with Horse and Hound

Belonging

white horse braided mane in foreground foxhunters in background

Thank you all for your patience this summer while I recovered from surgery. My main motivation for surgery was to get back in the hunt field again, either in the saddle or as a road whip. As I was unable to sit down for almost a year, neither of those options was open to me to continue in the hunt field.

For clarification, I did have to have spinal reconstruction surgery. But I wasn’t worried or second-guessing the decision because this massive surgery was the only option that would get me back in the hunt field. My vertebras were “falling off each other”. So now I have an almost 2-foot scar from 12 fused vertebrae, two titanium rods, and 26 screws that are each 3 inches long. I’ll never be able to dance the twist or bend at the waist again, but I did get 1.25 inches taller!

My life’s passion has been riding, and for the past 20 years, it has been riding to hounds. It’s interesting trying to explain to one’s family, who not only don’t ride but have no experience with hunting of any kind, why the pull to foxhunting.

Why does one devote their life’s pursuit to riding to hounds? Why risk the bank account and retirement security to a sport that gives no trophies, no cash prizes, and no recognition? What is it about chasing a pack of hounds on horseback that can tempt a person to turn their life upside down to accommodate the vast expense? The answers to those questions are simple: the people, the adrenaline, and the profound sense of belonging.

The people you encounter while foxhunting are extraordinary, and you will find the same sort of people from the East to the West Coast. It takes an adventurous and gregarious spirit to ride to hounds. And these people create the most amazing communities around their hunt clubs. I can honestly say that I am closer to my hunt family than any other.

Riding to hounds is simply addicting, and once you feel that sensation you don’t want to let it go. Until you are on a 1,200+ pound horse; who has its own brain and agenda with the emotional maturity of a toddler that disturbingly also doesn’t speak English; galloping as fast as the horse can go weaving over country and terrain that is little more than a game trail; with full knowledge that you have only 5% control over your horse (if that much) while trusting the orange-sized brain of said horse to make the majority of the decisions that literally mean the difference of an instant to being upright or flipping boots over tea kettle; living in the present – as in one second at a time – because the speed you are traveling is so fast that the physical reactions that are demanded from you to stay in the saddle are so important to life and limb (and literally neck) that you can’t think of anything else, especially that stupid work stress that plagues your brain day and night; all the while a group of your best riding friends are also travelling at break-neck speed (there is reason for this phrase) all around you and your near-flying horse that’s, for better or worse, on autopilot; chasing after a pack of hounds whose full cry raises every hair on the back of your neck that awakens that primal, pre-historic instinct that even a lifetime of Netflix, Facebook, and Starbucks can’t suppress; having no pre-determined knowledge of where the pack will turn from stride to stride, so you are always clueless as to your destination (which is glorious, I must say); THEN you will never experience the adrenaline and endorphins that are released when you ride hell-bent for leather on a foxhunt.

One of the other profound experiences of my life, aside from my first foxhunt, was when I went to Mongolia to ride reindeer. Yes, there is a tribe in northern Mongolia that use reindeer as their primary source of transportation.

It took two days riding Mongolian ponies to reach the valley where the Tsaatan tribe lived with their reindeer. On that trek to the reindeer, I rode a strawberry roan pony that gave the entertainment of bucking over the herder’s heads every time his girth was tightened (I dismounted for every girth check – I’m adventurous, not stupid). And even though we were riding the herder’s best and calmest ponies, all Mongolian ponies are still considered half-feral. We were not allowed to handle the ponies other than riding them, as all the ponies would bite and kick in a heartbeat.

On the first day, I was ponying one of our pack ponies that had our gear and clothes. The sun was shining, and we had hours to travel over the Mongolian steppe. The steppe looks like South Dakota with its rolling grass hills that go on endlessly. I put my strawberry roan into their version of trot (it’s more like a pace or a tolt). The young paint pony that I was leading picked up his trot without fuss. We were a bit slower than everyone else, which put us within sight of the others but out of easy earshot.

We trotted like this for over two hours without stopping. Without speaking to anyone. Without slowing down or speeding up. Those ponies stayed in rhythm once they started – I never had to kick on or pull on the reins to slow down. They just kept trotting at the same rate for hours. I never got tired either, as it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. There was zero stress, just peace as the three of us traveled the steppe.

While foxhunting is far more exciting and faster than trotting along the Mongolian steppe, the feeling is the same. The feeling that I belonged there. The feeling that I found my place in life. How many people can say that they have felt that?

So, I underwent this major surgery to get back to that feeling. To get back to belonging. To get back to being myself. Now there is the waiting for my back to heal and to see if I can sit in the saddle pain-free again. But since I can now sit again without any issues, I have grand hopes for the future. I will be riding for Closing Meet next spring. It may be at a glacial pace and for less than an hour, but I will be out riding the hounds again. Belonging again.

xray image of spine

Originally published on September 26, 2023.

A Sea of Uncertainty (foxhuntinglife.com) is a related article.