This article won the 2021 GMO Newsletter Award for a first person article for GMOs with 175-499 members. It originally appeared in the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association newsletter, IDCTA Scribe, June 2021.
By Keith Gray
Many of us who are with animals regularly seem to develop the ability to know well what our furry companions are thinking or communicating back to us. It’s easy to see this connection when, in the midst of sharing a great story, the person will actually quote what their horse or dog said along the way, as if the creature verbalized clearly for all to hear and understand. My wife Joanne is sure that one of our dogs will drop the occasional F-bomb when we’re late to feed or when they get shooed off the couch.
When people are first bitten by the fox hunting bug, one of the unintended consequences is that their enthusiasm is so contagious that others around want to participate in this amazing experience. As a result of my endless tales, my then seven-year-old daughter Emily showed an interest in hunting with me. Her first season consisted of three caps on a recently retired Thoroughbred on a lead line. We went in early on most hunts, no worse for the wear other than my left arm ending up about two inches longer than the right as her horse seemed to always want to be in front, maybe finally accomplishing something he seldom did on the track.
The next season, we visited the local lesson barn in search for a mount that would be more suitable for both rider and father. This was the kind of barn where any of the lesson horses were for sale for the right price. Based on no other information other than the naïve,“We’d like to buy a pony,” the owner appeared with an adorable 13-hand bay mare. Upon Emily’s butt hitting the saddle, the pony bolted, and on the second lap around the ring she came off. (For the record, the crying began well ahead of the separation). I suggested another pony.
Understandably, Emily refused the offer of another try. Not wanting to waste a trip, I enlisted the help of her little sister Erin to try the next pony, Scooter, who looked to be a mirror-image of the first one. Erin happily climbed onto the pony, gave it a squeeze, and walked and trotted around the ring obediently. SOLD!
Over the following weeks, we trail rode Scooter often, went out with hounds, and then went cubbing on a lead line. After several instances where I lost the line and watched the miniature combination some- how avoid tripping on the flailing rope at a gallop, we decided that it was safer for them to be detached from Dad.
My experience is that when you ask juniors on a hunt how they are doing, you get the stock answer of“OK”or“fine.”Much like,“What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.” I learned that you could get much better information if you ask:“What is your pony saying to you?” “She LOVED going fast,”or“She told me‘No!’at that creek, but Mrs. Larson’s horse told her it was going to be OK, so she went.” Sometimes I’d get, ”She says she’s tired,” and I’d know that we might have to peel off if
the hounds hit again. Often I’d hear,“She’s having a good time running with all of these horses!” It was obvious that Emily had connected with her pony.
The next summer, we were back on the trails near the barn where we obtained Scooter. I suggested that we ride over to see the owner, Chris, and show her how well the pony was doing. We needed to cross Rt. 60, a busy four-lane highway, which we did just in time to catch Chris between lessons. She seemed surprised to see us ride up, maybe a bit confused because she didn’t notice a trailer come down the drive. The thoughtful look on her face told me that her inner voice was saying,“Surely they would not have crossed Rt. 60 on horseback!”
After pleasantries were exchanged, Chris asked Emily what she’d been doing with Scooter, and Emily proudly answered,“Fox hunting.” I read the uncomfortable silence as Chris not understanding what fox hunting was, and proceeded to explain about hounds, creeks, cantering… “I know what fox hunting is!” Chris said in a tone that I can only describe as a blend of admiration and admonishment.“That pony was a birthday party pony. All she’s done is walk around the ring here or be led around people’s front yards. She can’t fox hunt!” Neither Emily or I knew how to respond, aside from thanking Chris for such a great pony and saying how much Emily was enjoying her. Goodbyes were shared, and as we walked back towards home, it occurred to me that neither Chris nor her students spoke Scooter. Yes, that pony can and does fox hunt. It took a rider to listen to her, and act accordingly.
Fox hunting connects us to animals in ways that I’ve not seen any- where else. For those who have been doing it a long time, don’t forget to appreciate this, as it is a precious gift. For those who haven’t fox hunted yet, you may learn a new language, and through that, make new friends!