When my closest friend Sally Mumper and I ventured to Ireland to visit a few fellow riding enthusiasts while all were on break from college last year, the journey was a whirlwind of good Irish company and hearty laughs.
The only missing component was the hunting, which was cancelled numerous days due to the exceptionally cold weather which froze the fields and generated treacherous footing. Each frozen morning Sally's heart sank--she considered the trip a true success only with an Irish hunting tale to tell when we returned to the states--while I secretly breathed a sigh of relief.
I had heard of the outrageous Irish hunting, and for the past several days had listened with more anxiety than anticipation to talk of the unusually difficult terrain of Tipperary, known for its daunting banks, ditches, and drains. I was feeling less than confident. Away at college, riding is a luxury afforded only when exams and papers lull--an unfortunately rare occurrence.
But then, on the morning that was our final opportunity to hunt, the frost lifted. We awoke to our hostess Mrs. Hazell's gentle voice announcing tea and toast for breakfast before our departure to hunt with Tipps. Sally merrily collected her hunting attire and bounded down to the kitchen. I yanked on my britches and followed, all the while reminding myself that this is meant to be an adventure, come what may. I knew that I did want this, but...
After tea and hearty Irish bread, we pocketed some thoughtfully-prepared sandwiches and snacks and piled into the car with two horses ready to hunt in tow. Our friend Jack maneuvered his rig through the narrow streets of the small town of Fetherd while explaining where the hunt would be meeting today and other general information about who is the master and who would be out today.
On the way to the meet we discussed who would ride one of Jack's horses and who would ride the hired horse waiting for us up ahead. We decided that Sally would ride Jack's hunter since he was rather strong, and she was far more riding fit than me. (Sally attends college in the late afternoon and evenings after daily rides on foxhunters and event horses to prepare for her grueling spring competition schedule.)
O.K. Feelin' good. Hired horses have to be good, right? Otherwise the supplier would be out of business. Just wish Jack hadn't told the guy that I was an accomplished rider...
We hurriedly found my horse, I was catapulted aboard, and before my feet were secured in the irons, we were briskly trotting down the road through a small village. Vans and trailers were parked in all imaginable, and unimaginable, manners along the roadside. Horses and riders ranged from impeccably-turned-out to somewhat disheveled.
The field was particularly large, numbering well over 60. My hired horse insisted we find our way to the front, jigging, rooting and pulling all the while. We met up with several friendly and familiar faces from previous evenings and settled into the field. Jack courteously introduced us to several prominent Irish horsemen, including Aiden O'Connell--all of whose names meant absolutely nothing to me! My mind was focused on my task at hand: how would I hold this fidgeting beast? What happens when we have to jump something? Yet, onwards and upwards, as they say.
Seemingly out of nowhere the field turned and flat out galloped across a field. My dear steed burst into action and flew across the field. The rumbling of hooves reverberated through my entire body. Glancing around I realized that I definitely did not want to hit the ground with all these hooves flying in every direction. Thankfully, we settled back to a walk and proceeded along. After only 20 minutes in the saddle, my biceps were already talking to me.
Our first obstacle was a solid, upright cross-country fence into a field. Though it was not a particularly inviting first fence, I at least knew how to ride to it. My horse, lunging and pulling while we waited, was surprisingly clever to the jump, allowing me to pick my distance, albeit at a significantly faster pace than my show ring propensity would generally dictate. After a few more good gallops, we came to several similar fences. My fear faded and gave way to the excitement and absolute ecstasy of galloping and jumping.
It did seem curious, however, that for all the warm hospitality and exceptional friendliness of everyone we encountered since entering the country, hunting was every man and woman for themselves! Each fence was a terrible bottleneck where politeness evaporated and everyone pushed their way through. I preferred to stay back and let others go, but the choice was not entirely mine to make. My horse demanded we go! Yet after the fence, when we resumed walking, the hip-flasks of good Irish whiskey generously made their rounds!
After leaping one ditch at the top of a hill, the field rather spread out, Sally was cantering away from the ditch as one man's horse zigzagged and gained speed. Just as he was approaching Sally, his horse stumbled and the man flew up and out of the saddle, catapulted toward her and collided with his legs across her horses' withers! Stunned, Sally helped the man find his bearings and then trotted away containing her laughter until we were far enough away to burst into a chorus of laughter.
As the field made its way into one field in particular, I thought it was odd that the fieldmaster went to a corner of the field that was entirely enclosed--or so I thought. There was no way out of this field, so where was everyone going? But, the huge bank forming the perimeter was apparently fair game. I watched in disbelief as horses clawed their way up this steep, ten-foot bank and then leapt down the other side only to turn 90 degrees a step later to gallop off. This was unreal! I anxiously looked to James, a recent acquaintance and fast friend. He smiled knowingly and advised, "Walk to it, don't rush and go straight, then kick on and hold tight!"
My athletic horse found his way and we did just fine! Not all were so lucky, and I was beginning to feel like a real rider--though I realized that I was only as confident as the creature beneath me. I was forgetting to fret and instead reveling in the riding. At one check on the crest of a hill, Jack pointed to the distance, identifying an 11th century structure--the remains of a monastery. This tidbit satisfied the history major in me--the day was complete with riding, socializing and enlightenment.
Later we jumped a few stone walls, down into water and up a bank, a few upright fences, and...wire. Yes, we jumped into a field by way of the single, white, inch-thick wire that meagerly confined whatever livestock dwelled there.
The hunting continued until the afternoon began to wither into a dreary, drizzling dusk, close to five. Having begun at 11:30 a.m., by the last gallop my legs felt rubbery and I felt the satisfying ache of a long day in the saddle. We found our way back to the trailers and I reluctantly returned my horse. Though I had originally been apprehensive about him, we had quickly melded. Though many congregated in the pub, Sally, Jack, and I opted to head home to Jack's house where the horses needed to be tucked away for the night.
After taking care of Jack's hunters, we cleaned up and sat down to an ample, warm dinner. The silence of properly exhausted people replaced the initial animated reports of the day's events. Thanks to our Irish hosts, Sally had her full and exciting day of hunting in Ireland. And I survived...and even had a blast!
Katie Cooper earned her liberal arts degree in history at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She escapes to the countryside whenever possible to ride foxhunters and show hunters.