Melissa Rice is currently in her eighth season at the Camden Hunt in Camden, South Carolina, as a professional huntsman, and she’s struck gold with Top Striker, her current mount. A mahogany bay Thoroughbred, Striker is reveling in his third iteration—first as a flat race horse, then stakes winning steeplechase horse, now huntsman’s mount.
Now 13, “Striker” had a stellar year in 2016, winning the $150,000 Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup Grade 1 Hurdle Stakes (South Carolina) and the $75,000 Zeke Ferguson Grade 2 Memorial Handicap at the International Gold Cup (Virginia). He sat out 2015 due to an injury but had also won the $50,000 AFLAC Supreme Novice Hurdle Stakes at Callaway Gardens (Georgia) and the $50,000 Carolina Cup Hurdle (South Carolina) in 2014. He earned $341,954 in his 27 starts, with nine wins.
Mild tendon and ligament injuries had plagued Striker (Van Nistelrooy—Two’s Cozy, Cozzene) on and off throughout his racing career. After winning the Colonial Cup in a convincing 101⁄2-length romp, his tendon issues flared again, so his Camden-based trainer, Arch Kingsley Jr., and owner, Sue Sensor, decided to retire him. Sensor, the senior joint-MFH of the Camden Hunt, hoped her stakes winner could find a new lease on life with the hunt.
“Striker had somewhere between eight and 10 months at the farm recuperating from a mild tendon injury,” said Rice, “and we spent the summer learning about the hounds and the ins and outs of being a staff horse.”
Kingsley’s training facility backs up to Camden Hunt country, so Striker was familiar with the trails through the hardwood forests, pine woods and the swamps of the Sandhills region of the Carolinas. Rice said they had to teach him to hack quietly and to learn to be mounted from the ground, as staff members have to be able to get on and off to remove debris that can block the trails.
“It was a long, hot summer refocusing him,” said Rice. “We had to encourage him to learn to smell the roses.”
According to Rice, the biggest hurdle to introducing any horse to the huntsman world is usually developing a tolerance for the hounds, since the huntsman is responsible for controlling and directing the pack. But Striker showed an affinity for them from Day One.
“A huntsman horse has to love the hounds. They crowd around the huntsman and knock up against the horse’s legs and swing off his tail on occasion,” she said with a laugh. “You do not want a horse who has a ‘hey, get away from me’ attitude.”
Striker, Sensor said of her 2016 Eclipse Award finalist, made friends with the hounds even as he was recuperating from his injury. While exercising the hounds, the staff would deliberately take them past his paddock, and they would duck under the fence and engage with him.
“He truly loved the hounds from the beginning,” Sensor said. “He would go nose to nose with them every day.”
Now starting his third season of hunting, Striker has developed such a good bond with the hounds that, “he will listen for the hounds and correct me if I go wrong,” said Rice.
Once Striker’s basic hunt horse training was solidified, Rice then had to tackle a common issue with redirecting former racehorses: getting the horse out of race mode, especially when riding out with a pack of other horses. But Rice, as huntsman, has the advantage of being on the front end, with only the hounds traveling before her.
“That takes away a lot of the problems,” she said. “Also, Camden hunt country is closed country with long, fairly narrow trails that are basically like one-way roads. We have to ride one behind the other, and I’m always on the front end, so it makes his tractability a lot easier.”
Though she makes adapting Striker to a slower life than a racehorse life sound easy, Rice did admit to a few incidents where she definitely should have been “cited for driving too fast for conditions.”
He also has a few quirks that provide Rice with occasional white-knuckle moments and her staff and members of the hunt field some laughs. “He loves to turn into a Lipizzaner on occasion after landing after a jump. He can capriole with the best of them,” she said.
The key to getting on with Striker is to appreciate him, said Kingsley. “He has a very distinct personality. He’s a very opinionated, intelligent and expressive horse. He’s very proud of himself. If he was human, you’d call him vain, but he’s justified in thinking highly of himself. He’s special.”
Rice said she gets along with him because she appreciates him and does things the way he wants them done.
“I’m not heavy-handed with him,” she said. “He’s very easy in the barn but very rote too. When A happens, B should happen next, and he does get a bit upset if you try to make B happen first.”
“He would definitely pout if things didn’t go his way,” said Kingsley. “Striker was such a powerhouse [in my barn], but he was like an ephemeral rose. So beautiful, such a life force, but his ego was so fragile.”
All the catering Kingsley did and Rice does for Striker is a matter of “him training us as much as we’re training him,” added Kingsley.
But it’s all worth it in the end, said Rice. “The feeling that this horse gives you when you are galloping after the hounds is the surest, most steady feeling that you are going to get there at the end of the day and maybe a little past the end of the day,” she said. “He has never ever given up on me. He would go through fire to get to hounds.”
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Nov. 21 & 28, 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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