with Horse and Hound

Any Reasonable Horse

This is the first story (and the shortest) of thirty-two short stories from Foxhunting Adventures: Chasing the Story by Norman Fine, The Derrydale Press.

thady ryan.cropMaster and huntsman Thady Ryan, whipper-in Tommy O’Dwyer, and the Scarteen hounds at Knocktoran Bog (1982) from a print of the oil painting by Peter Curling

When the nights turn crisp and the dinner talk turns to tales of foxhunting, I like to share a bit of philosophy imparted to me by that special animal—part horse, part cat, and all heart—the Irish hunter. That remarkable creature understands something of the flavor of life. He never allows natural caution, reticence, or conservatism to limit his perception of what’s possible.

The Scarteen hounds were hunting a most unusual piece of country in Kilcommon, County Limerick this day. A wild and forbidding landscape, far from the well-traveled roads, high into the hills, it was unknown country even to Master Thady Ryan. To complete the scene, a dense fog obliterated every feature of the landscape.

Hounds found in the very first covert. The field galloped forward blindly through the thick, hanging mist in a tight pack. To delay was to be left alone and disoriented. Disdaining the crowd, however, my new English friend Richard swung his horse away. With an ear to the chorusing hounds, he chose his own line, and I followed.

Enveloped in a gray, colorless sphere of our own with no more than fifty feet of visibility in any direction, we two galloped over this no man’s land. We soon lost all sound of hounds, horn, or humanity. On we cantered in what direction one couldn’t possibly know. I wondered if we should ever again see another living soul.

Finally, far off, barely audible through the moist air, the horn reached us. We set off in the direction of that welcome sound, but were soon brought up short by a most formidable obstacle.

Before us was a sliding bank leading down to the narrow shore of a swiftly moving stream. Although the stream seemed jumpable, the opposite shore offered only two feet of width before meeting the sheer face of a high vertical bank.

In amazement, I watched Richard point his horse down the slide with the casual confidence of a man descending the front steps of his house. He reached the bottom, jumped the stream, and there his journey ended. The scant two-foot shoreline forced his horse to turn parallel to the vertical bank, and he was trapped. It was perfectly clear to me that the whole maneuver was impossible.

Richard was unfazed by his predicament. Although he couldn’t even see over the cliff beside him, he swung his horse’s head toward it time and time again, kicking, swatting, and cursing the horse’s cowardice. His color and his voice rose precipitously. He turned to me as I sat transfixed by the futility of his efforts and shouted, “Come down and give us a lead over. I don’t know what’s got into this horse of mine.”

Staring dumbly into his red face, astonished by his expectations, and thoroughly intimidated by the combination of obstacles before me, I could think only to appeal to whatever shred of judgment he might possess. I asked quietly, “Is it possible for a horse to do that?”

Achieving yet another shade of crimson, Richard turned his horse to the bank once again and shouted his answer to my question, punctuating each word with a pause fror a kick and a swat,

“Any… reasonable… horse… can… do… this!”

Several kicks and swats later, exhausted by his efforts, he gave up on his horse as unreasonable.

Somehow those words had a magical effect upon me. Uttered as they were with absolute conviction, I believed him. I closed my legs and pointed my horse down the slide. He slid down on his hocks. As we reached the near shore, I asked him to jump the stream. He leaped toward the narrow shore opposite and the high facing bank. My only hope was to keep him straight. I separated both my hands so he couldn’t turn. His front feet touched. As his hind feet hit the shore I closed my legs, clucked, and grabbed the mane to free his head. He thrust off his hocks.
Time stopped. In slow motion I saw a sight that I have never again seen in a lifetime of riding. As I stared straight ahead into the vertical bank, his two front feet rose into view before my face. His hooves continued their miraculous journey upward until he had hooked his elbows on top of the bank. Inch by inch on his elbows, his hind feet scrambling for purchase against the vertical wall, we progressed upward. Time resumed. We were standing on top.

“Well done,” shouted my English friend. I heard several kicks and thumps from below, and a moment later Richard and his horse stood beside me. We trotted off in the direction of the horn—two unreasonable men on two reasonable horses.

Posted December 5, 2016

This is the first story (and the shortest) of thirty-two stories from Foxhunting Adventures: Chasing the Story by Norman Fine, The Derrydale Press.