BY MELISSA MARSHALL
“The most important thing to know is how to ride the sage bushes. You will be traversing huge areas of it at a gallop, and it will look like there is no trail in front of you. The best thing you can do is to keep a neutral seat and allow your horse to decide at each step whether they will go around each bush or jump over it. If you try to make that decision each step, you will be exhausted, and your horse will be annoyed.”
With these wise words of advice from one of my hosts, I swung a leg over my first of horse of a 3 day long weekend adventure of foxhunting with the Red Rock Hounds in the high desert of Reno, Nevada.
So how does a committed amateur show hunter rider find herself galloping across the desert in pursuit of a pack of hounds on a horse she just met?
With my 40th birthday around the corner, I was feeling the itch for an adventure. Since a mid-pandemic move to northern Virginia, I’d had the opportunity to experience foxhunting regularly as a new member of the Middleburg Hunt. I quickly grew to love the camaraderie and new riding skill set that being in the hunt field gave me (hello, going FORWARD!). I really love how hunting reinforces and reminds me how all the skills I learn in my weekly lessons for the show ring truly have their roots in safely navigating the hunt field.
One of the nicest parts about hunting is chatting with your fellow riders. During a regular day out hunting in the fall, I had the opportunity to chat with a friendly visitor joining us that day. We enjoyed swapping stories about the similarities and differences of our respective hunts. He was sure to tell me that his hunt, the Red Rock Hounds, always welcomes guests and I should consider making the trip out West to experience hunting in a completely different type of geography.
I was intrigued and decided this was just the adventure I was looking for to celebrate my milestone birthday. My new friend gave me the contact information for the Master of the Red Rock Hounds, Angela Murray. After just a few emails exchanged, she arranged for me to lease horses for 3 days of hunting and gave me directions to the ranch where the hunt group is based. They could not have been more open or welcoming. So with my helmet and boots in my suitcase and my Butet show saddle as my carry-on, I boarded a plane in mid-January bound for Reno, Nevada.
What followed was three of the most memorable, challenging, and amazing riding days of my life. We rode for 3-5 hours (!!) each day at varying speeds across sometimes difficult, and always spectacular, terrain. My jaw was dropped for nearly the entire weekend. I had a different horse each day (most horses do not hunt more than one day in a row, due to the strenuous nature of a day out hunting), and all were wonderful and experienced at the job. Two of my mounts were former show jumpers, and I had fun looking up their USEF show records after I rode them—what amazing animals to go from 1.40m jumpers to new careers as foxhunters. I simply can’t thank the Red Rock Hounds members and staff for their kindness and generosity in hosting me for the birthday adventure of a lifetime.
In general, foxhunts are very open to hosting guests and visitors and most people are more than happy to educate a newbie about the ins and outs of the hunt field. If you want to plan a foxhunting trip, here are a few tips:
- Find a hunt in the area that you are interested in visiting by searching the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America index of hunts.
- Reach out to the hunt to request permission to visit. Usually, you want to find the person who is the Secretary of the hunt or you will talk to one of the Hunt Masters—the website for the hunt should have this information easily available. Inquire as to the capping fee (your daily “entry” fee to join the hunt…typically between $100-$150) and get recommendations of people with horses available for daily lease as well as hunt members that might befriend you for the day—it’s always nice to have someone who can answer your questions!
- Make arrangements to lease a hunt horse for the day. Most people who lease hunt horses will bring the horse to the meeting location for that day’s hunt tacked up and ready to go. Expect to pay $250-$350 to lease an experienced horse. Be very upfront about your experience level, so you are mounted appropriately.
- Make sure you have the correct clothing. Your host hunt can direct you as to whether the attire for the day is formal or informal. Here’s a succinct summary of both types of attire. The great news is that you likely already have most of it, especially if you show.
- Choose the right field for your skill and comfort level. Each hunt is made up of several “fields” and each field has a rider who is leading the field known as the “field master”. First field is made up of experienced riders and horses. This field keeps up with the hounds, often travels at a canter or gallop, and will jump obstacles 3’ or higher in height. Second field is often a non-jumping field. You will still want to be comfortable at a canter and gallop on uneven terrain. This is a good choice for an experienced and brave rider who has never hunted before. If you are a timid or inexperienced rider who wants to try foxhunting, then visit a hunt that offers a third field (sometimes known as a “hilltop” field). This field is very welcoming to all and goes at a walk and trot and enjoys a lovely day of seeing the other fields of the hunt and the hounds from a distance (or “hilltop”). Simply ask your host hunt about what fields are offered.
As I have gotten more involved in foxhunting over the past year, I’ve learned how valuable hunts can be to their local communities. Foxhunts are ardent supporters of preserving open countryside—a goal that all equestrians should support as our four-legged friends and our events rely on open space to thrive. Also, in modern-day foxhunting, the goal is to merely chase the quarry (either a fox or a coyote depending on location), not to catch it. Foxchasing would be a more apt term these days. Finally, foxhunters are true animal advocates and supporters. One amazing example of this is how the hounds of the Middleburg Hunt and other packs are regular blood donors to the North American Veterinary Blood Bank, providing blood transfusions to veterinarians who desperately need it to save the lives of people’s dogs.
There are so many ways to enjoy horses. For me, stepping out of my horse show comfort zone and adding foxhunting to my equine experience has made me a more well-rounded and open-minded equestrian. It’s also done wonders for my bravery in the show ring. Every time I have the privilege to compete in my favorite class, the Amateur Owner Handy Hunter, I tell myself that I’ve ridden more challenging tracks, at higher speeds, on unknown terrain during my hunt experiences. That makes it a lot easier to kick up the pace to that long run oxer to create the winning ride that my hunter trainer is always teaching me about.
I want to encourage you to experience the fun, beauty, and excitement that is a day in the hunt field. Hunt seasons typically run from September to March, making the fall a great time to look for opportunities. As a nature and animal lover, I’ve found it hard to surpass the amazing feeling of several hours in spectacular countryside on a sure-footed horse following a pack of happy hounds who always seem to be having the best day ever—whether they catch a scent or not. I think you’ll say at the end that it was your best day ever, too. Tally ho!
Melissa Marshall lives in Middleburg, Virginia and enjoys trail riding on her retired show hunter Valiant, foxhunting on her small, but mighty field hunter Fernhill Fusion, and competing in the show ring in the Amateur Owner Hunter division with her show hunters Creative and Countryside. When she’s not in the saddle, Melissa runs her consulting business Present Your Science, where she coaches scientists and engineers on how to communicate their important research more effectively. You’ll find Melissa at horse shows in Virginia with Tom and Tracy Brennan’s Vineyard Haven Farm or you can get a sneak peek of her professional work by checking out her TEDTalk.