Hunting mares can be capricious and even downright difficult but Tessa Waugh says they can also be your horse of a lifetime

People are very rarely lukewarm when it comes to an opinion on hunting mares. The naysayers condemn them as complicated, high-maintenance and slaves to their hormones, while those in the pro camp can spend days praising their bravery and intelligence. “You cannot beat a good mare,” they say but in the same sentence often caution “there are many bad ones”.

On the hunting field it can go either way. A hunter of many years put it in a nutshell when he described the sport as “patience and perseverance peppered by moments of high excitement”. This contrast can blow a horse’s brain, flicking a switch that sends them into freak-mode or triggering another that says, “this is what I was born to do, and I will do it so well that you will never ask me to do anything else again”. Find that mode with a mare and you are in horse-of-a-lifetime territory.

“Peggy was pure Irish draught with a bottom that you could play cards on”

This was certainly the case for Tocky McKie when she bought an eight-year-old chestnut mare called Peggy. Tocky and her husband Ian were both Masters of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase at the time, and Tocky would often fieldmaster for Ian on the days that he hunted the hounds. As a former champion amateur jockey, Ian was not going to mess around when it came to crossing the country so Tocky knew that she needed something special if she was to follow. “Peggy was pure Irish draught with a bottom that you could play cards on, but she was a Grade-A showjumper before I got her so I knew she would jump the gates,” she recalls.

This estimation was right on the money. “You could show off on her big style. Peggy would go all day on any ground, gallop down the road and was never lame. She was a freak really. And she got me out of some big pickles following Ian. We once jumped a hung gate on to the main Aylesbury road and the only way out was over a post box. She didn’t bat an eyelid.” Somewhat gratifyingly, Peggy was a one-woman horse. “She wouldn’t go a yard for Ian,” says McKie with a chuckle. “Peggy was what everyone is screaming for, especially in a jumping country – to go first and take on anything.”

They are more honest and they give more

When the late David Barker hunted the Meynell, between 1986 and 1999, he rarely had to think about buying horses. The former Olympic showjumper frequently hunted eventers that had been sent to him once they had stopped going cross country. But, according to his wife Elaine, there were a couple of exceptions – two chestnut mares called Mandy and Lottie that Barker bought specifically for hunting. “David preferred mares,” she explains. “He said they are more honest and they give more.”

Mandy and Lottie were both ex-showjumpers that came from Derek Ricketts; Lottie in particular adored the hounds. “David and Lottie were giving it some welly one day,” remembers Elaine. “Lottie came down and David came off but Lottie didn’t wait. She kept following hounds for quite a way. When they caught their fox, the mare stood with them until Roderick Duncan, who was David’s whipper-in, arrived on the scene. Roderick caught the mare and went trundling back with her to find David, who gave Roderick one of the worst bollockings of his life. Something along the lines of ‘never do that again, the mare was with her hounds and would have happily stayed with them until I arrived.’”

Many of the best hunting mares have quirks

Kelvin New, Joint Master of the United and former Master of the Crawley and Horsham and Chiddingfold, Leconfield and Cowdray, had a brilliant mare in the form of a showjumper that he bought from Nick Russell. Named J Lo on account of her generous backside, the half warmblood was New’s go-to horse when he fieldmastered for Dominic Jones at the South Dorset before the ban. “We had a day when we got a fox on the move into Blackmore and Sparkford Vale (BSV) country,” he says. “It was a rare, long hunt for this part of the world and, as Dominic didn’t know the BSV country like me, J Lo and I showed the way jumping locked gates, wire and strong hedges one after another. Unusually for a half warmblood she was very bold.”

Kelvin New and fabulous hunting mare J Lo

Like many of the best mares there were quirks. When she came to the News’, J Lo didn’t know a lot about the world beyond a showjumping yard. “If you wanted to jump a gate you had to ride across and let her look at it. Once she had looked she would always jump it.” She could be a diva. “She always came into season at the same time every year and she wasn’t a very nice mare then,” admits New, which, one senses, is a generous understatement. “We could start the autumn hunting off on her and then give her a month off until she got over it.”

Anyone who has read the memoirs of Captain JH Marshall, the talented horseman born at the turn of the last century, will remember the moment when he came across one of the standout mares of his lifetime. He was in a square at Arras choosing horses for the war effort when he spotted the 14.3hh in a line-up. On her headcollar was a label marked: ‘dangerous, unrideable, recommend destruction’. This immediately piqued Marshall’s interest. The horse, to his seasoned eye, looked ‘pathetic but game’ and he asked his corporal to tack her up so he could take her for a ride on the cobbles. ‘Soon I was cantering back,’ he recalled, ‘her shoes hitting sparks.’ He had discovered a ‘top-class fizzer of a jumping mare’ and went on to win many competitions.

Many of these gems come from unpromising beginnings

It is true that many of these gems come from unpromising beginnings. “I think she’s amazing”, says Jammy Taylor of 15.2hh Kitkat, who she has owned for 10 years. “I know a lot of people look at her and think ‘why would you want that?’” Kitkat arrived as a rising five-year-old when Taylor was in her early teens. “She was my first project horse,” she says. “At the time, I wanted to be the next Pippa Funnell but eventing her was interesting. Sometimes we would manage a double clear and other times she would bronc around the warm up, jump everything then stop at a tiny log.” The beginning of Kitkat’s hunting career wasn’t covered in glory either. “The first time I took her we spent the whole time in a sweat, spinning and going up. Rearing was her party trick.”

Jammy Taylor’s Kitkat required patience

Taylor persevered and was rewarded with a fearless horse that would jump anything. She has hunted her for 10 days without a saddle for charity and enjoyed days with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale jumping every hanging metal gate in the country. Despite the acrobatics, the drama and sharpness, Kitkat could behave like an angel when it really mattered. Taylor recalls a day helping to whip-in to Bill Bishop at the Crawley and Horsham. “I was opening a gate and the hounds surged around her feet. Far from going mad, there was this amazing moment where she looked completely content and just stood there quietly and still. As long as she felt like the most important horse there she would do anything.”

Hunting mares surpass geldings every time

Taylor believes that mares surpass geldings every time: “They are so much more intelligent. Even the really naughty ones because they are always looking after themselves so in turn they will always look after you.” There is a proviso: “If you get on them thinking you know best, then they will humble you pretty quickly.” There’s a well-worn saying that you can tell a gelding but you have to ask a mare. Lorna Rees went through the mill with Shortie, the mare she bought for showing but ended up hunting with the Flint and Denbigh, the Cheshire Forest, the Cheshire, the Wynnstay and the Wheatland.

“Shortie was sharp,” she says, “I took her for a lesson and we were jumping a grid. We kept doing it over and over, getting bigger and bigger and in the end she seemed to say, ‘I’m not doing this any more’. She wouldn’t jump anything in cold blood after that, so showing went out of the window.” Hunting, however, was Shortie’s calling and when she was doing that she would jump absolutely anything, even if the bits in between sometimes caused a problem. “At wicket gates she would go through like a banana and nearly take my leg off. She once took off with me in some maize and galloped through the field. When we got to a gate at the end of the field I fell off, so she jumped me and the gate and kept on going.” 

“I soon learnt that a good mare will give you their all

“I’ve always insisted on hunting grey geldings, after a childhood spent riding particularly difficult chestnut mares,” says Alexandra Henton, Editor of The Field. “I found them temperamental and willing to ditch their incumbent at any opportunity. But when a friend encouraged me to ride his old fieldmastering mare, Missy, my mind was changed. I hadn’t ridden for several years, and she led me back into the job of crossing serious High Leicestershire following the Quorn hounds in a way I don’t think a gelding would have done,” she says. “Coming back to hunting after a hiatus, I needed a hunter who would nanny me, and that is just what she did. She’d let me know it was time to crack on by simply locking on to a fence and would brook no flapping from me. She was the horse of a lifetime.”

Editor Alexandra Henton and Missy flying

Jamie Atkinson, a former eventer and now Master of the Tynedale, is firmly in the pro-mare camp. “While I was eventing, I was lucky to have a couple of good ones,” he explains. “I soon learned that a good mare will give you their all.” Whistle arrived from a friend in Ireland. “She had a couple of days mooching around and then went straight into fieldmastering,” he says. “You can point her at anything. Hunt ball day was fantastic: she pinged everything and we had a marvellous day at the end of the Season where there were only a handful of us jumping the big walls. She loves them.” A while ago Atkinson had a nasty fall when he took on an enormous hedge with Whistle. “We were having a good run and I made a split decision to go for it but when I got to the take-off it was over six foot.  I bust my collar bone and ligaments. I haven’t jumped that hedge since but I would give it another go on Whistle.” That sums it up really. Brave, big-hearted, clever and kind. Get it right with a mare and enjoy a partnership that transcends all others.

If you enjoyed this feature on hunting mares…

Take a look at these articles on The Field‘s website: hunting stallions and why a Connemara pony will make the perfect hunting companion.