Fox hunting, horses and a girl's awakening.
This quote made me roll back the years. "It's very early days as yet," said Brian Munn, IMFHA spokesman. "We heard the rumour 48 hours ago. My colleagues have spoken to eyewitnesses and those people have denied that that happened. We have got an explanation but I am very loathe to say too much at this stage"
I don't know what happened on that hunt, but let me share with you something about hunting. There are two sides to it, both vocal and both dug in. Neither will EVER give ground to the other and that's the way it will stay.
In my youth I was obsessed with horses. I rode at every chance I got, I worked for free in various stables and spent every spare moment I had talking about horses and thinking about horses. I pestered my poor father to distraction until he got me the loan of a pony, who I subsequently despised
I measured myself regularly, hoping I might meet the height requirement needed-and set down in stone by my biological incubator- to ride the hunter my father already owned. A liver chestnut harlot with two white socks and a white jagged blaze, whose greatest pleasure in life was to throw me off when I least expected it and to go where ever she liked when I was on board.
She had a mouth like concrete and no bit, however complicated, made the slightest difference to her. She was smart and strong, swift and fearless. 'Aye she'd jump over the moon if you let her' the ould boy down the road used to say as I sailed past clinging for dear life on one of our many hacks.
But unlike the pony she wasn't malicious, just headstrong. I can only imagine she regarded me as some kind of fawning gnat. I loved her, feared her, respected her, worshipped her. I would lie in supplication before her mighty feet if I wasn't so sure she'd snort and boot me out of her way with contempt.
She spent summers out on grass and came back in bloated and wild maned. I would spend hours untangling the burrs and briars from her, I would groom her until she shone. At first she resisted but after a few minutes she would cease and I would watch gleefully as her rubbery lower lip drooped lower and her hip would cock. With a deep sigh she would drift off into a slumber, resigned and content to allow the grinning gnat to carry on her devoted ministrations.
We would call up the farrier, a portly louche fellow with tons of imitation children. This man drove up to our yard in an old postal van. He swore repeatedly and never, not even in the dead of winter, covered his arse crack.
The mare hated him and he her, many the battle royale my father and I watched in awe as the unmovable semi-naked troll and the red devil duked it out. Finally the switch would be called for and peace would descend on the sweating combatants.
Eventually her feet would be pared and shod, her hooves would ring on the cobbles and like any lady in new shoes, her head would lift higher and she would flare her nostrils in magnificent splendor.
AS soon as I was tall enough to impress upon my mother that a deal was a deal I moved on to my next plan. I wanted to take her out properly, to test my mettle, to prove once and for all that we were the formidable team I dreamed about in my head.
I wanted to go hunting.
My father did not approve. I was astounded, some of my friends already went, I told him, ALL of the pony club did. What was his problem with it? He gave me no good reasons, but could be heard muttering ' that pack of yahoos' as he and his dogs crossed the yard. But I would not be swayed, not by him, not by anyone. And curiously my mother seemed to be on my side for once. An event so isolated I should have given pause to wonder what this portentous act meant.
Finally the hunting season was upon us and I rode out. My first hunts were disasters. Unencumbered by weight, the mare rode roughshod over me and rode literally over everyone else. She had no manners at all. She would lay her ear flat if a horse pulled along side her and was not adverse to lashing out behind, not good in tightly packed country lanes. I bandaged her tail in bright red to serve as warning and tried my best to keep her to the back of the pack as we set out. Her flecked and foamed neck bore witness to our struggles and within the first ten minutes of set off she would be a furious sidestepping sweat soaked mess of energy and my hands would be raw despite my gloves.
We rode our first few hunts badly, she cat jumped the bigger ditches, unseated me twice and galloped off. She kicked the horse of the wife of the whipper in, she challenged a six bar gate only to change her mind at the last second, too late to stop me sailing over her dropped shoulder and into said gate. Because we rode to the rear the ditches and banks would often be torn up before we reached them. We would slip in the mud and on one painful occasion she fell with my leg trapped under her. She rode directly through the hound pack once, delighting in yelps and howls, getting me sent home by the furious Master in the process. The shame of that still lives within.
But after a while we began to improve, to read each other, to communicate with heels and shifts. Her ears began to flick back towards me now and then, giving me some scant attention. And oh how I loved hunting. I loved everything about it. I loved the cold frosty air, the dappled woods, the smell of gorse, the fear, the adrenaline as we approached a fearsome jump. The friendliness and chat on the headlands and we waited for the hounds to catch a scent. I lived for the headlong gallops, when I could finally rest my hands on either side of her fiery neck, stand in my stirrups and let her have her head, hearing the whoops and 'heyahs' as her great haunches powered us past one rider after another. I loved the way she would rear slightly if I held her back, and plunge headlong down a hill, if we fell at that speed both of us would be killed.
Neither of us cared.
She leaped walls with abandon, through gaps in hedges that I feared we would not fit through. She charged up headlands, sploshed through freezing streams, leaped banks and tore off again without a moment's hesitation. We got torn up, filthy, bloody and exhausted.
We were alive, we were free, we were as one.
Everything was dandy. Right up until I saw my first fox being killed.
I'll never forget it. Not as long as I live.
It was late in the season, probably the last or second last weekend of the season as far as I remember.
When I awoke it was still dark. I pulled on a filthy wax jacket and wellies. I let myself out and, accompanied by the collies, crossed the yard to the stables.
She was awake already, snorting softly and snaking her head on the door. I said good morning and rubbed her nose. It was freezing and our breaths mixed in the frigid dawn air.
I fed her and changed her water and went back across the yard to the kitchen to get my own breakfast. The hunt was local, so I had plenty of time to get ready and hack to the meet.
An hour or so later I went back to her and pulled off her blanket. I tried to get her ready, but she was already starting to dance and her patience for her gnat was low. She knew that soon she would be among the ranks of her own kind, martingale tight across her mighty breast, cinched girth covered in a sheepskin sheath, tendons bound, tail bandaged.
She would, like any warrior, ride out for battle fit, trained, skilled and bold. She loved it, she lived for it. It didn't matter to her that the gnat would be her companion. What mattered was the three hours or more where she would reign supreme.
After struggling on, I finally got her ready and tacked her up, looping my reins back through my stirrups and throwing a head collar over the whole shebang. I led her out and tied her to the railing outside, with her blanket thrown casually over the lot.
I ran inside, said 'hiya hiya hiya' to the family, tore upstairs, got dressed, put talcum powder into my boots, battled with them to get them-dammit, every time- on and tore back downstairs.
My father watched me go, unsmiling. 'Off at it again?'
'Yep, see ya later.'
The hunt was busy, people came from all over. There were a lot more blow-ins than usual, smart newish boxes and fancy hunter clips. I found some friends and we arched our country eyebrows at the newbies and townies. A friend of mine was trying out a green horse. He was a three year old bay, a bit gangly for my taste and seemed to have serious difficulty going forwards. He managed sideways perfectly and backwards to a T, but forwards seemed beyond him. We laughed as he reversed most of the way up the street, my friend mortified and kicking the flanks off him to no avail.
Finally we were off. The mare was already at her usual frothing and pulled hard, yanking me out of the saddle again and again. I couldn't wait for her to get her first gallop out of the way so that she might settle down a bit.
But that day didn't hold much galloping. For whatever reason the hounds seemed to find little scent and we spent a goodly amount of time waiting around thickets and ditches, growing ever more colder and our horses ever more fidgety and bad tempered.
The mare was driving me up the walls, she just wouldn't stand still, and my friend's green horse was starting to toss his head and chomp at his bit too. Even the older more experienced horses were stamping.
BAROOOO, suddenly we were off.
We criss-crossed through the trees and up a bank, clearing a ditch on the other side and racing across a frost-filled meadow. The mare began to pass horses on the outside of the field and try as I might I could not contain her. I lowered behind her neck and tried to keep her straight, it was all I could do.
We raced over another field and leaped a drainage ditch, hit the middle bank and over another water filled ditch. The mare stumbled but righted herself, I lost a stirrup but regained it by accident. My friend's green horse mistimed it, jumped, saw the water, bucked, and flung her to the ground before tearing after the other horses. Turned out going forwards wasn't such a difficulty after all.
We rode on hard for another two miles or so, gaining ground on the pack and that's when I saw her, the fox, streaking across the field next to me in a diagonal direction.
The hounds didn't see her and anyway, they are so utterly stupid she could be doing a cha-cah in front of them and they wouldn't notice, the scent is what mattered. But they picked it up and soon were hot on her trail. From a distance I heard the change in pitch of their hysterical cries.
I lost sight of them as they hit a copse. I heard the horn. They must have caught her somebody said, as we waited our horses steaming and tossing their heads. Nice day for it, somebody else said, did you hear how much old Dan's looking for that new yearling? someone else said, and so began the waiting blather.
I wasn't interested in any of it. I was listening to the hounds, I was listening to their cries of frustration. I had ridden with them for weeks I knew their voice. They hadn't caught anything. I edged the mare closer to the tree line.
I know what happened. That vixen was dug out. I saw her as she was flung high into the air by unseen hands. I saw her leap and bunch and snarl and the hounds descended on her. I heard her screams as one hound grabbed her flank, another her front leg, then still another her stomach. Some of the more senior members of the hunt rode between me and the kill, trying to engage me in conversation and tripe while the rest of the field began to catch up. Over the shoulder of a brassy blonde on a fat arsed chestnut gelding I saw the pack swarm over the dying fox and tear her asunder. Through the trees I saw two of the local men stamping on something, and heard sounds that I can hear to day if I put my mind to it. It was too early for cubs wasn't it? I tried to think. Maybe, maybe not.
The blonde rode directly in front of me and began asking how was school going. I had no option but to speak. It would have been too rude not to.
We did small talk, but inside I was twisted, as something grew from my gut. The mare laid her ears flat and snapped at the gelding and the blonde eased him skillfully to the side.
My eyes trailed back to the scene.
The houndsman waded through the hounds and dragged what was once a living breathing animal from them. What was left of her was a stinking mucky steaming pile of guts, shredded skin, protruding tongue and shit. The hounds surrounded the man, wagging their tails happily jumping up at the vixen's body. The hounds man tossed her corpse into the undergrowth and after a brief conversation with the master decided where next to flush out their next quarry.
The light was too young to give up this early.
The thing inside me surged. I wheeled the mare away and began to ride back towards the headland. I passed more riders coming in, flushed, breathless.
'Where are you going?' My friend with the green horse asked as he and she skidded to a juddering halt. Both of them were covered head to toe in mud. I found out later he had tripped over his own bloody reins, the stupid beast, and that was how she had caught him again.
'Home.' I said.
'Did you have a fall?"
'Are you all right?'
'Yeah, I'll see you later.' I kicked the mare on.
I met my father as I rode up the yard. He was chopping logs, his good natured face streaked with sweat. He straightened when he saw me.
'You're back early.'
I nodded and rode straight past him into the stable yard.
I untacked the mare and checked her over for cuts. She had one or two, but nothing major. I tied her up and got the hose to wash her down. I used the sweat scraper on her so hard she threatened to kick me.
'What is it?"
I looked over my shoulder. My father was leaning on the gate looking at me. I continued to squeeze the water out of my valiant mare. 'Nothing.'
''Did you fall?'
I shook my head, but now there were tears and I didn't trust my voice.
My father watched me for a while. I tossed the sweat blanket over the mare and began to walk her around.
'Come on into the house and I'll make you a cup of tea when your done.' My father said.
'Right.' I nodded using the mare's neck to hide the tears running down my nose.
I dried her off, put her blanket on and hung a dampened hay net for her. Dismayed and weary, I trailed off into the house.
My father made me tea and put antiseptic on a cut on my cheek. While he did all this I told him what I was sure I had witnessed. I cried and told him I'd never go hunting again. I asked him what was wrong with me?
He told me there was nothing at all wrong with me. I'd just taken a while to see something for what it was. But that I had seen it, and sure wasn't that the main thing. He gave me a kiss on top of the head and told me to go take a bath.
I did as I was told, for once.
I never did hunt again. I had loved it passionately, the thrill of the ride, but had forgotten the outcome, or had conveniently blocked it out of my young mind. Whenever I saw a hunt meet I always got an excited flutter in my stomach. Then I would recall the sounds I heard that day and the excitement would die out.
I did a few point-to points though, and fell more times than I care to remember. Turns out that was all the excitement and terror I ever needed.
My father was right all along. Hunting for sport is a cruel act. You can dress it up any way you see fit, but it doesn't take from the distress and agony of the animal being hunted. If you want to kill an animal for food, I have no qualms, in fact I salute you. But for a day's entertainment? Well, evolution takes longer for some.
Labels: A vicious truth.