Donna Lumsden has been riding for much of her life, but there was one equestrian activity that was still on her bucket list when she turned 60: foxhunting.
When she saw that Betsy Burke Parker, of Hunter’s Rest in Flint Hill, Virginia, offered the opportunity to lease a hunt horse for a day, Lumsden, who hadn’t been on a horse in eight years, began by going on a few trail rides. Then Parker put her on Point Blanc, a 20-year-old homebred Thoroughbred, for her first outing with the Old Dominion Hounds in Northern Virginia.
“I was kind of timid because I hadn’t been on in a while,” said Lumsden, 63, of Marshall, Virginia. “She doesn’t just stick you on a horse and leave you. She’s there with you, guiding you and helping you along.”
Her first year, Lumsden started in the third field. She was hooked and began leasing a horse to hunt regularly. “It was just thrilling and so exciting to see all the hounds running across the field and the whole field just running after them,” she said. “I think I was grinning from ear to ear. I still do just talking about it.”
By the next season, she was jumping. “I felt like a teenager again,” she said. “It was just a fabulous experience that I’m still having to this day.”
Lumsden credits Parker with introducing her to the sport and its etiquette in a welcoming fashion that enabled her to learn as she went along. “There’s a lot more to it than you think. You can really study it for a long time before you understand everything that’s going on. She would try to explain things as we were going along—like what you say if a hound is coming, what you say when the masters come by, how you always greet the landowners,” Lumsden said. “I was very welcomed into the group. They want everyone to come enjoy it. They’re all just friendly and welcoming and want you to participate in their sport.”
Borrowing or leasing a hunt horse, known as a hireling, is common in Europe but not as widespread in the United States. In Virginia hunt country, Parker, Jennifer Taylor of Zulla Farm in Marshall, and Heather Heider, of Van Vixen Farm in Bluemont, regularly take first timers hunting on experienced horses.
Heider, who has been offering hirelings for 12 years, said interest has surged since the start of the pandemic. “I saw an influx of people who had hunted when they were a kid. I had a 30% increase in my business,” she said.
She and her husband, Scott Van Pelt, moved their farm to the center of hunt country and are now a fixture with the Piedmont Fox Hounds.
Finding The Right Opportunity
Parker offers hirelings for a day or a season but doesn’t offer blind hires to strangers. Her first step is a phone call to ascertain the rider’s ability.
“People give themselves away if they’re not ready by what they say,” she said. “I have found the quickest way to determine someone’s skill level is to ask them about their lessons. How often are they taking lessons? I find that people taking fairly regular or recent riding lessons [have] plenty of skill to be supervised in the hunt field.”
People usually find Taylor through word of mouth. “I mostly have people who are traveling from out of town and [want] as part of their vacation to have a riding experience,” she said. “Usually, they tend to be experienced riders that may have hunted or are new to hunting.”
Taylor always gives people the option to ride before the hunt if their schedule permits so that she can evaluate their riding style, though it’s not required. “I presume people are honest with me when they say what their experience level is, and then I try to educate them about the etiquette and the customs of foxhunting,” she said.
There are times when a rider gets in the open field, and Taylor realizes they’re in over their head. “If somebody is in that situation, I say, ‘Why don’t we go back to another field and maybe not jump today?’ ” she said. “It’s not good for the horses to have a scared person on them.”
Heider either knows her clients or gets a trainer referral before she agrees to rent one of her horses. “They tell me exactly how they ride, or I have them send me a video, or I have them come to my farm, and I teach them a lesson or two and assess them,” she said.
Sometimes, this results in someone being told they’re six months out from being ready to hunt, but safety is paramount. “This is a dangerous sport. Most of the people who are coming to me, they’re either adults who have children, or they’re professional adults. They’ve got to get home safe,” she said.
They review skills in the ring that will be applicable to foxhunting. “You have to learn important things like how to do a sitting trot going downhill and balance your horse on slippery ground,” Heider said.
If you’ve never hunted, even if you’re an experienced rider, it’s probably not a great idea to accept an offer from someone who says, “I have a second horse, come ride,” Taylor said. “Go with someone who is an experienced foxhunter and trainer who can also train you in the hunt field.”
Parker asks the client’s height, weight, age and what kind of horse they feel most comfortable on. With about 20 horses available, she has plenty of options. Her fee includes a lesson, which she uses as a chance to weed out those who aren’t ready. On the day of the hunt, she meets the client with their horse tacked up and ready to go.
“If a person wants to come to the barn and help get ready, they can,” she said. Other people prefer to get a leg up, hunt, then hand the horse back to her when they’re finished.
“Sometimes I ask myself when I’m falling asleep at night, ‘What is it that makes it work?’ Because it shouldn’t [work]. Because it’s really scary to loan your horse to another person. It’s like loaning your car,” Parker added.
Parker credits her well-seasoned foxhunters with possessing strong self-preservation skills. “They aren’t going to do something foolish if it’s going to harm themselves,” she said. “Therefore, the rider is protected from themselves or being overly bold when they shouldn’t be. It’s like a school horse. If they feel the rider out of balance, they will slow down or stop.”
Some people aren’t as capable as they’ve led her to believe, but in most of those cases, Parker said, they’re easily convinced that it’s not for them. From her spot as third field master for Old Dominion Hounds, Parker can supervise her day trippers.
“If I take my elder horse with a weaker rider or a more scared rider, guess who’s controlling the pace? That would be me,” she said. “There’s no one more sensitive to the horses’ needs than the owner of the horse.”
Taylor follows a European model of a turnkey experience. The horses are brought to the rider, completely tacked and ready. At the end of the hunt, riders hand the horse to a groom. “It’s more efficient that way, and everything is more consistent for the horses,” she said. “It leaves a lot less to chance.”
Heider often has people who want to be part of the whole process, from tacking up to taking part in a stirrup cup before they head out. Once in the hunt field, either Heider or one of her employees stays with guests. “To make sure they’re always taken care of and they’re also learning how to be out there and be appropriate,” she said. “Teaching them reverse field, teaching them the hound has the right of way, teaching them to ride with one hand to point down at a hole.” She also shares information about open space conversation and how it relates to keeping the sport going. “If it wasn’t for the landowners letting us have the opportunity to do this, this whole conversation wouldn’t be happening,” Heider said.
As an attorney, Taylor is aware of the potential liability of hiring out her hunt horses. While Virginia has a statewide liability waiver for horse sports, she adds an additional waiver and her own insurance.
The Perfect Mount
Parker uses veteran hunt horses, some of whom are retired to her farm, for riders new to the sport. Ballycormac, a 28-year-old Irish Draught, was a field master’s horse who needed a stepdown job at age 15. He went to Parker’s farm, where he was leased to a first field rider, then moved to second field about five years ago and stopped jumping. He’s now in third field, where he no longer gallops. Parker estimates he’s introduced at least 100 people to foxhunting.
Taylor began leasing horses about 15 years ago when she had more horses in training to be foxhunters than she had people to ride them. “It just organically occurred,” she explained. “They needed to get out, so I would rent them by the day. I knew the horses and had trained them myself and knew what their story was. Before they’re rented out, we make sure they’re made, so we’re not putting people on green horses.”
Heider also ensures she puts clients on horses that know, and love, their job, like Everdene, who was fourth in the 2018 Theodora A. Randolph Field Hunter Championships, and Jack, a 23-year-old Quarter Horse. “He will pack kids and small adults around all day long,” she said. “He knows his job, and he’s very pretty.”
Anusha Gregory, 39, a professional pilot, hunted from the time she was 5 until she was 17 but stopped riding when she went to college after having a bad fall. Parker helped her get over her fear and return to hunting.
“The first day I went hunting was opening meet of all places. What was I thinking? It just goes to show what great hands I was in that day,” she said. “It was like being on a trail ride; you’re just riding on the buckle. On a well-seasoned foxhunter like ‘Bally,’ nothing spooks him. Nothing unsettles that horse.”
From there, she arranged to have her then 4-year-old daughter, Ali, lease an older pony for her first hunt. Gregory led Ali and the pony in the fourth field until this past season when Ali, now 7, moved up to Bally. “She’s like a little twig on this massive horse, but he carries her with such care,” Gregory said. “He conserves his energy. When the hunt stops, he just stands quietly, then when it’s time to go, he just continues to go on forward.”
Gregory is now leasing The Gray Gatsby, an Irish Sport Horse who jumps anything, despite being blind in his left eye. “But you would not know it at all. He consistently jumps at just the right spot every time, and it’s just amazing,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be able to ride him.”
Trainer Diane Hanrahan, of Boerne, Texas, first traveled to Virginia to hunt with her students about seven years ago. After booking a hunting outing through their hotel, the group met Heider, and they’ve been returning to hunt with her every December. Hanrahan spoke with Heider about her students and to learn how the hireling process worked.
“It really was me talking to her directly where I got that trust,” Hanrahan said. “I think communicating with the right people is your best bet to get the right horse and the right experience.”
While there are opportunities to hunt in Texas, they’re much different than hunting in Virginia. “The depth of rider in Virginia and Middleburg is just unbelievable,” Hanrahan said. “It was very structured and very organized. To go up there and be able to blend in a little bit to that culture is unreal. It’s not just a ride, it’s part of a culture.”
The Texas riders all saw a change in their ability after foxhunting. “They were more confident. They were different riders when they got back. You couldn’t keep up with them. They were more forward; they wanted to cover ground, and they were more fit,” Hanrahan said. “They came home ready to ride longer and ride harder. That’s been fun to watch.”
What’s The Cost?
On average, hunting on a rented horse, including the cap fee for the hunt, will run you about $500 a day in Virginia hunt country.
Heather Heider said she charges $300 if the client tacks up and cleans their own tack and $350 if they do not at Van Vixen Farm in Bluemont, Virginia. Capping fees for the hunts she rides with run from $100 to $200.
Jennifer Taylor of Zulla Farm in Marshall, Virginia, charges $175 to barn members who ride and rent regularly and $250 for non-barn members, and capping fees range from $75 to $250 depending on the hunt and the season.
For Betsy Burke Parker, of Hunter’s Rest in Flint Hill, Virginia, it’s $250, which includes a lesson before hunting.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Nov. 7 & 14, 2022, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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