Michael Clayton tells of an initiative by the Quorn Hunt to provide protective riding caps for all of those in the hunting field
Nowhere is tradition more important than in the hunting field. But how does this change when safety is at stake? Michael Clayton tells of the Quorn Hunt’s new initiative to provide protective, modern riding caps to everyone in the hunting field.
It is important to be comfortable, smart and safe when riding to hounds. Read what to wear out hunting and put your best breeches forward.
RIDING CAPS: THE TRADITIONAL AND THE MODERN
Nowhere does tradition die harder than in the hunting field. It is a strength that has helped to preserve Britain’s hunts since the severe restrictions of the 2004 Hunting Act.
Some claim tradition is also a weakness when it comes to protecting your head while riding in the modern countryside. Farm tracks are now more likely to be concrete, while rural lanes can be “skating rinks”, where horses crash over. There is more barbed wire in hedges and artificial hunt jumps can be rigidly unforgiving.
Last season, a lady follower, Scarlett Jukes, died after her horse fell on a road and her hat came off while she was hunting with the Beaufort. Gems McCormick, Joint Master of the Cottesmore, died from head injuries sustained in a fall while hunting with the Fitzwilliam. The inquest highlighted the dangers of wearing “decorative, cork riding hats”.
These two fatalities have helped reignite the issue of tradition versus safety. A major new initiative to encourage more riders to hounds to switch to protective riding caps with chinstraps and insulation has come from the Quorn Hunt, one of the oldest and most traditional packs in the Shires.
Its professional huntsman for 14 years, Peter Collins, says he and his family were affected by the death of Gems McCormick.
Collins says his son, Joe, asked him: “Dad, is your hat safe?” The huntsman discussed the subject with the Quorn’s honorary secretary, Peter Morritt. He and his wife, Gaynor, were friends of McCormick and were distressed by her death.
MODERN PROTECTIVE RIDING CAPS
They raised the issue with the safety headgear specialists, Charles Owen. With extensive input from Peter Collins, the company has launched a new QH Hunter riding cap, with chin harness and insulation, bearing the British Standards Institution (BSI) Kitemark. It is modelled on the traditional deep-crown cap used by most huntsmen and by many hunt subscribers. At present, the riding caps are sold solely through the Quorn Hunt.
“It’s brilliant, a great step forward. I shall definitely be wearing it,” says Collins. “I’ve already had some interest from other huntsmen, but I’ve had some stick as well. Tradition is strong and many hunt staff still wear old-style caps without chinstraps. We’re giving them, and all their followers, a chance to get riding caps which look traditional, at a competitive price.”
The Quorn Masters approve of the new initiative and will see that their whipper-in, Elliot Stokes, also wears the new hat. Whether all the Masters will do so remains to be seen. Joint Master James Mossman says: “The Hunt is right behind this initiative. I welcome it wholeheartedly. Whether I will give up my own traditional black cap without a chinstrap in the season ahead, I am not sure. I am still thinking about it.
“I am much in favour of hunts maintaining dress standards. It is a compliment to the farmers and landowners over whose land we ride as their guests. You don’t want a hunt to look sloppy. On the other hand, times change and safety is an issue.”
Vere Phillipps, a Quorn field master and a leading dealer in performance horses, says: “I think the new riding caps are really excellent. I have tried it on and it is very comfortable. When my present Patey hat wears out I shall switch to the new Quorn hat. I think it will catch on tremendously with many people.”
THE “WHAT TO WEAR” DILEMMA
There are no accurate figures on how many of those riding to hounds wear modern riding caps today but there has been a major increase on 20th-century levels. Tim Easby, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) says: “Currently there is insurance cover available for hunt staff if they wear headgear bearing the Kitemark, or for certain traditional caps made by Patey and Honri, if they are bespoke and properly fitted to each individual. There is, of course, a duty of care to staff.
“Many more riding caps bearing Kitemarks are nowadays worn throughout the hunting field, and we would expect that trend to increase.”
The “what to wear” dilemma is not new. As a child in wartime Dorset and later as a teenager, I was among many who rode bare-headed on ponies and horses. As a 10-year-old I first hunted in an ill-fitting bowler hat. Insulated riding caps up to today’s standards did not exist.
The issue erupted amid much publicity in 1982 when Colonel Andrew Hartigan, Commander of the Household Cavalry, was fatally injured hunting with the Grafton. His top hat came off before his head struck the road in a fall; he died a week later. The British Army responded by ordering all serving officers and men to wear modern riding caps with chinstraps while hunting. This influenced some other followers to think again. Top hats were increasingly
succeeded by riding caps, although few were up to BSI standards. Patey, the long-standing maker of traditional hunting headgear, has now produced the Patey PROtector, that adheres to BSI and international standards.
Since 1982, the MFHA has advised Masters that hunt staff should be given the option of adopting modern insulated riding caps. Very few did so but some Masters gave a lead, among them Joe Cowen, Master and field master of the Fernie. Mick Wills, huntsman of the Grafton, wore a crash hat after a fall last season and his Joint Master, Charles Smyth-Osbourne, says he has bought a Patey PROtector with an eye to adopting it this season.
In 1982, the Quorn Masters advised that men followers could wear riding caps instead of top hats if they wished but the caps had to be grey-coloured to differentiate from the black caps worn by Masters. The grey caps were described as “mouldy bowlers” by the traditionalists and there was much talk generally of the dire influence of the nanny state.
FOLLOWING THE ROYAL EXAMPLE
When Editor of Horse & Hound, I made a firm decision that we would whole-heartedly support and encourage the wearing of modern headgear in all forms of riding. I was much impressed by powerful evidence in favour of the change presented at seminars given by the British Horse Society and the newly formed Medical Equestrian Association. The decision by the Pony Club to make BSI-standard headgear mandatory was the key to new generations of riders accepting it as normal.
A royal example was set by HRH Prince Charles, who appeared in the hunting field in a modern hunting cap. He said: “I wear a safety helmet with a chinstrap when I play polo. Why should I abandon safer headgear in the hunting field?”
As a hunting correspondent, I wore top hats for many years but changed to riding caps with chinstraps. I received a certain amount of criticism but also enquiries as to where you could buy such things. I have known far better riders than myself suffer paraplegia or even die from falls. My avoidance of head injuries until I gave up riding in my mid-seventies was entirely due to luck.
One rearguard move by the traditionalists was to adopt a top hat with a skull cap fitted inside. The wearer tended to look like Rip Van Winkle from the back and the style did not become widely popular. Modernists urged the abandonment of the top hat on the grounds of “sanity before vanity”. For some, looking smart on a horse is an essential part of maintaining one’s confidence but the medical view is clear.
John Webb, a distinguished spinal surgeon based in Leicestershire, who has operated on a multitude of severe riding accidents, says: “There is absolutely no doubt that if you wear a crash hat or protective cap up to BSI standard, in a fall on your head you will significantly reduce the risk of death or long-lasting head injury, which can produce dreadful behavioural changes. I insist my grandchildren wear proper headgear when they ride, at all times.”
For headgear hunters the QH Hunter riding caps by Charles Owen are available, priced at £250, from the Quorn Hunt via its website (www.quorn-hunt.co.uk), smartphone app or from the Quorn Hunt Kennels, Gaddesby Lane, Kirby Bellars, Leicestershire LE14 2TQ. The Patey PROtector, which costs £495, is available from Patey, 35 Connaught Street, London W2 2AZ, and at various shows in the UK and Ireland.
Michael Clayton describes his career as the hunting correspondent “Foxford” in his book, The Ride of My Life, Memoirs of a Sporting Editor, published on 1 September by Merlin Unwin.