Hunt rides. For the intrepid riders who take them on, courage is not in question. But what does it take to win? Or is simply staying the course worthy of the laurels? And which hunt ride takes most mettle?
Hunt rides are the last bastion of the old-fashioned point-to-point: man and horse crossing country in its purest form. You race with your heart and your head, riding intelligently and understanding the country, putting skills gained on hunting black runs to use. You may have hunted all your life, but have you done the Melton? You may have the best hunting horse, but will it help you to the racing spoils.
LEICESTERSHIRE THE HOME OF HUNT RIDES
Leicestershire plays host to the Melton, Harborough and Household Cavalry rides, all over first-rate hunting country. The oldest and most revered is the Melton, run by the Melton Hunt Club (MHC). “The original purpose was to open up new hunting country,” says Joey Newton, MHC chairman. Since 1956 it has operated on a three-year cycle between Belvoir, Quorn and Cottesmore country. “This meant that every year more country could be opened up and infrastructure put in that would make it better to hunt across,” explains Newton. The Masters plan the course which is then meticulously inspected and sanctioned by the MHC.
As mechanical hedge-cutters were introduced crossing the country became harder and the Melton achieved mythical status among aficionados. “Doing the Melton” has become a byword of the hunting elite, and most of those who enter a hunt ride will have it at the back of their minds. “What makes it so special is the unfettered and constantly changing course,” says Newton. “If we put up more than eight red or white flags then we would be upset. Hopefully, this year will see just four.” He is keen to point out that the Melton Ride is for everyone. “We have an inside and outside route so everyone can get round,” he says. “The inside route is quite big but you can get round the 31⁄2 miles by taking the outer route.” And his advice? “Take the first 10 fences as slowly as you can and stay out of the mêlèe.”
“If you can sleep the night before the Melton then there must be something wrong,” says Zoe Gibson, who last season won the Harborough, Wynnstay, Ossman’s and the Golden Button. (She couldn’t compete in the Melton due to injury.) “Hunt rides are an in-credible opportunity to gallop and jump in a way that you can’t out hunting,” she enthuses. She has competed in numerous rides. “The first Melton I saw I was gripped and I knew I had to do it.”She did and is now the un-crowned queen of the circuit, a title she modestly eschews. “There is a huge element of luck in winning all four last season,” she admits, “but it is an amazing opportunity to ride in its rawest and freest form. It is like off-roading instead of using the motorway,” she laughs.
Frances Moulaert recalls completing the Melton side-saddle. “My best moments happened as I came towards each hedge. I could hear the crowds shouting, ‘she is still coming’, and when I went past the encouragement was just amazing.” Having completed the course sideways, next time, if there is one, she will plump for astride.
Quorn farmer Edward Packe-Drury-Lowe, a Melton Ride regular, is grateful for the heavy-weight division for riders who can’t make pointing weight. “My wife calls it the First Fat Farmer prize,” he jokes. “Every time I do one, I say never again,” he continues, “but when that time of year comes round I often have a change of heart.” He is adamant that fitness is the key. “Your horse should be really fit; so should the rider,” he cautions. “I train before I take part.” A Cresta Runner, he reveals: “The moments before the flag drops at the start of the Melton ride are more nerve-racking than waiting in the start box at the top of the Cresta.”
THE HARBOROUGH HUNT RIDE
Chloe Shann, a regular on the hunting field, rode in the Melton and was ecstatic to jump a double of hedges that, “put us in the lead for the first and last time”. Shann now rides the Harborough annually.” It is the absolute highlight of my year,” she says.
Founded in 1971 by the late Lord Paget, the Harborough Hunts Club (HHC) Ride was in-tended as an end-of-season jolly. The HHC’s chairman Joe Cowen recalls, “The early races saw the heavyweights sent off first, then the middleweights and then the lightweights, a tactic that the heavyweight Reggie Paget thought might give him a chance to win.” He never did win, although he was third to two other heavyweights in 1972. The Harborough is now renowned for the speed of its course, over “good galloping grassland covering an extended three miles and about 25 fences”, says Cowen. “You need a high-class blood horse that jumps properly at speed,” he cautions. Entries are limited to 50 in the main ride.
Olivia Pember won the Farmer’s Cup (for Fernie or Pytchley members) in 2010 at her first Harborough. “I don’t think I have ever been so fast over fences,” she says. “By the fifth fence I had to remind myself to breathe. I’ve tracked Zoe Gibson round a couple of rides. She’s seriously rapid and I’ve yet to see her or her horse make a mistake.” Dominic Gwyn-Jones has ridden in the Harborough a couple of times and advises, “Get some schooling with a racehorse trainer and work on your fitness if you are not hunting regularly.”
MILITARY HUNT RIDES
The Wessex Yeomanry Ride, which takes place on part of the Badminton estate, is followed by a day’s hunting with the Beaufort and is “a great proving ground but not as hairy as Leicestershire”, reveals Major Neil Cross, Commanding Officer of the King’s Troop. “Officers are expected to take part. It is great training for soldiers to develop courage and keep their nerve, and a practical lesson in the dangerous and exhausting work of pulling guns at high speed.” Cross always rides his Troop horses in hunt rides. “We are dressed for comfort not for speed,” he laughs as he recalls the hunt rides he has under his belt, including the Melton. “And sharing a bottle of cherry brandy when walking the course can often make the hedges look smaller.”
HUNT RIDES IN CHESHIRE
“They might think they are the bee’s knees in Leicestershire but the Cheshire crowd are wild,” claims William Grant, a successful presence at many hunt rides. The Ossman’s Hunt Ride has been running for about five years, over 23⁄4 miles at Robin Williams’s farm. Organiser Charlie Barlow says, “We are dairy-farming country – small fields and hedges. Eighty per cent of our hunting country is good grass.” Barlow delights in how these rides bring people together. “Visitors get to meet the locals. It is a great way of fostering the grass-roots element of hunting that has become lost in modern point-to-pointing.” The Ossman’s ride is widely regarded as one of the friendliest.
“The Ossman’s has big wide hedges,” says Cottesmore farmer Richard Walker, who came second last season, “but the Wynnstay has big, tall ones.” The Wynnstay ride has been going “for nearly 10 years,” says event rider Emily Gilruth. Her enthusiasm played a large part in setting it up. “I had an eventer who wouldn’t cross country alone, so I entered him in the Melton and although I fell twice on the flat I still managed third place, a best and worst moment combined,” she says. The ride is styled on the Melton. “There are only a few turning boards and lots of decent hedges.”
GOING FOR THE GOLDEN BUTTON
In the array of hunt rides there is a new(ish) kid on the block. The Golden Button Challenge is the brainchild of David Redvers. The ride, set in Ledbury Hunt country, was put to-gether as a weekend of fun and frolics over New Year. “It is fantastic country that lends it-self perfectly,” Redvers says. “It is an old-style point-to-point in a pretty straight line over 31⁄2 miles of wonderful turf and hedges along the banks of the Severn.” The ride is followed by a Hunt Ball on New Year’s Eve and hunting over their best country on New Year’s Day.
Challenge secretary Louise Daly says, “We started the ride as a fund-raiser. We have a foot race and an inter-hunt challenge too.” The ride is run over the same course every year, and flagged more than some hunt rides. “The course can be taken on by everyone from a brave person on their fat hunter to professionals. We try to make the whole weekend a special event.” Iona Sinclair rode the Button in 2009. “You need to be quite fit and the horse extremely fit to make the distance,” she says.
When Paul Carberry won in 2009 his friend David Geraghty was doing a “steady clear round on my hunter. We realised there was nothing like it in Ireland,” says Geraghty. This led to The Antler Challenge, only half an hour from Dublin in the Ward Union country. “We styled it on the Golden Button,” he says. “It gives the ordinary hunting man a chance to ride with people like Carberry and an adren-alin rush you can’t get from hunting. It’s all about the thrill of the race.” The inaugural ride saw old pasture and big, Irish ditches. “You could fit a bus into one. It is as much a jumping test as a speed test,” he says. The organisers are keen to encourage visitors from England for the next ride, and offer a first prize of ¤1,000, plus a set of antlers for category winners.
Amateur whip of the Laois, Dermot Hanniffy, has a horse called Melton, christened after a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of port and a promise to do the actual ride. “With few hedges in Laois country, the third one he saw was in the Melton,” laughs Hanniffy. “Even though we tipped up halfway round I still walked him over the line.” He is keen to start a ride in the Laois country, “to keep up the amateur spirit of the old-fashioned point-to-point”.
There are a numerous smaller hunt rides and scurries. The East Sussex and Romney Marsh Scurry is run over timber and hedges in hilly country. Hannah Taylor has taken part numerous times. “Successful point-to-point jockeys can come unstuck in a hunt ride. You need to use your head. It is a different type of racing,” she says. The course for the Isle of Wight Grand National at West Ashy Farm, Ryde, “is not for the faint-hearted and needs serious riding,” claims organiser Caroline Cooper, but it is “a real Island event, with people coming over from the mainland to compete, too”. William Grant won in 2010 and has travelled countrywide taking part in rides on his “big, red and fast” horse Ferrari. “Hunt rides are fabulous. Everyone can have a go and get round,” he says. “I am absolutely passionate about it. Things may often look unjumpable but the more experience you have the easier it is to pick your route.”
These rides require courage, ability and nerve from the rider, who has honed his skills and understanding of the country on the hunting field. The biggest and quickest routes need the bravest of jockeys and kick-on courage. Unfettered, unhindered and unchecked… it is the only way to cross country.
This feature was first published in September 2011.