Once again, time has passed too quickly. When the fixture card first came out, the fall season stretched out ahead with promise. It’s hard to believe that for now, we need to pack away our gear until the spring.
Given the breadth of the fixture, I didn’t get to hunt all that often — a mere eight times. And on only one occasion did I have the chance to hunt Kroni. Our last hunt together was on a spectacular fall day when the foliage still had its colors.
This was the season where Freedom stepped up to the plate and proved not only could he hunt, but that he likes to hunt. Each time he’s gone out he’s been better. Today he helped me lead the hilltoppers, riders who prefer not to jump and who generally ride at a slower pace than the jumping field. He never put a foot wrong despite the uneven footing and the slick conditions.
This was the first time I had the opportunity to act as fieldmaster to the hilltoppers and I had three concerns: first, that I’d get lost (the territory we hunted is a labyrinth of trails that all look the same when the leaves are down), second that someone in the field would get hurt (there were two accidents at the Thanksgiving Day hunt and the Saturday after Thanksgiving is notorious for accidents caused by dicey footing) and third, that Freedom would find leading the field challenging (either getting upset as the first field left or becoming unwilling to set the pace in unfamiliar territory).
I’d ridden the territory three times and even brought my family out to walk the trails. The problem was that every time I got confused by the myriad turns. Not lost — you couldn’t really get lost, but definitely not sure which way to go. (Our hunt is a drag hunt, so the route is set in the morning by the human foxes and the field masters are responsible for knowing the territory and the predetermined route).
This morning was beautiful, but cold. It was just 25 degrees this morning when I left home and the trails were covered with frost and wet leaves. When we arrived at the fixture I was amazed by how many people had turned out. I’d hoped that the field would be small; it’s tricky to lead a large group, especially the hilltoppers where the range of rider/horse experience varies. At 17 hilltoppers, the field was pretty large.
From my experience the most successful hunts are those where the field masters establish a rhythmic pace that, along the lines of Goldilocks, is not too fast yet not too slow. I wanted to minimize the “gallop and stop” sequences, especially given the footing, and I wanted to make sure that riders in the back of the field didn’t suffer from the whiplash effect, whereby they are forced to go too quickly around corners or over streams to keep up.
In the end, my fears were mostly unfounded. I took only one wrong turn, but it didn’t put us too far off track. People seemed mostly satisfied with the pace. No one fell off, no one got lost, and no one had the “I’m going to die” look on their faces which I’ve seen on occasion. Freedom was a star. While he wasn’t happy to see the first field charge off ahead, he listened to me and kept a steady pace. He wasn’t rattled by the field coming up behind him and he never sucked back or spooked at anything on the trails.
He’s come a long way since the spring when he still had trouble staying behind Kroni at a hunter pace! In these past months I’ve come to appreciate him — not as a replacement for Kroni — but rather as a horse that tries very hard to please and who really doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. When horses ahead of us were bucking and acting up, he stayed on task and was as steady as a horse that had been hunting for years.
I have great plans for him next spring!