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September 25, 2009

Don't Underestimate The Bunny Rabbits Down Under

The author survives to recount his adventures hunting hare in New Zealand.

It had been nine years since I last hunted in New Zealand. I was having some trepidation thinking about jumping the big New Zealand wire fences. Getting older is supposed to give you wisdom and make you smarter.

I’d been there before and eaten more than my share of New Zealand dirt. Getting older isn’t always graceful. But I needed something of an adrenaline boost, which foxhunting always gives me. Lately that feeling was waning. I needed a super charge, and New Zealand was the ticket.

I thought to myself, “What the hell; let’s make down under my last hurrah.” The first trip had been some of the best hunting in my life, and if you don’t challenge yourself now and then you get bored.

So after re-doing my will and getting a special insurance policy (should bad luck catch up to me), I set off with Mason and Mary Lu Lampton for down under.

Mason and I were attending a meeting for the International Union Of Hunting With Hounds in Australia. I was asked to speak on the international animal rights movement in New Zealand and Australia, so the perfect opportunity presented itself.

Our host, John Savill, was the ex-master of the Brackenfield Hunt just out of Christchurch. He’s also the past chairman of New Zealand’s Hunting With Hounds. John is an exemplary horseman with those unusual traits of both skill and courage. I, on the other hand, have always been long on courage with only enough skill to survive. John set up a trip for us to hunt on the South and North islands and to meet the mounted hunting community.

We would be hunting hares in New Zealand; there are no foxes. And for those who smirk at hunting bunny rabbits, let me say in all of my hunting I’ve never seen faster or more demanding hunting anywhere in the world.

The New Zealanders hunt hare with harrier packs, a hound that looks in between a foxhound and a Beagle, about half the size of a foxhound and bigger than a Beagle.

New Zealand is absolutely drop-dead beautiful. They must rotate their pastures frequently because there’s plenty of land but an awful lot of fences.

The pastures are all surrounded by barb or high tensile wire or large gorse hedgerows about 31⁄2 to 41⁄2 feet high. In any one day you jump a great number of fences.

The pace is blistering fast. The hares are as clever as foxes and faster; they’ll clamp down and hide in the grass as hounds overrun, then jump up and go out another direction. They do circles, trade-offs between hares that pair up and just about every sexy thing a fox or coyote will do.

At John’s farm on the South Island we met up with two Irish men who are old friends, David Wilkinson, MFH, president of the Hunting Association of Ireland and Oliver Russell, past chairman of the Ward Union Stag Hunt in Ireland.

There were five men and the beautiful Mrs. Lampton, the only lady in the pack. Mary Lu was the epitome of a great sport. She rode with five men packed like a sardine in the car with tons of luggage; she sat on a suitcase between two of us for days and never complained. We had such a great time laughing at each other by the end of the trip our laugh lines were cemented on our faces.

Upon arrival, the Irish boys had already been testing their mounts as John took them over some jumps at his farm to tune them up. David showed us a rather large black and blue mark on his back end, the result of a jump he chose to take without his horse. David is a very good rider, but he said he was enjoying himself so much he wasn’t paying attention at a rather large hedge.

The scent of fear lingered in the air as we prepared for hunting. I, being the only guest who’d hunted in New Zealand, knew very well what we were up against. I did my best to strike fear into everyone’s heart trying to calm my own nervousness.

The next morning we all took a “get acquainted” ride around John’s farm, which is where we were hunting the following day.

Brackenfield MFH Tim Parrott, who hunted with a broken arm in a cast, kindly provided horses. I got on an inexperienced 5-year-old being groomed to be the master’s horse, who, as soon as they started cantering off, jumped into the air and nearly unseated me.

Wimping Out

At the risk of being considered a wimp, I opted to take it easy and hang back watching as Mary Lu, John, Mason, Oliver and David galloped over hill and dale. I watched them practicing over some easy wire, but I didn’t feel comfortable on the horse I was riding despite being told he was a good jumper. I was told you just had to really pull on him to stop. I’m sure a better rider wouldn’t have been daunted.

That evening I wimped out again and decided I wasn’t going to hunt. It was a horribly painful decision that I would regret. The next day I followed by car watching David ride this beautiful black horse that I was to hunt; it never took a wrong step.

Poor Mary Lu had to listen to me bitch and moan as we commiserated together. I promised myself never again to follow riding in a vehicle. The only benefit was I was able to take some great photographs.

Mason started on a young green horse that didn’t impress me when I watched it the day before. It promptly deposited him on the first wire fence. I encouraged Mason to try and find another horse, whereupon he went up to the horse’s owner and promised her his first born (with wife and grandchildren) if they could switch horses. Remarkably, she accepted.

From then on, Mason, Oliver and David were steeplechase jockeys, taking all of the fences in stride and beaming with confidence as they chased the evasive hare over beautiful country. At the end of the first hunt, of those who had ridden, only Oliver had not checked out the New Zealand mud.

Our next hunt was on the North Island two days later. I was determined to hunt, and Mason and John decided not to hunt. Mason offered a horse he was supposed to ride, and I accepted.

We hunted the Taupo Hunt. I was given an experienced grand prix jumper who hunted in the off season. I knew from the minute I mounted, this would be a hell of a hunt and a great ride. Sure enough, we started with a couple of wire fences that he sailed over.

The third fence was a wire with a rider on top of it that looked to be 4'. I rode him poorly into the jump, and he stopped as I did a flying dismount, landing on my feet. So much for my confidence—I couldn’t even ride a really good horse!

But, the New Zealanders weren’t having any of my self pity, and they encouraged me to keep going with “no worries, mate.” I remounted, and we started jumping in earnest. Each jump I got more confident and better in sync with my superb steed.

As Oliver, David and I galloped over the breathtaking vista, we caught a glimpse of Mason and John hanging out the window of their speeding vehicle yelling encouragements at us from the road. It sounded like they were drinking a little encouragement too, but it spurred us to new heights. I’m sure Mason was regretting his decision not to ride, as I had been, after seeing my superb mount that he was supposed to have ridden.

No Piddling Around


We three stayed right behind the Taupo Master Robin Broderson, and while his horse refused a couple of dicey high jumps, we never faltered. Unbeknownst to us, John had told Broderson not to worry about us as we’d probably be piddling around in the back.

I’ve never been known to piddle around anywhere, and my Irish brothers didn’t know the meaning of the word. Broderson commented to his field after the hunt that every time he turned around those three guests were breathing down his neck!

With my bruised ego for not having hunted the first day, nothing short of impalement on a New Zealand fence would prevent this American from being up front. I zeroed in on Broderson like radar locked on target. My only problem was those pesky Irishmen David and Oliver who kept trying to get in front of me.

I got rid of David by telling a pretty little New Zealand lassie that the good-looking Irishman over there thinks you’re beautiful and is too shy to introduce himself. Actually, I’ve never met a shy Irishman, but it worked. He was neutralized.

Chubby little Oliver on the other hand would require more drastic tactics. Pointing my elbows out didn’t help much as Oliver and I battered back and forth for position to be up front. The Irish must be related to the New Zealand hunters because there were three lady riders who thought it was their god-given right to be up front behind the master too. I will say they were pretty, polite and smiled every time they cut me off.

Trying not to be the ugly American and using my meager riding skills as best I could (I wasn’t going to be left behind), I kept Oliver behind me between them. We were doing a good gallop, and next time I looked back that little Irishman had charmed all three of those ladies, and they were laughing and having a great time riding with Oliver. With Oliver neutralized too, I was gloating; the Irish-American competition was over.

No Worries, Mate!

We’d run about three hares that hounds lost at checks. My experience hunting hare is that hares seem to go from zero to full speed immediately. Seldom do you gradually increase your pace as hounds begin to scent or trail like you often do with a fox or coyote. Every time you jump a hare it’s up, up and away you go.

The next hare was a good one. He took us in and out of forest coverts across open fields and creeks. Each time we came close to a creek we might have to jump Broderson would shout out “Irish to the front” to give us a lead since Ireland is known for its ditches. Oliver and David just laughed, too enamored with their new-found popularity with the ladies.

After jumping a wire into a wood covert we came to a four-foot wide creek with deep mud on both sides. I was the third person behind the master and watched as his horse went down to almost his hocks before and after the jump. Not to be left behind, I spurred my steed on, and he jumped it so big we missed the mud. The problem was, not two strides further, was a high wire fence that was the only way out if you were to stay with the hounds who were in full
cry.

The lead horse refused, as did the second horse. But my horse flew so high I felt dizzy. Upon landing you had to turn hard left or smash into a steep vertical hillside. My horse knew what to do, but I’m afraid my one-jump-at-a-time mentality didn’t plan on the sudden left turn.

As he turned, I grabbed the breast collar, and it snapped like a rubber band. I did a face plant into the ground. Damn, damn, damn. Equipment failure. Now I knew what Janet Jackson must have felt like when her breast harness malfunctioned, and she exposed herself to the American public.

I lay on the ground exposed to my New Zealand mates, a bit disoriented, as about six people made it over and dashed by me. “No worries mate! We’ll catch your horse!”

He was caught and brought back to me. We jury rigged the tack, and with a buzzing head and a throbbing hand I remounted. Then a kind lady appeared. It was the good hunting fairy, and her mission was to guide me to the hounds in the easiest way possible.

We caught up to find my friend Oliver, who had made it over that awful fence after he fell at the ditch. He’d galloped by me lying on the ground with a smirk on his face as he tipped his hat. There were only about six of us who made it over that combination. The other 70-something riders found another way out. My head, neck and hand were killing me, and my tack was in a shambles tied around and under my horse.

Meanwhile, hounds kept pressing our hare. I caught up as the six of us rode into a dead end where sat the mother of all New Zealand wire jumps (at least through my foggy brain it appeared to be) stood. All five horses ahead of me refused the jump, some several times. The ground was pure mud on both sides of the jump, and horses really had to make a super effort to pull out of the mud over that big wire fence.

Even when they started to get over the jump it wasn’t very pretty. I just sat and watched, looking for a way, any way, out without having to take that monster. Hell, I had nothing to hang onto, and my head was spinning.

I’d hoped my good friend Oliver would stay with me and we’d find our way back, but the Irish are fickle friends, and Oliver wasn’t going to let a little thing like a jump stop him despite the fact I watched his horse refuse it at least three times. After they all made it over, the 70-something riders who wimped out and didn’t follow us appeared on the opposite side of the jump I was now cowering behind.

Wouldn’t you know it, hounds checked at that moment in the pasture. Now I had the entire mounted field watching me. I’m not sure if it was because it was the only way out or it was the will I’d written before the trip, but somehow I found the courage to throw my heart over that jump. My horse took it perfectly first try. The great event rider Jimmy Wofford wrote if you’re not willing to throw your heart over a fence you shouldn’t be riding.

I rode up to the field trying to act like nothing to it, but I wasn’t fooling anyone. We were more than three hours into the hunt, and Broderson decided to hunt back to the fixture. I jumped a few more jumps and decided I’d had enough and headed home with a beautiful New Zealand lady as my guide. She must have observed my pitiful performance, although she said watching me ride was very entertaining, whatever that meant?

Hunting in New Zealand is like nothing else you will experience. On a good horse and a good day it can be the best hunting you’ll ever have. The hound work was superb; they stayed on the hunted hare despite other hares popping up.

While the fences are daunting to many of us, they’re normal to New Zealanders. They have some of the finest horses in the world. Just like in America or Ireland, the jumps vary, most of them are around or close to 3'6" or less, not daunting just psychological barriers for those who have never jumped wire or hedges.

Once you come to grips with it on a good horse you realize it’s just the way they hunt—then you’ll think you died and went to heaven…down under. 

 
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