence. You can clearly see the horse’s strong hindquarters and his nice, short back. He has plenty of bone but is athletic, neat and not too big. There’s no way of telling which pack these two are out with or who they are but, whatever their breeding or their long-forgotten names, they are the type, the best hunting horse, through and through.
The best hunting horse needs to be just that, bred for the job, ideally three-quarter bred with the rest Irish Draught, and 16hh-17hh with plenty of bone and heart room, a good shoulder, a short back and legs, a large engine behind and enough of a front to make you feel safe. And, of course, good feet. No hoof, no horse.
He or she should have the scope to keep up with hounds over any country, clear hedges with the ditch towards and find a fifth leg if there is a drop on the landing side, as well as the toughness to handle long days, the intelligence to cope with uneven ground such as furrow or moorland. They mustn’t kick and you should be able to open and shut gates and queue if need be.
However, what constitutes the best hunting horse today isn’t what it was in the days of “seas of grass”. What is needed now is an all-terrain vehicle – handy, hardy, economical and suited to its job. Show hunters, glorious as they look in the summer, have diverged from the actual animal on which most people will follow hounds, much as show dogs (even those of working breeds) differ from real working dogs. That isn’t to say that you should not look for good conformation and, of course, many lovely horses that have been shown and have won in hand do go on to make some of the best hunting horses, but very big horses who catch the judge’s eye may not be as practical as smaller, tougher individuals. My beau idéal as a child with the Cottesmore was the late Colonel Steven Eve who rode big, home-bred hunters fit for a Christmas card. He was always perfectly turned out, from the tips of his snow-white moustache to the toes of his waxed-calf top boots.
Even in Leicestershire, you do not need picture-perfect hunters today. It is performance that matters. Helen Connors, daughter-in-law of the legendary Dr Tom Connors who supplied horses for so many years, speaks warmly of Quorn subscriber Corty Howard’s horse Uccello by the jumping stallion Cruising: “He was so plain when he arrived, I thought they’d sent the wrong horse. He was built like a brick outhouse with a leg at each corner, but he has to be one of the county’s best hunters.”
Connors says that she does not think the best hunting horse needs to be overly big or particularly fast and that very long-striding horses are not the answer. “To be able to canter downhill into a 5ft hedge and the horse to be able to back off by himself is the ultimate,” she says. “But they also need to be able to turn away from everyone else and jump a narrow place or a tiger-trap without falling into the middle of it.” She adds that horses that are too competitive may not settle in the field or queue. They are better off becoming eventers. At the other end of their careers some eventers settle down and hunt. Mary Gordon-Watson’s Cornishman was one; another was the Strakers’ George, who I am told (although by then quite old and shaggy), jumped an in-and-out of level crossing gates on a visit to the Cotswold and, unrecognised at the meet, duly astonished the field.
IS THE BEST HUNTING HORSE A ‘MADE’ HUNTER?
It has always been difficult to find a really good “made” hunter, as people rarely want to part with them. At the same time, some people feel that a “hunter” is a good description for an eventer or show-jumper that has not quite made the grade. This attitude annoys Connors, who feels that the best hunting horse is valuable in itself, needing to be brave and calm. “They need to be able to do everything,” she says. She thinks the best are those who have hunted for a couple of seasons in Ireland, particularly over rough country, scrambling over banks and ditches, so that they’ve learnt how to look after themselves. They may still only be five or six but have had the experience. She feels this practical apprenticeship, similar to nurses being trained in the ward not the lecture the-atre, is worth a great deal of schooling. “When we were dealing, we quickly knew what we were sitting on by cantering down the grass verge to the meet. If they popped the drainage ditches and looked where they were going, you knew you were in for a safe day.”
Dr Connors always bought horses from Ireland, mainly half- or three-quarter-bred. He was not keen on the now-very-popular, modern Continental warmblood breeds, but the individual horse was more important to him than its papers. He famously asked potential purchasers who enquired into the antecedents of any animal, “How would you like him to be bred?” You could try his horses over nat-ural hedges and ditches on the farm and out hunting. The top dealers will still allow you to do so but not all private sellers will.
Many of us end up looking at advertisements but there are certain things to avoid. I always think the words “has hunted” a bit doubtful. Did they take the animal out once and have to go home in an ambulance? And the seller’s idea of a hunter may not be yours. Writing in 1932, Lady Diana Shedden and Lady Apsley, authors of my bedside bible To whom the Goddess, wrote, “The advertisement of a perfect hunter may materialise into either a well-bred utter weed or a big, heavy common brute.” Still true. The traditional time to look for one is during autumn hunting but it can be a good thing to see a horse towards the end of the season when it is fit and, crucially, to see how sound it is. The chances are better that the owner may let you have half a day and then you have the summer getting to know it.
Personal recommendation is a good thing but do beware of human nature. Everyone, however saintly and honest in other walks of life, will try to sell you some awful horse before giving unbiased advice. You should also know your limits and your country and get a horse to suit. In my case with the Ludlow, this is a middle-aged, coloured horse, insultingly referred to as a “pikey pony” by one of my grander neighbours. Unless you are intent on making a young horse yourself, manners are paramount, as is comfort – no jogging or reaching for his head. Ideally, if you are riding to hounds rather than just practising a branch of equestrianism, you want to be able to forget the horse and concentrate on the hounds.
The very best hunters should allow you to do this. This doesn’t mean the ride should be no fun. Those a bit bolder than me or in a more galloping country may want a faster horse. However, Charles Lumsden, who hunts with the Wynnstay, says that even there you still need to be able to jump trappy obstacles. He does not go in for very big horses although he is tall: “A compact 16.2hh beats a rangy 17hh and big horses also break down more often.” The question of size arises more for men than women, who can manage on smaller, cheaper horses. For a heavy man to find a quality hunter can be expensive and difficult but if your horse is not up to your weight, it can be like a large man driving a Mini on a long journey, and the horse won’t be able to stand long days. A horse that is part-Irish Draught is the traditional answer for many but there are other options: part-Cleveland Bay or part-Shire, or if you really hate hairy heels you could go on a diet.
THE HORSE FOR A FIVE MILE POINT?
Reading old hunting books about tremendous five-mile points on old turf with never a strand of wire to be seen and hedges that have not been cut by machines, it is clear that blood horses were needed if you were going to keep up, but today you may need to jump wire, go along roads, or get on and off to open and shut impossible gates. Your horse may be asked to do three days a fortnight or more for a number of seasons and you may need to be able to load him into a trailer by yourself in a remote spot.
The result is that not all horses that hunt are “hunters”. Realistically, many people hunt the horse they have, regardless. Cobs have long been a good option but people even hunt Arabs and all sorts of coloured horses and ponies. In most countries you do not need a thoroughbred (TB) but they do have their fans. Retraining racehorses is commendable but you need skill and luck. Caroline Jenks, who hunts with both the Wynnstay and the South Shropshire and is married to former trainer Willie Jenks, now chairman of Ludlow racecourse, has four hunters. Two are ex-racehorses and two are part-breds. “Ex-racehorses can make wonderful hunters and if they have withstood the wear and tear of the racecourse they often benefit from the change of career and some seem to find it much to their liking,” she says. “The TB hunter wins hands down on ride, stamina and, often, amazing ability. There is no better feeling than to come down to a hedge and ditch and know that you can fly it.” However, she’s a very experienced rider and what works for her would not suit a beginner, as many ex-racehorses can jump at speed but are not used to having to jump out of a trot. Jenks concludes that what you need, above all, is a horse you can trust as, although her own two beloved “commoners” tend to be more sensible than her thoroughbreds, with sturdier legs that withstand thorns and knocks better, any breed can be a wimp. “I would stand up for either but either can have you sitting in the bottom of the ditch.”
Sadly, today you need a horse tough enough to cope with the “hammer, hammer, hammer down the hard, hard road”, which is, in practice, a big part of modern-day hunting in most countries. A couple of years ago I was shown round the immaculate Devon and Somerset Staghounds hunt kennels and saw one lovely bay thoroughbred after another, many of them ex-racehorses but, of course, they are suited to their job and their country, where roadwork is mercifully rare.
I love the idea of a hunter like the bay in the Lionel Edwards painting but if you ask me what quality is essential in a good hunter, I’d say honesty. There is nothing more sapping to the nerve than a horse that stops. Good hunters can be dull to hack but should love hounds and transform themselves without going mad. They should tremble with excitement when they first see hounds at the beginning of the season but stand stock still in anticipation rather than exploding or, heaven forbid, kicking. And you want a pair of nice, big ears through which you can look at the best view in the world.
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