I’m grateful for the free upgrade to a Chevy Suburban, courtesy of Hertz, as I follow my host up, up, up the steep, zigzag driveway where I will be staying for the night, ready to hunt with the Red Rock Hounds and interview MFH Lynn Lloyd for our cover story of the winter issue of The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked. The desolate beauty of the sagebrush-covered rolling Nevada “hills” (mountains, these definitely seem like mountains) seems a long way from the bustle I left 30 miles away in Reno.
The realization comes over me slowly—as I make hairpin turn after hairpin turn—that tomorrow morning I will be traveling over this rocky terrain on horseback, chasing hounds who are chasing coyotes. It seems like a hell of an introduction to the sport. When I finally get to the top and look down, I can barely make out the barns and kennels nestled in the valley below me.
Joint MFHs Lynn Lloyd and Angela Murray have generously offered to let me participate in the Red Rock Hounds opening weekend at Ross Creek Ranch. It’s 640 acres with “millions” more available. I am starting to worry that the one hour of stirrup-free prep work I did the week before may be insufficient.
Confession: Unlike most of my colleagues at COTH, I am not an accomplished rider. I grew up a “backyarder” (to borrow a phrase from Lloyd), saving my babysitting money and spending $10 per hour to rent a horse at our local riding stable. Western. No lessons, no helmet, galloping through open fields and jumping fallen trees on the trails in the woods. I spent one week a summer at a horse camp, my suitcase packed in excitement a month before I was due to leave. I rode sporadically over the years, in Central Park when I lived in New York City and then started formal English lessons about four years ago. I can jump cross-rails. Actually, I can jump a line of crossrails (if by line we mean two). On good days, I can even canter them.
In foxhunting there are often two fields, the first more advanced and fast; the second field more cautious, going around gates instead of over them. I’m thinking there should be a third, or maybe even a fourth field, for me.
The beauty of the sport, for many, is watching the hounds work. In trying to explain this to my non-horsey husband, he suddenly got it. “Oh! So you’re essentially on a traveling bleacher?” Yeah, something like that, except the bleacher has a mind of its own.
No one seems bothered by my lack of experience. After I casually mention (for at least the fifth time) that I am the mom to three small boys and am needed back home in one piece, they offer to let me follow in the truck. This snaps me out of my fear. Hell no. Scared or not, I did not fly all the way across the country to ride my first hunt in a truck.
We meet at the barn the following morning at 8:30 a.m. The air is electric despite the chill and steady rain as horses and staff roam about, people laughing and pinning their stockties. As I go to fasten the chin strap of my helmet, my hands are noticeably shaking.
I’m pointed to my horse, an absolutely massive gray named Liam. He’s so big I can’t reach high enough to pull the bridle over his ears and call upon someone taller to help. That person stands on a box. Liam is big. Really, really big. I’m told he will take great care of me and is an amazing hunt horse. He only rears when in the ring. And doesn’t like too much fiddling with his mouth. OK, got it.
My hands shake harder, but foxhunters have it all figured out, and a paper cup of something—port?—is pushed in my direction. I drink the stirrup cup like a college shot, in one big gulp. Then take one more (they are tiny! really!).
The shaking abates.
Once mounted, I am looking down at the tops of everyone’s helmets. I’m also on the only gray. It occurs to me that this is probably intentional, as I will be easy to spot against the tan dirt, should I happen to wander off.
We congregate in a nearby field under the ‘Wedding’ or ‘Funeral’ Tree (occasion dependent) for the Blessing of the Hounds by Pope Pete (a former pro NFL football player dressed in white robes and a pope hat) who leads us all in singing God Bless America along with the burning sage and what sounds like a few lines of Latin? It’s surreal sight—the Pope, the red pop of the hunt coats, the tricolor hounds milling about—made more so by the alcohol I can now feel warming my blood.
Lynn counsels me that it’s best to let Liam decide if he prefers to jump over, left or right of the sagebrush in our path. In one of my smarter moves, I decide—due to Liam’s dislike of having his mouth fiddled with, along with his years of hunting experience—to just ride him on the buckle, gripping fistfuls of mane. I trust he knows more than I ever will. He’s incredibly responsive, and I am able to adjust his speed using seat and slowing down my posting.
I am placed in the newly created 2.5 field led by a wonderful, encouraging woman named Robin on her adorable Paint as well as a few other first-timers and a very experienced 11-year-old (Emily) who will be my biggest cheerleader on this new adventure.
We set off, and within a flash, the first field has disappeared. I can hear the hounds in the distance as we approach the base of our first hill. We’ve picked up the pace now, cantering as Liam goat-jumps us up the mountain. It is an amazing sensation to feel how powerful he is as he goes sometimes over, sometimes around, the sagebrush. This is the type of riding I remember from childhood, out in the open and not confined by a ring. It feels natural and comfortable.
The rain is picking up, and within no time, I am soaked through (so much that the cell phone I’ve tucked into my coat pocket stops working and black jacket bleeds on to my borrowed white stock tie, turning it a muddy gray). I am freezing and shaking again, but no longer from fear. I also can’t stop smiling. It occurs to me I have never been so simultaneously miserable and deliriously happy. It’s exhilarating.
During one of our stops I make my only mistake—dismounting to go to the bathroom behind a rock. Actually, dismounting was fine. It was attempting to get back on the 17-plus-hand horse that proved tricky. For all of Liam’s strengths, standing still was not one. No matter how many hills we cantered he was impossible to tire and he insisted on making little circles whenever we re-grouped or had to stop to open/close gates. I jack-rabbit hopped from rock to rock, finally gaining the opportunity to swing my right leg over his back and settle back into the saddle.
There are some things you get to experience that are life-altering, and this was one for me. As much as I enjoy ring work, hunting helped me remember why I fell in love with riding all those many years ago, out in the open. The inclusive attitude of all the members of Red Rock made for such an amazing weekend, and the sport has a new fan. I’m already planning my next visit and this time may even ride in the second field! Thank you to the delightful Lynn Lloyd and Angela Murray along with the entire Red Rock Hunt family for a perfect adventure!
Jennifer grew up in Michigan with a mother who had horses as a child (barrel racing) and shared her love of them with her daughter. After getting a Masters in Art History and a career in the New York City art world (where she rode at Claremont Stables near Central Park), she decided to stay home with her three boys until they were all in school and then picked up riding again.
Wanting to combine her passion for writing with her passion for riding, she began to freelance for the Chronicle. She now writes full-time for the magazine from her home in New Jersey, conveniently located between New York City and the gorgeous New Jersey horse country with her husband, three young sons, dog, a parakeet and two hamsters. And hopefully a horse of her own soon.