Does the maxim still hold that the best hunting horse used to have the head of a Duchess and the bottom of a cook?

It used to be said that top-notch hunters had a ‘face like a Duchess, bottom like a cook’. The search for the very best hunting horse, can be the quest of a lifetime but when one does strike such equine gold, does it still confirm to these old maxim? If not, what should one look for?

A watercolour by Lionel Edwards depicts two of the best hunting horses, a grey and a bay, jumping a hairy-looking place with hounds far away in the distance. The grey 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 bred for the job, ideally three-quarter bred with the rest Irish Draught 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 is absolutely true.

Are the best hunting horses still bred for the job?

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.

But times have changed. 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 equine all-terrain vehicle – hardy, handy economical and suited to its job. For the most part, forget show hunters: glorious as they look in the summer, they have diverged from the actual animal on which to follow hounds. That isn’t to say that you should not look for good conformation – many lovely horses that have been shown and have won in hand do go on to make some of the best hunting horses.

Performance is everything

However, 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.”

The best hunting horse can tackle the Leicestershire ground

Tom and Jill Connors hunting. The best hunting horse can tackle the Leicestershire ground

According to Connors, the best hunting horse needs not 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. ” She adds that horses that overly competitive horses may not settle in the field or queue. They are better off becoming eventers.

That said, some very well-known eventers have retired to make the very best hunting horses.  These include Mary Gordon-Watson’s Cornishman, Burghley-winning grey Lenamore and double Badminton winner Supreme Rock.

Are the best hunters ready made?

People rarely want to part with a first-rate hunter, so ‘made’ horses are hard to find. One has to wade through numerous eventers and showjumpers that have not made the grade described as ‘hunters’. This attitude annoys Connors, who feels 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, over rough country, so that they’ve learnt how to look after themselves.  She believes this apprenticeship is worth a great deal of schooling.”

The best hunting horse must be reliable enough to open gates during the day

The best hunting horse must be reliable enough to open gates during the day

Many of us end up looking at advertisements but there are certain pitfalls and words to be decoded. The description “has hunted” is one to treat with care. 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, most importantly, to ascertain how sound it is.

Know your country… and your own limits

Everyone, however saintly and honest in other walks of life, will try to sell you some awful horse before giving unbiased advice. Buyers need to be equally honest: about their own limits and needs, and the requirements of the country. Unless you are intent on making a young horse yourself, manners and comfort are paramount. A jogging, barging horse will not make for a pleasant day. 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.

There is also the question of size. 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. If you really hate hairy heels you could go on a diet.

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. However, 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. You may need to be able to load him into a trailer by yourself in a remote spot.

Not all horses that hunt are ‘hunters’

Realistically, many people hunt the horse they have, regardless of whether they are the best horse for the job. 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 have fans. There are also notable racing superstars that have retired to the hunting field, such as Denman and dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll. Retraining racehorses is commendable but you need skill and luck.

Caroline Jenks, who is married to former trainer Willie Jenks, has hunted ex-racehorses. “They can make wonderful hunters. 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.

Above all qualities of the best hunting horses, honesty is most important. 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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