The Hildegard Neill Ritchie “Joys of Foxhunting” writing contest is held annually by the U.S. Pony Clubs in memory of Hildegard Neill Ritchie, founder in 1958 and District Commissioner of the Colorado Springs Pony Club (Colo.) for 30 years.
Ritchie was also the regional supervisor of the Colorado (now Rocky Mountain) Region for 12 years and hosted regional Pony Club camps on her ranch for more than 20 years. She served several terms as a USPC Governor and received the USPC Founders Award in 1989. She hunted with the Arapahoe Hunt (Colo.) and loved the sport, so she worked tirelessly to encourage Pony Clubbers to follow hounds whenever possible.
The contest is open to all D- or C-rated Pony Club members. The first place winner receives $200, the second place winner receives $100, and the third place winner receives $50, all to be spent on foxhunting dues, capping fees, Pony Club camp, or a related activity.
The judges for this year’s contest were Cindy Piper, MFH, Long Run Hounds (Ky.), and Daphne Wood, MFH, Live Oak Hounds (Fla.). “Overall, I am very impressed with the submissions,” Piper said. “There is one common theme that came through loud and clear in all the submissions and that is the excitement each young person experienced. Whether they were seasoned foxhunters or first timers, it was clear their blood was up and they were paying rapt attention to their surroundings, something that does not happen much in the show ring. I am thrilled to see this in our Pony Club members.”
The Thrill of Discovery
It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and there’s a mist rising from the fields. The Girl has just finished tying two ribbons into my tail—one red, one green—and is staring pitifully at the row of knobby braids along my neck. I wouldn’t want to tell her this, but her borrowed stock tie doesn’t look much better. I can tell she’s nervous by the way she checks the girth of my saddle again, and again and again. As for me, her veteran games pony? I know something new and exciting is about to happen, and I can’t wait to get the show on the road.
She has brought me to this wide-open place and tied me to the trailer, and it’s not like anything I have ever seen. It’s no games arena, that’s for sure! I’ve been on cross-country courses, but there’s no start box, no tadpole level jumps in sight. Maybe we’re just trailriding, but there are ever so many horses here. Big draft horses (they wish they could turn like me) and little ponies (inferior equine life forms) and every kind of horse in between. There’s a man in a bright scarlet coat over there and his gelding is quite handsome. I’d like to say hello, but the Girl is unsporting like that.
Most mysterious of all is the trailer at the edge of the clearing. It has been making the most incredible din all morning, and now there are hounds spilling out of it, maybe 30 or 40 of them! Now, if you ask me, no self-respecting horse should tolerate that many canines in one place, but these horses don’t seem fazed. Some of them even seem to be patrolling the hounds, guiding them this way under their rider’s direction.
The Girl presses her face to mine and whispers, “You will be good, Heaven? You won’t kick them… or any of the ponies either.” (What did I tell you? Unsporting!) “And you won’t run through your snaffle… and you’ll stand quietly at the checks. And you’ll be fit enough to handle this. I know it. We’re going to be fine.” But just between you and me, she doesn’t sound too sure. Sounds like it’s time for Heaven the Great to take charge again.
They divide us into groups and expect us to stand quietly for a group picture. Who are they kidding? There’s so much space out here and a crisp December morning to run in. We fidget and paw and pull on the reins as the photographer tries one angle after another. I can tell you the Girl has butterflies doing a triple lutz in her tummy, but that’s ok. The field master and his big bay horse address us and go over the rules of the ride. He says, “All you hilltoppers had better not be afraid to gallop!” The bay meets my eyes. I don’t know how he knows, but I reassure him, I’ve got things under control.
See, here’s what you have to understand about the Girl. She’s a great Girl, don’t get me wrong. She brings me carrots, gives me a lot of pasture to play in, and lets me do things I enjoy the best. But she has never been the most confident of riders. She likes to go fast but only up to a certain point; she likes to always be in control. I go along with it sometimes, but it gets pretty aggravating having her hands in my mouth all the time, reminding me to slow down. I just keep hoping she’ll find that courage buried deep inside of her. Maybe this will be the day.
We’re on the move now! Trotting on, now breaking into a canter, the horses are spilling over the ridge of the hill following that motley collection of hounds. The Girl wants me to stay in the back, I can tell. But I’m having none of it. Onward and upward!
Along the dirt roads, around the edges of fields, and up wooded trails we travel. It’s amazing out here! All this open land is going to my head and the Girl’s gloved hands are no match for me. A log looms on the narrow trail ahead and before she can react, I surge for it and we soar over together. We’re still arguing about where in the pack I should travel, and I’m winning. We’re halfway toward the front now. And there’s a bank up ahead, a huge one. The horses are going over the edge of it, and it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen. The clay face is nearly vertical. The road runs a good 20 feet below.
The Girl stiffens. I can hear her thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Maybe she’s got a point! But hey, when in hunt country, do as the hunters do. So I push right through her feeble half-halts and sit down on my hocks and slide down the hill. Not bad for an old games pony. It’s a smoother landing than I expect at the bottom and I haven’t been left behind, although I think the Girl’s heart might have been.
There’s a check at the bottom. We stand and take a much-appreciated rest while some of the riders cast the hounds out into the woods. I don’t know what they’re doing out there but there’s all this energy in the air, like we’re all waiting for something big to burst. Faraway I hear notes on a horn.
And suddenly we’re off! The hounds are making a racket again and the other horses are galloping and I’m not about to be left behind. I want to be up at the front, where the action is! No, no, take it easy, the Girl pleads. But I won’t. I won’t! This is a thrill and I’m being carried away in all the pounding hoof beats around me.
Up and over the rolling hills we gallop, meeting stone walls in stride, crossing a narrow stream, and fording a narrow ravine. We run like the hounds are after us instead of some other alien scent, but it’s all in fun. On and on and on we go, sometimes steadying to a canter, sometimes surging forward again. And suddenly, I notice something: the iron hold on my mouth is gone.
We burst out of the woods into the open space again and I take flight. Like a bird I’m swooping across the grass, and the Girl is feather-light on my back and in my mouth. All her tension has been replaced by some kind of fierce joy and I know her well enough to know that she is grinning. And with every stride I feel confidence surging into her. I’m remembering why I carry her. She’s remembering why she rides. It’s moments like these that make all those hours in the arena come together into something immortal. We’re up behind the Master now, where I wanted to be all along. We’re there together.
Nikki Surrusco, 21, has been writing for as long as she can remember, most of her tales inspired by her experiences as an equestrian. Her autobiographical story “I-Hate-Pony-Club Night” was published in the summer 2006 edition of the USPC News Magazine, and she hopes to one day compile her
stories into a book.
Growing up, Surruso dabbled in hunt seat and Western riding, but when she discovered Pony Club at age 13 in Georgia she knew that she had found her calling, quickly developing a passion for games and eventing, as well as foxhunting.
Surrusco teaches riding lessons at The Stables at Eagle Mountain, the riding academy and boarding facility in Ellijay, Ga., she runs along with her mother, Dana. Nikki is a founding member of the Horse Sense Pony Club with a C-3 rating and has attended Pony Club National Championships three times. She will try for her H-rating this November.
A Day at the Hunt
With stock tie and pin, tied just right.
A yellow vest beneath a coat of black,
Beige breeches, tall boots with spurs on the back.
Dressed for the day and filled with pride,
At the Marlborough Hunt, I’m ready to ride.
I gaze at my mount, “Southern Tango” her name,
Of the Thoroughbred breed and a little insane.
A petite bay mare, standing 15 hands tall,
She’s not much to look at, with no chrome at all.
But she loves a good run and will jump any height,
I am honored to say, we ride in first flight.
With the sound of the horn, the hunt begins,
We follow the Field Master and two Whippers-in.
Nine couples strike off across the field,
To see what yonder covert yields.
Then down through the hollow and over the hill,
When the pack sings out, it’s such a great thrill.
I hope for a fox that won’t go to ground,
That is full of game for both huntsman and hound.
Three hours later and seven miles hence,
The pack checks up at a five-rail fence.
The hounds are cast but no line is struck,
It seems that the Field has run out of luck.
So the chase is over, the fox has won,
The hunt is called, our day is done.
Katherine Sunderland, 14, Dunkirk, Md., a C-3 member of the Marlborough Pony Club (Md.) in
the Capital Region, is serving as the president of her Pony Club. In 2006 she became a junior member of the Marlborough Hunt Club and enjoys participating in their activities. She is a ninth grade honor roll student at Northern High School in Calvert County, Md.
Amy Brown The pack of hounds and the scarlet coats that accompanied them disappeared into a thicket, and the Master led us off after them. Excited baying could be heard—the hounds had picked up a scent almost immediately! The Master picked up a brisk canter to follow the hounds as they dashed through the underbrush, just out of sight. For the first time since I had sold him two years ago, I felt the grey gelding leap into a canter underneath me. I stood in my stirrups and gave him his head as we cantered up and down the hilly green country. His stride didn’t falter when we entered the woods and I flattened myself on his neck to avoid low hanging branches, or going down steep muddy hillsides, riddled with rocks and fallen logs. He stopped on a dime when we pulled up for our first check, so responsive to my subtle aid that I was almost surprised by the sudden halt.
At the checks, the field stayed quiet as not to disturb the hounds. I watched them intently as they worked, searching for a scent, but not so intently as the grey gelding. Head high, ears pricked and eyes wide, he watched the hounds work with an intelligence I have seen in a few other horses. While the other horses dozed and fidgeted, he stood still and alert, seemingly in tune with the staff and the hounds.
Soon the hounds were off again, and the Master took us on another breathtaking chase through the countryside. We started off trotting through the woods along the riverbank, and the grey gelding expressed his excitement by lengthening his stride, just as I had taught him to do for dressage so long ago. But dressage was never so much fun as what we were experiencing now: galloping after hounds, the wind whipping our hair and wanting to cry out for the pure beauty of it, the bond created in this moment between horse, rider, hound and fox. We were galloping so fast that there was little time for me to think, only feel: a welcome respite from the intellectual rigors of dressage. I could feel the deep pounding of the grey gelding’s hooves against wood as we flew across a bridge over the river and before I had realized it, we found ourselves on a paved two-lane road. The sound of wind rushing by my ears was now drowned out in the ear-shattering clatter of 80 metal-shod hooves on asphalt. I sighed with relief when we reached good earth footing once again, and realized I had been holding my breath. The grey gelding snorted, as if in empathy with me, and I gave him a pat to thank him for taking care of me.
Walking back to the trailers surrounded by horses, hounds and riders all tired from a good day’s sport, I savored my last moments with my old horse, my first love. I knew these might be the last moments I might ever get to share with him, but I was still glowing from the inside out with happiness. This day was a gift that I had never expected or even hoped for. I’d missed my horse bitterly over the past two years we had been apart—missed his black and white mane that shared my teenage tears, the grey-spotted back I laid on for countless nights gazing at the stars, even the gleaming white coat that was so hard to get clean, but shone rewardingly when I finally managed the near-impossible after hours of elbow grease, sweat and tears before every rally. Most of all, I missed his fun-loving personality and how he took care of me while still managing to test and challenge me. I could not have asked for a better partner for my first foxhunt.
Despite my unconditional love for him, the grey gelding’s exuberant personality had sometimes gotten in the way of his work, and he was almost infamous. But when I went to thank the Master at the end of the day, he told me something that made my heart swell with pride and happiness for my old horse.
“JJ is a good horse,” he said. “He’s come a long way.”
Amy Brown, 19, Falls Church, Va., a C-1 member of the Rocky Run Pony Club (Va.) in the Virginia Region is a pre-veterinary major at the University of Maryland. A newcomer to foxhunting, this short story is about her first experience.