Foxhunting in Ireland (Part 1)
After hearing exciting tales of Irish foxhunting, Hillbilly Farms decided it was time for a field trip to Ireland. Only two of us were able to shrug off our responsibilities at home long enough to make the trip, which was for the best because Ireland probably wasn't ready for the whole Hillbilly Farms team. Our Irish contact arranged three days of hunting for us, with a day off between each to recuperate. The adventure started the day before the first hunt when we picked up our rental car. We navigated the narrow, twisty, and unsigned roads, circling repeatedly in roundabouts when necessary, and finally made it to our hostel without major incident, thanks to the rental car's folding side mirrors.
The meet for our first hunt was at a pub midway between two small towns at the respectable time of 12-noon. We arrived in the general vicinity quite early and drove up and down the road looking for the pub. There was only one pub in the area and its sign was barely readable. After driving past this pub a couple of times we decided that it must be the meeting place. We pulled into the still empty car park and went inside to wait for our first pre-hunt pub gathering. When we inquired after the man we were hiring horses from we were told that he usually arrives just in time. And he did just that. When he finally arrived he led several calm hirelings off the lorry just as the rest of the hunt field trotted off. When he attempted to unload the final horse, one of our mounts, the horse came barreling off the lorry like he was late for something (which he was). It occurred to us that this horse was the reason that the hire man had repeatedly asked us if we were very experienced riders when we rang him the night before. Two men held the impatient horse while a third legged our rider up, with assurances that the horse would settle down once he started hunting (which he did).
Finally mounted, our small group of laggards trotted off to catch the rest of the hunt field. We trotted down the road a bit and then entered a field where two men on foot were collecting capping fees. We didn't know they would be collecting capping fees in the field so we had left our money back at the car. Because we were already running late there was no time to go back and get the money. So we had to lamely ask for permission to continue hunting with promises that we would pay the capping fee when we returned to the pub after the hunt. With that bookkeeping issue out of the way our small group had the chance to jump a few stone walls out of sight of the rest of the riders. This was fortunate because those first few jumps were awkward, to put it mildly, especially for one of our riders whose horse preferred to scramble over the stone walls rather than jumping. Finally we joined the rest of the field and as we surveyed the other riders we were pleased to see that the turnout was diverse. People wore everything from windbreakers with rubber boots to formal hunting attire. Some horses were braided. Grown men were riding ponies. Not a hair net in sight.
The hunt started with the field going for a jolly, galloping and jumping without the hounds. This was a great way to get a feel for the horses and learn the rules of the field, which were few. There was only a single field (no second flight, no hilltoppers). There was no strict hierarchy in the field so if you were on a fast horse you could move up towards the front of the field on the gallops. Irish hirelings are quality horses so we often took advantage of this opportunity. When it came time for the field to jump into the next pasture everyone jumped the same part of the fence. Riders gathered on one side of the fence and watched and waited for their turn to jump. After jumping you galloped on to the next waiting area. If the jump was too big you could wait towards the back and the jump got smaller, but not necessarily easier, as riders broke branches or knocked stones off the wall.
While waiting our turn to jump one of the fences we met two charming young Irishmen. Naturally one of our riders soon parted ways with her horse. The riderless horse cantered off and from the next pasture our rider heard one of the young men call out, with his lovely Irish accent, "Where is the American girl who lost her horse?" In addition to retrieving the loose horse, the young man also offered some domestic advice: "You'll want to use a stiff brush to get that mud off your coat tonight." Our clumsy rider remounted and the ride continued.
Most of the jumps on this hunt were stone walls. We did, however, encounter one ditch, which caused some difficulties for other members of the field. We decided to play it safe and avoid the ditch by following a small group of riders around. The route around the ditch had us gallop a short way to the end of the pasture, scramble up an embankment, then turn and gallop along a small ridge. Unfortunately, one of our horses scrambled up the embankment and continued straight down the other side, stopping just short of falling into a large ditch. So much for playing it safe.
After the field had a bit of fun jumping around we got our first taste of what live hunting is all about - standing around. We stood along a road for 30 minutes, in the crisp, cold weather, while the hounds worked mostly out of sight in a brushy field. We watched the hounds while the cows in the field watched us watch the hounds. We couldn't really see enough to know what was going on but we think the hounds drew a blank.
When the hunt was over we headed back to the pub to pay our capping fees and attend the post-hunt pub gathering. When we told one of the other foxhunters where we were hunting next he responded, "That is bank and drain country. Don't forget to bring your life preservers."