As the stable manager for Piedmont Fox Hounds, a historic pack in Upperville, Virginia, Michelle Nagle is in charge of the care and conditioning of about 15 staff horses, almost all of which are off-track Thoroughbreds. In addition to retraining them from the ground up for foxhunting, she whips-in three days a week during the September-to-March season.
5:30 a.m. Alarm goes off. I spend five minutes trying to figure out: 1. What day it is, and 2. What season it is, because so much of my life is dictated by the weather and the seasons.
If it is June, July or August I am already late. On a non-hunting day during the regular season or if it’s spring, I am right on time.
Let’s assume this is a non-hunting day during the season. I get out of bed, make some coffee, feed the puppy (a 20-minute ordeal), make my husband Shawn’s lunch (yes, I am that wife), get dressed and head out the door by 6:50.
6:55 a.m. I arrive at the barn, drop feed, fill water buckets, catch horses. My incredibly capable help, Jen Hicks and Mele Arellano, assist with this process as do all five of my dogs. I make sure everyone has four shoes and all their working parts are moving as they should be.
8 a.m. I write up the work list for the horses. On Sundays, I make the schedule for the week of which horses are hunting which days and when they all need to be worked. They always get the day off after they hunt, and the day before hunting consists of either a trot set, a jump school or a trip to the Hitchcock pen.
They all get either three days of work or one hunt and two works each week during the season.
In June and July they get three works, one day of mounted hound exercise and one jump school to leg them up for staff hunting that begins in August.
Like most ex-race horses, ours have a few quirks, and some are rehabbing from old injuries, so making up this weekly schedule requires a lot of attention. I also work to pair up the right horse at the right time with the other two members of our staff team.
8:30 a.m. Start riding sets. I almost always start off with the trot sets, 25 minutes of solid trotting with a five-minute walk to warm up beforehand and cool out afterward.
I ride three or four horses a day. Two of those sets are usually trot sets where I pony two other horses, so I get three worked at one time. With Jen and I each riding one and ponying two, we get six horses worked on one set.
The horses all have to pretty much be in peak condition from Nov. 1 to the end of March, as the average ground covered on a hunt for one of our staff horses is between 15 and 20 miles.
11 a.m. – 12 p.m. Feed lunch. This is also the time to treat wounds, finish hosing or bathing horses, set up hunting tack for the next day, finish cleaning any tack that was left from the day before, check radios [used by hunt staff to be sure no hounds travel close to busy roads], check any bell boots or brushing boots for wear or damage, and write up the works for that day.
I get three sets of tack ready for each hunting day (four if Jen is riding one of the green horses with me). Those are for the huntsman, Jordan Hicks, the first whipper-in, Johnny Dean, and myself as second whipper-in.
Each set of tack includes: saddle with all appointments (wire cutters, horn for the huntsman, radio case), saddle pads (usually a shaped wool pad, a no-slip pad and a Mattes pad), girth, breastplate, bridle and any boots that horse wears.
I have a yearly calendar in which everything gets written down, as well as sheets for each week. The yearly calendars I keep in the desk, and there are calendars dating back through the past 10 seasons.
12:30 p.m. Leave for lunch. I usually either do a PiYo video or go for a run/walk before I eat lunch. Afterward, I run any errands I might need to do, like the feed or tack store for supplies or taking bills to the office.
4 p.m. Return to the barn. Adjust blankets (add a layer or two depending on the weather), administer any necessary medications and turn out.
On pre-hunting nights, horses that live in the big pasture spend the night in one of the two paddocks that are close to the barn.
5 – 6 p.m. Shawn and I eat dinner (that I cook) together every night, and on our day off together we always go grocery shopping, do yard work, and take the dogs for a long walk. We used to do dinner out at a restaurant or a friend’s house about twice a month (before the coronavirus) but now we get takeout from a local restaurant every Friday.
I shower, feed the dogs and lay out all of my “kit” for the next day (clothes, belts, hunting license, etc.).
I also wash and iron all of my stock ties on Sunday, and I have one for each hunting day of the week. The stock tie and stock pin get added to the pile, so I don’t forget to bring them to the barn the next morning.
8:30 p.m. Take all of the dogs out one last time before bed.
9 p.m. Climb into bed.
9:05 p.m. Climb out of bed and add whatever I forgot to the pile of kit I have accumulated!
9:10 p.m. Back into bed and finally go to sleep.