My first hunter pace was an act of rebellion. My best friend Tazz (Transcendence) is an SPCA–rescued Andalusian/Arabian. Since 2000, we had been attending local shows and working our way from walk–trot to the Open divisions. Though successful in the flat divisions, Tazz and I had some trouble over fences at shows. Sometimes he would spook at a jump and I would lose confidence, resulting in a refusal.
Over the years, our jumping improved and we were able to complete successful hunter rounds. Still, Tazz’s form over a fence was flat and lead changes were not reliable. At home, jumping was enjoyable, but hunter classes at shows were stressful. Stuck in a rut, I decided to make a change in 2012.
I don’t know where I first learned about hunter paces. Perhaps I had decided to look into eventing and show jumping and subsequently found the term “hunter pace.” A hunter pace, derived from foxhunting, is a marked trail around five to seven miles of varying terrain with an assortment of optional cross-country jumps. Hunter paces usually include teams of two or three people. Some riders compete for the fastest time; however, many riders prefer to ride in the Optimal (average speed) or Hill Topper (slower than Optimal) divisions where the goal is to finish closest to the predetermined but secret time. Nevertheless, the purpose of the hunter pace is to enjoy the ride with friends, and the event is generally considered noncompetitive. Research led me to the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America, Northeast Region Hunter Pace near Geneseo, New York.
With little more than two months to prepare, Tazz, then 17, and I focused on increasing our fitness. Trail rides turned into gallops with increasing length; arena work focused around jumping. Tazz enjoys galloping and jumping, so he dove into the work with vigor.
The November day of the pace was warm enough to ride in a short-sleeved polo. I had packed a pair of breeches along with my tall boots, but I had also brought along half chaps and paddock boots. Knowing that the event was casual, and that returning horses were sweaty and muddy, I chose my comfortable jeans, half chaps and paddock boots.
While I was making my observations, Tazz was tied to the trailer and surveying the horses who were coming and going with interest. His head was high and proud, and I knew that he was anxious to check out the excitement.
Through networking, I was teamed up with three other people, all gifted riders and excellent eventers from the same barn. As a group of two teams of two people, the four of us headed out.
The first two jumps were rough. Tazz jumped them but it was forced. A few minutes later, the path dropped down a small but steep slope followed by a line of two logs. I could see a house with people gathered on the back patio to watch the passing teams, and my nerves went into overdrive. I wasn’t expecting an audience! However, I didn’t realize that Tazz had been processing all of this new information. After the slope, he sprinted off after his new friends, who were having a blast, and bounded over the two logs with more zest than he’s ever shown jumping in an arena.
After that, I could almost say it was easy. Tazz continued to soar over any obstacle in his way, even ones that made me a little nervous. We encountered a large, steep gradient and he chugged down it like a veteran. We passed through mud and streams. He didn’t blink an eye. The most difficult part of the ride was his exuberance. He wanted to gallop all 6.7 miles of it.
My team was extremely generous. Their experienced horses helped encourage Tazz to choose the higher options and jumps that were intimidating.
When I dismounted at the end of the pace, my legs were putty. I never experienced sore abs until that day. I was sweaty and tired. Tazz was sweaty and muddy. But the hunter pace had worked its magic. Tazz and I were hooked.
Since writing this article, Tazz and Lindsay have completed five hunter paces. They’ve also dabbled in combined tests, dressage, eventing and jumper derbies.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.