When we first started doing this blog series about me trying various horse sports, a lot of the humor came from how different those sports were from my usual wheelhouse, show hunters. Vaulting, endurance riding, reining—those are so outside of my comfort zone they’re on a different comfort planet!
Foxhunting, the next sport I decided to take a whack at, did not seem that terribly far from what I already did in the show hunter ring. That’s where the divisions originated from, after all! How different could it really be?
The answer, after spending two incredible days quail hunting and foxhunting with Mr. Marty Wood and Mrs. Daphne Wood of the Live Oak Hounds—extremely different. Think way out of my comfort solar system, and such an incredible experience that I know without a doubt it will live as vividly in my memory years from now as it does at this moment, writing this blog a day after the hunt.
Me and Lefty, left, and field master Mr. Ken Haddad, waiting for the action to start on the hunt! Photo by Jessica Dunlap.
The other sports I tried have been more like glimpses into different disciplines, brief stints of taking a half-hour lesson here, an hour lesson there. Hunting with Live Oak was completely different—I spent two days with Mr. and Mrs. Wood, quail hunting and foxhunting, meeting their friends, seeing their beautiful stables and kennels, hounds and horses.
The only other blog that compares to the experience of foxhunting with Live Oak was when I spent two days with Jen and Bryna Stevenson on a 50-mile endurance ride—both were immersion experiences.
I laughed on the phone with my mom when I was driving home from foxhunting, telling her that I felt like I had just studied abroad for two days, because traversing the world of foxhunting that Live Oak created was like stepping into an old English painting and finding yourself living in the brush strokes, galloping across painted fields, behind red-coated and velvet-capped men, horses and hounds, who, until I went on this trip, existed only in a frame for me.
I arrived at Live Oak on a Wednesday afternoon, in my usual frazzled state because I was very nearly late. I clean 10 stalls at a farm in Loxahatchee, Fla., before and after work at the Chronicle every day, and that Wednesday morning I got to the barn a little after 5 a.m. to get everything done before driving from Wellington (very south Florida) to Monticello (the Florida-Georgia line).
Mrs. Wood calls this the Barbie barn, and it’s easy to see why. Barbie would be honored to keep her horses there! Photo by Ann Glavan.
I had a good time laughing at myself as I traversed the full spectrum of the Chronicle reporter lifestyle in one day—in the dark pre-dawn hours, I was shoveling and dumping manure in my well worn paddock boots, earning an extra buck to pay for my horse habit, and that evening, I was dining at the Thomasville Country Club with Mr. and Mrs. Wood, having just finished an all afternoon quail hunt, racking around some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen on a Tennessee Walker, and I was trying not to give everyone at the table a look at my callous-covered hands when I reached for my wine glass. It’s a funny juxtaposed life we Chronicle reporters lead!
So I pulled into the driveway in Monticello that afternoon at 2:26, frazzled because I’m expected promptly at 2:30 to start hunting. The plan was to go quail hunting with the Woods that afternoon before the foxhunting meet early Thursday morning. The Woods very graciously put me up in their beautiful home for the evening, so after a quick stop in the house to drop off my bags, Daphne asked if I was ready to hunt, and while the answer in my head was “no,” the only one I voiced was “Of course!”
From left: Mrs. Wood, me and Mr. Wood, all mounted on Tennesee Walkers. Photo courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Wood.
Full disclosure on my hunting experience: Before the trip, I had exactly none (hence the “I’m really not ready” sentiment). It surprises some people when they hear I am from Iowa and have never shot a real gun, much less at an animal, but my parents are just not the hunting type and never introduced us to it.
I knew my grandfather used to quail hunt, but from what he’d told me about it you just walked out into fields with a bird dog and shot at the birds—there were no horses involved. Obviously I knew foxhunting involved riding, but I kind of thought on this afternoon quail hunt we were just going to be walking through the woods on our own two feet, shooting at birds.
At this point, some of you me may be thinking, “Well why didn’t you just ask Mr. and Mrs. Wood before you arrived for the trip what quail hunting involved?” To be completely honest, I didn’t ask because I was extremely nervous about coming off as a total moron, or of violating some sort of social code that I did not have any prior knowledge of.
I had friends who foxhunted, and I remembered talking to them before I left for this trip about all the unspoken rules: who wears what, who rides where, when you should talk, when you shouldn’t talk, never call the hounds “dogs,” don’t fall behind but don’t go too fast, always carry a flask, stuff like that!
I didn’t know if quail hunting had its own set of rules, its own handbook that everyone had read but me! What was I supposed to wear, regular foxhunting gear? A crocodile hunter get-up with a safari hat? Should I style myself after Elmer Fudd from the waskly-wabbit Bugs Bunny cartoons?
I called Mrs. Wood a few days prior to arriving to hash out some details, and she said “just jeans” would be perfect for quail hunting, but that didn’t completely satisfy me either. Jeans and what? Jeans and a nice shirt? Jeans and a hunting shirt? Jeans and shoes, or jeans and boots? Jeans and the top half of a ball gown? Jeans and WHAT?! (I tend to be a tad dramatic when stressed about new social situations, if it has not become terribly obvious.)
Of course, after meeting the Woods in person, I realized how silly it was of me to not just be frank about my complete lack of hunting experience and concerns over attire. They could not have been more warm, welcoming and willing to fill in all the gaping holes in my hunting knowledge. But by the time I had dropped off my bags and hopped in Daphne’s car to drive to the quail hunt, it was a little too late to change anything in my preparation. (I went with dark jeans, paddock boots, a blue button-down shirt and necklace from Ann Taylor, if you were wondering what came out of that lunatic wardrobe rambling in my head!) A riding helmet didn’t cross my mind in the least!
When we pulled up to the field for the quail hunt, and I saw people already mounted, and a pair of horses tacked and ready for Mrs. Wood and me, even someone with my subpar sleuth skills could discern we would indeed be riding! I was handed the reins on a beautiful bay Tennessee Walking Horse named Kahlua, who I secretly hoped came with a flask of his namesake hanging off the saddle for me to swig for liquid courage if this hunt turned into a wild quail chase.
Anyone reading this who has been quail hunting with horses is probably laughing, because it isn’t at all like foxhunting. It doesn’t involve any galloping across fields or over ditches. All of the hunters are mounted on Tennessee Walkers, whose saddles have leather sleeves to carry the shotguns. (My saddle had the sleeve, but no shotgun, thank God!)
We set out from the field riding at a walk and occasionally a trot into a wooded area with a lot of brush, which I was told is where the quail hide. A wagon pulled by two massive mules followed behind all of the mounted hunters, and in the wagon were eight bird dogs, who are released two at a time to sniff out and then point at the quail.
The full quail hunting set-up—wagon pulled by mules to carry the bird dogs and quail we shot, Tennesee Walkers for the hunters to ride outfitted with shotgun sleeves (pictured on the horse is Mr. Marty Wood). Photo by Ann Glavan.
When one of the dogs pointed, everyone went quiet and got off their horse, took out their shotgun, and started walking toward the brush where the dog was indicating quail were hiding. A gentleman named Steve would then take this large leather bat, called a flushing whip, and swing it in the brush to scare up the quail.
When they would fly into the air, the three hunters (Mr. and Mrs. Wood, and their friend, Ivan) took turns shooting at them. If one was hit and fell from the air, a Labrador retriever (there were two, Simba and Bramble, the Woods’ personal dogs who I’m told sleep in bed with them every night) was released from the wagon to go and collect it.
Simba and her quail heading back to the wagon. Photo by Ann Glavan.
Then everyone swung back up in the saddle and continued on what, for me, was just a very pleasant trail ride through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.
What a view! Photo by Ann Glavan.
It was just one great scene after another. Photo by Ann Glavan.
I can’t attest to all walkers, but Kahlua was one of the most comfortable horses I’ve ever ridden. His walk, trot, canter and later his rack (which I got to try out on the road on the way home)—every gait was as smooth as butter.
Why didn’t we show hunter riders have walkers for lessons in our equitation days, when trainers took your stirrups away and made you sit the trot for 20 minutes?! I spent many a miserable lesson red in the face, gripping with all my might and bouncing like a ball on my Thoroughbred hunter, when I could have been gliding around looking cool as a cucumber on one of these horses!
Quail hunting took place Wednesday afternoon, and the foxhunting was early Thursday morning. I was chuckling to myself while I was getting dressed Thursday morning, because hardly any of the clothing I was putting on belonged to me.
Gathering appropriate attire to wear on a traditional foxhunt was much harder for a show hunter than you would have thought. My tall boots I show in? No good, they have laces, which are considered field boots, not dress boots. My show coat? Also a nonstarter. It’s a light navy blue, and one of the new soft shell jackets with zipper pockets. I would need a black coat, no zippers, and a vest to go under it.
My helmet wasn’t really appropriate either; it’s a GPA Speed Air, but I got away with it. The Woods assured me I could have worn all my own gear and they wouldn’t have minded in the slightest, but I desperately wanted to follow the dress code rules. I hate being in social situations and feeling like you dressed the wrong way—over dressed, underdressed, didn’t get the memo this was a nudist hotel (that actually happened to a group of Chronicle staffers, check out the blog!).
If I’m going to be riding like the show hunter moron that I am, and have no knowledge of the various rules and regulations involved with field hunting, I at least wanted to look the part. It’s a very shallow level of accomplishment I strive for!
Special thanks to Mrs. Wood for tying my stock—talk about a full service hunt! Photo by Ken Haddad.
Luckily, a good friend of my colleague’s, Katy Carter, was able to send me her coat and vest from Middleburg; I was able to borrow a pair of dress tall boots from my trainer, Katie Lange-Lima; and I bought myself a pair of brown gloves (because black gloves are another thing show hunters use that their field brethren typically do not).
OK, I looked the part of a real foxhunter (minus the very modern looking helmet)! Time to mount up and blow this elaborately crafted optical illusion with my terrible riding! The guest horse Mrs. Wood put me on was a wonderful 20-year-old character named Lefty, an off-the-track Thoroughbred whose registered Jockey Club name is Left-N-Right—he’s sired by the 1992 American Sprint Horse Champion, Rubiano.
Lefty may be well into his golden years, but they could have told me he was 4, and I’d have believed them. Mr. Mercer Fearington, the field master, very graciously invited me to hunt just behind him, and Lefty was raring to go the whole time, playing with the bit, ears pricked toward the sound of the horn and the hounds, ready to take off at a canter or lively trot at a moment’s notice.
Lefty (center, the gray horse) just waiting for me to say go! (Or for someone else to; he was pretty intuitive on my lack of hunting know-how.)
This is worlds away from my show hunter, also a Thoroughbred, six years younger than Lefty, who, when I first started riding him when I was 12 and he was 4, would have me in tears trying to get him to canter, pony kicking him around the ring and begging him to go forward as he plodded around at a trot, ears lazily hung to the side, begrudgingly increasing speed until he more-or-less accidently rolled forward into a lopey canter.
The more we hunted, the more I realized that today’s show hunters really bear no resemblance whatsoever to field hunters. That big, slow lopey canter we love to see in the hunters would not have been terribly useful on our hunt—we didn’t have any long runs, but at one point when the hounds caught wind of a coyote, we went from a leisurely walk down a trail to a full-out gallop through the woods, across a ditch and road, and out into a field after the hounds. No time for slow and pretty here!
Our show hunters jump with beautifully tight knees, the really good ones giving the fences plenty of clearance to show off their form in a long slow arc, because they’re careful.
You can’t be that careful when you’re jumping brush ditches and solid coop fences—I think our show hunters would, if they attempted them at all, leap sky high over the ditches, eyeballs popping out of their heads looking down at them, popping us all clean out of the tack. That was kind of what I was expecting from Lefty when we encountered our first ditch, really a small rut in the side of the road that the horses needed to clear before scrambling up a small bank to the woods on the other side.
Field Master Mr. Mercer, waiting for the hounds to pick up a scent. Photo by Jessica Dunlap.
We had been hunting for a little while at this point, and I was excited to attempt our first real obstacle—I was just now realizing how disadvantageous it was to be directly behind the field master, because I only got to watch how one person rode the ditch before attempting it myself. But I felt like this was the part of foxhunting I could really shine at, the jumping, because that was all we did with our show hunters!
I watched Mr. Mercer go, and as he came to the top of the bank I gathered Lefty into a little trot. This will be just like our trot fence in the derby, I thought.
Finally, something I can do with some level of skill to show I really have sat on a horse before! We trotted to the base of the ditch, I sat the last two beats, rocked forward into my big crest release show hunter two point, pressing my knuckles into his neck, expecting Lefty to curl up and jump up underneath me to clear the ditch.
Of course, I was not thinking that this horse is 20 years old and has done God knows how many of these ditches previously, and he was not going to really jump it at all. He essentially took an extra big trot step over it, before continuing his way up the bank, with me at this point splayed over his neck like a pancake, pushing myself back into the tack and gathering up my reins, not even bothering to try and collect my dignity—that definitely got left back in the ditch!
Here is a clip of the huntsman, Dale Barnett, walking the hounds back into the kennel after a day of hunting. I couldn’t believe how well they listened to him, even with me distracting them!
Young event rider Lexi Scovil happened to be on the hunt that day as well, also mounted on a guest horse, and we had a good laugh during one of the stops about just how different show hunting was from field hunting (and how it was even pretty different from eventing, the sport it most reminded me of).
I couldn’t get over how different of an animal you needed for foxhunting—my show hunter would have had no part of the adventures we encountered that day. A steep down bank to a ditch? That’s a negative. He would have spun and left my butt in the dirt.
Crossing shallow creeks and puddles, and the muddy footing surrounding them? That would also be a no. Mr. Lucky, my show hunter, does not get out of his posh shavings bed to run and jump if the day will involve mud. Only perfectly level, manicured ring surfaces for his princess feet. And cantering through the woods, with fallen logs underfoot, tall grasses tickling his belly, and tree branches grabbing at his ears and mane as we went through them? Forget it. I think Lucky quite literally would not have made it out of the field where we all met and cast the hounds from!
Of course that’s not to say every show hunter couldn’t foxhunt—I’m sure some could. But I could not get over the stark differences between the two main types as a whole. It’s a whole different athlete required for field hunting—the horse has to be quiet enough to stand and wait for hounds to catch a scent, letting them run past him without kicking out, but game enough to want to gallop for miles, crossing and jumping whatever crops up in their path.
That’s not like a show hunter or an eventer really—it’s a unique blend!
Most of the Live Oak Hounds field! Lots of OTTBs, and Mrs. Wood is mounted on the beautiful palomino Quarter Horse! Photo by Ken Haddad.
The other really huge difference between show hunting and foxhunting is obvious—one is a competition, and one is a tradition.
We (for the most part) don’t actively sabotage each other in the show hunters, but I’d be lying if I said my little inner gremlin didn’t fist pump when someone chipped in my class (or cry when it was my turn to chip!). It’s a competition. You can’t all win, so you hope you do your best, and you hope it’s better than everyone else’s.
In foxhunting, when you take all the competition out of it, it’s like all the adult amateur hunters are out there in the ring together, except the ring has swamp puddles and ditches and banks and branches in it, and there are hounds running everywhere, and you’re all just helping each other and giving leads where they’re needed, and you get to bring alcohol along for the ride.
Dear God, I’m just realizing this—we show people took all the fun parts out of hunting! Why can’t I bring a flask in the ring with me?! I’m going to miss to the single oxer with or without it; better to do it with a swig of peach schnapps!
At one point in the hunt, we were stopped at a check waiting for the hounds to pick up a scent, and fellow hunter Jessica Dunlap handed me her flask to both take a swig of and take a picture with—we got the picture done (see below) but the hounds caught wind of something right when I was going to take a drink, and Lefty was not about to let my drinking get us left behind.
When you’re in a new social situation and have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, sometimes you just need a stiff drink. Thank you, alcohol! (And thank you Jessica Dunlap, for sharing your flask with me!) Photo by Jessica Dunlap.
So for a short while we were just cantering along, reins in one hand, open flask in the other, Lefty trying to not get us left behind as that is a hunting foul, and me trying not to spill my drink, as that is a party foul.
I’m happy to report no penalties were accrued during this run. We stopped a little up the trail, I took my swig and handed the flask back to Jessica, without spilling, and Katie, the field master Mr. Mercer’s wife, said I had real potential as a foxhunter!
FINALLY a sport that involves horses AND drinking—no more splitting my time between flip-cup tournaments and horse shows. I’m just going foxhunting!
Me and Jessica Dunlap—many thanks to Jessica for all the pictures, and of course for sharing her flask!
For all the fun and laughs I had at my misgivings and mistakes about foxhunting, the one run we did go on for about 10 minutes or so was really remarkable.
There we were, sitting on our horses, talking quietly as the hounds moved this way and that through the trees and brush. The morning light was breaking through the trees on a crisp Florida day (it was 40 degrees!), when suddenly the hounds started to speak—first one urgent voice, then a whole chorus of crying as the pack caught on to the scent.
The huntsman whooped them on and took off after them, and without missing a beat our whole field took up the chase too, hooves flying across hard packed dirt punctuated by rapid notes played on the horn by the master to urge the hounds on even faster.
And there was little old me, grinning like a banshee in my borrowed outfit, clinging to the back of a horse much like a hound himself as he bounded up the trail and toward the hounds, ears pricked, eyes wide and bright. That moment, where we were all flying through the woods and across field together, I am absolutely sure that is what keeps people foxhunting for years to come. That was a masterpiece of a painting I was flying across, and I didn’t ever want to leave it.
You’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming out of this picture. Photo by Ken Haddad.
But alas, we can’t live in a hunting fairytale forever—there are stalls that need picking, stories that need writing. As I said goodbye to Daphne and drove back down her drive, away from her beautiful house, the kennels, the barns, and eventually the Live Oak entrance sign, collecting them all in my rear view mirror, it felt exactly like finishing an excellent book, one you desperately wish had more pages, or that you could at least wipe from your memory and live over and over again, an endless loop of the very first time you went galloping behind foxhounds at full cry.
Daphne assures me there will be a sequel, a second hunt for me, because she insists we did not have an exciting enough run for my first hunt. (I’m told scent conditions were very poor.) Until then, I’ll make do with the wonderful memories and try to resist the urge to fling myself into any and all hunt paintings I see in the hopes that they’ll turn out to be portals back to that incredible foxhunting planet I visited all too briefly (consider this a fair warning, art museums!).
I cannot possibly say thank you enough to Mr. and Mrs. Wood for inviting me on these hunts and allowing me into their beauitful world. If you ever get the chance to hunt with Live Oak, do whatever it takes to make it happen. You won’t be disappointed!
Photo by Jessica Dunlap.
Ann Glavan was an editorial intern and now is an editorial staffer for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. Ann interned for Phelps Media Group during the 2014 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival before joining the Chronicle team for the summer. She graduated from the University of Missouri after studying journalism and economics.
Our intrepid summer intern-then-hired-employee has been trying out all kinds of equestrian disciplines! Check out her other adventures…