“Irish banks and ditches”—in the fox hunting world, that phrase conjures up one of the most challenging experiences that a rider can face in the hunt field. Well, at least so I’d heard, from both hunting friends and the Irish-born huntsman, Barry Magner, of our own Middleburg Hunt, (Va.), not having experienced hunting internationally.
For at least a decade, hunting in Ireland has been an item on the “to-do” list for my husband, George, and me; while we have hunted with many different hunts in the United States, for one reason or another we had not been able to make hunting abroad a reality.
Then, in November, I received a Facebook message from Kalindi Lawrence, an Irish lady to whom I sold a side saddle a few years ago. She wanted to let me know that Susan Oakes, the current English side saddle high jump record holder (at 5’8”), was starting to organize the second annual Irish Side Saddle Hunt with the Meath Foxhounds in County Meath, about an hour north of Dublin, for Jan. 19, and she hoped that George and I could join them.
Well, could this get any better? Not only a pre-organized Irish hunting trip, but specifically a side saddle hunt! As I prefer to hunt aside, it sounded like a perfect way to experience hunting in Ireland, and it would be nice to be among a group of aside riders rather than being the sole one in the field as was usually the case at home.
Chance Of A Lifetime
Susan, in coordination with the Side Saddle Association of Ireland, started a Facebook page for the event and sent out invitations worldwide to the members of the “Sidesaddle Riders” group. The packages that Susan was able to put together—including transportation, lodging, breakfasts, Friday-night reception, hireling, cap fee, and a hunt ball ticket—were an incredible deal, and by early January the event had to be closed to any new attendees, as almost 60 people had chosen the riding package, with an additional 20 or so eager side saddle supporters selecting the non-riding package.
Riding side saddle has been experiencing a revival around the world in the past decade, so it was not a surprise to learn that riders were coming from Ireland, the United Kingdom, America, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy. In addition to George and me, the other American riders were side saddle ladies Maggie Johnston and Susan Corwin, and gentlemen escorts Jan Chrypinski, Shawn Roberts, and Travis Allen Page. Caren Carter and Denise Hamilton, both experienced side saddle riders, attended to provide support, and Karen Monroe and Doug Gehlsen from Middleburg Photo were making a photographic record of the weekend.
While thrilled to have so many people attending, Susan was now faced with sourcing around 48 horses for all of the non-Irish riders! As she had had 14 side saddle riders at the inaugural 2012 event, she had thought that perhaps 25 or so riders would attend this year, so she had the daunting task of acquiring enough side saddles for the international riders, as well as enough good Irish hunters that fit her criteria: a true lady’s horse with two seasons hunting experience, safe and confident over ditches and upright jumps, and capable of carrying a side saddle.
To meet the saddle quota, the Side Saddle Association of Ireland offered to loan the saddles they had in their possession, and the Irish and British riders also leant their spare side saddles. Susan then hunted all of her family’s hunters aside (from the Connemara ponies to her Grand Prix jumper Holsteiner stallion, SIEC Atlas) to determine which horses would be suitable, but she still faced a dearth of possible horses.
So, the generous members of the Meath Foxhounds, both amateur riders and hireling professionals, stepped up and offered their best horses to Susan for the riders; in fact, in some cases, they offered up their only horse, which meant that they would not be able to go out hunting themselves that day! Susan then spent the weeks before the event trying out all the offered horses aside and determining which ones would be suitable, and then, based upon the riders’ specified preferences, matched them up with the horses and ponies that had been selected and the saddles that were available.
We stayed in the quaint village of Trim. As Ireland had received a tremendous amount of rain for several months, there was a large of amount of standing water in many of the flat fields and a plethora of mud visible everywhere as we drove through the countryside. However, we were assured that despite the deep footing, and the wintry mix that we were currently experiencing, the next day’s hunt would go on, and that the horses were well used to it.
After checking in at the hotel and having lunch, I walked back to the hotel, quite glad that I had packed lots of warm layers and my waterproof Barbour coat, as by this point it was very windy and the rain was coming down in diagonal sheets. Thanks to Susan’s incredible organizational skills, the majority of borrowed horses were being housed at a central location, allowing most of the ladies the opportunity to try their assigned horse. I met up with Susan and other ladies in the lobby of the hotel, enjoying the opportunity to meet in person the people I had been chatting with online.
While waiting for the cars to arrive, Susan informed me that I had been assigned a wonderful 16.2 hh bay Irish hunter, who had hunted several seasons, been ridden aside in last year’s side saddle hunt, and was much in demand by riders. Well, that sounded good to me. What is his name, I asked?
Susan replied, “Gutless. No worries, his owner always names horses the opposite of what they are. His other horse is named Scaredy Cat, and both of them will jump anything!”
When we got to the barns, it was a hive of activity. The saddles were all being stored inside a large lorry, or horse van. Susan looked through them, and pulled out a saddle, covered by a vintage canvas cover, that had a tag on it with my name. While the majority of quality side saddles were made in England between 1900-1950, each make rides slightly differently. While I can ride in most of them as long as the seat is the correct size, my preferred side saddles are those made by Whippy. So when Susan handed the saddle she had pulled out to a groom, and the cover rode up slightly in the back, displaying the distinctive Whippy nail head, I was thrilled.
After helping tack up Gutless and mounting, I headed out the ring, and walked, trotted and cantered in each direction before doing a few jumps up to 2’9”. Having gained a good sense of how he went forward and jumped, I was confident that Susan had indeed assigned me the perfect horse, and the saddle was a perfect fit for me. The other ladies also riding had the same experience as I, and we returned to the hotel looking forward to the next day.
Up early the next morning, we all dressed in our riding habits and hunting clothes, and went for breakfast. I am sure that for any non-horsey guests staying at the hotel, it was quite a sight to see a room full of people in full hunting attire and top hats! After breakfast, all 38 of the ladies that were staying at the hotel gathered on the staircase, while Susan brought in her well-behaved gray stallion, fully tacked up, for a group shot.
Once at the staging area, the riders were served a glass of hot port to help us warm up from the cold, snowy day, and then the horses began arriving. Soon, there were lorries everywhere unloading plaited, fully tacked up horses, while Susan pointed out their riders, who then received a leg-up and any other necessary help.
After helping me onto Gutless, George was then directed towards his lovely gray hunter, Henry, a keen 6 yr old who loved to jump drains (more on this later).
After everyone was mounted, we hacked a mile or so down the road to the meet, where we met up with the ladies who had brought their own horses and the members of the hunt. After doing some group shots of the side saddle ladies that were present, we paused while a count was done, and a cheer went up – a new record for the number of side saddle ladies out hunting had been set, with 50 ladies aside! The previous record had been set last October at the Quorn’s Opening Meet (England), when they had 42 ladies out aside.
Settling down, one of Meath’s MFHs, Pat Dillon, addressed the field of more than 100 riders so that we all understood the rules of the day, with the most important being to stay to the edge of the fields so as to not tear up any more ground than necessary, since the landowners were being so kind as to let us hunt in such wet, muddy conditions.
We then were off! After heading back to the road for a short hack, we turned left into a field, where the hounds were sent into the covert. They quickly found scent, and we were off on two hours of the most challenging hunting I have ever experienced.
Ditches Like Never Before Seen
The field flew around the edge of the field, jumped the ditch, went around another field, jumped the ditch, and repeated. Not only were the ditches wide and deep, but we also had to jump through trees and hedges that were in and around the ditches. Blood was flowing freely from scratches, Jan had the top cover on his IRH helmet ripped off when a branch got under the brim, and Travis had his dental bridge knocked out by another branch.
Some horses didn’t make it across the drains, and landed in them, while some riders, both astride and aside, came off and landed in the mud. The field was faced with an imposing double drain, and also had to jump a metal pasture gate and a two-rail no-climb fence. And through it all, everywhere you looked, there were huge grins on everyone’s faces.
The most spectacular fall of the American group came when George, after jumping Henry over the ditch, turned right and faced it to wait for me. Unfortunately, Henry had never seen a ditch he didn’t want to jump, and the fact that the one in front of him was about 14’ wide with a hedge on the other side of it didn’t deter him in the least. He leapt, with George trying to stop him, and landed part way up the bank on the other side, where he then slid down and went over backwards in the drain, dunking George in the very cold water. Luckily, both were fine, and George quickly remounted and continued on.
When the staff called it a day, the field had dwindled to around 35 hearty—and covered in mud!—riders, including Maggie, Susan, George, Jan, Travis and myself.
After the lorries showed up to get the horses, we boarded the bus to head back to the hotel, where after getting cleaned up we all headed to the lounge to meet up with other riders to relive the hunt through and stories and have a well-deserved pint of Guinness or glass of wine.
Into The Wee Hours
The day was far from over, however, as we still had the hunt ball that evening! The ladies and gentlemen were dressed to the nines in long gowns and black tie, respectively, and it made for a stunning sight, especially after the heavy coating of mud that everyone had been wearing earlier that day. Everyone was in a fantastic mood and the food was of an equal level. After dinner, some announcements, and the silent auction and raffle, the rock band, Say La V, got the majority of the guests onto the dance floor with their fantastic playlist of classic 60s songs. George and I lasted until around 1:30 a.m., but Shawn managed to make it to the end, which was around 5 a.m.!
After spending Sunday touring around Dublin, we bid Ireland a fond farewell as we flew out on Monday. Thanks the superb organization and drive of Susan Oakes, the kindness and generosity of the MFHs and members of the hunt, and the allowance of the landowners over whose territory the field hunted, we had experienced a grand day of Irish hunting, marked by fast runs, huge ditches, perfect Irish hunters, unbelievable mud, and fantastic people. It shall never be forgotten by those who attended, I am certain, and George and I have already decided that we will be attending next year’s Irish Side Saddle hunt.