What qualities are required for a 'good hunter'? Camilla Swift finds out in this article from the Spring issue of My Countryside magazine.
“Only one kind of horse gets the most out of being a horse and that is the hunter,” wrote the philosopher Roger Scruton. If the horse is enjoying itself, then that Is surely a good start. But what makes a “great hunt horse”? Surely that depends as much on its rider and their requirements – as it does on the horse itself and what, exactly, is required of a horse on any given day.
A number of different equine roles need filling on a day’s hunting. Everyone on the hunting field needs a horse that they can rely on, but none more so than the field master, who will be most visible if their horse lets them down. “There is nothing, but nothing more awful than trying to field master on a horse that isn’t up to the job,” says Ledbury joint master David Redvers. “It’s soul destroying, and it’s pretty soul destroying for your field as well. Whereas if the field see that you’re on a good horse, they all push their hats down and know that they’re going to have to operate.”
A good field master’s horse “must be bold and athletic” says Sam Butler, Chairman and former master of the Warwickshire, who has field mastered the country for 30 odd seasons. “It’s got to be a quick thinker; to be able to turn and jump. It’s got to be competitive. To have 80 or 100 horses behind it, it’s got to want to be in front. And I always like them with a touch of a quirk about them, because that usually means you can turn that quirk to your advantage, if they’re a bit mad or a bit quirky.”
That’s something David Redvers agrees on. “As somebody once said, the best field mastering horses are all – without exception – three parts bonkers. Mad Max, who’s my best horse, will hack out with hounds all day every day. But if you try to hack him out on his own, it turns into a full on gallop because he just doesn’t want any part of it. He is never happier than when with his hounds. But equally he’s the most dynamic, explosive, fearless, scopey field master’s horse when he’s in front and I think he is generally looking to get to hounds. That’s what makes him very special.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same love of hounds is just as important in a huntsman’s horse. “The overarching gift a horse has to have is his or her love for the hounds,” says Charles Carter, master huntsman at the Royal Artillery. “There are those horses that are fantastic horses in their own right, but they just don’t like hounds that much. Interestingly, the hounds will always know that, and will just stand a little further away. So when you’re doing your job, it makes a significant difference if the hounds actually like your horse – and in some cases the hounds will like the horse more than you do. So there are some interesting dynamics to it.”
Ireland still seems to be the place to go to source horses; Redvers typically buys, through friends, horses that “tend to be a bit too big or a bit too strong for Ireland, because we’ve got much bigger more open country, and you can gallop on.” In kennels as well, Irish horses are still the favoured type. “Everything I’ve ever dealt with has come from Ireland,” says Angela Puffer who with her husband, huntsman Matthew Puffer, has worked all round the country’s hunt kennels, most recently at the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale, and now at the Crawley and Horsham.
“A hunt horse has got to be honest. They’ve got to find that fifth leg, and that’s all to do with people doing their job properly when producing them. An old horse dealer said to me once: ‘They get looked after like kings and queens 365 days of the year, if they can’t come out once a week and do the job, they’re not worth the stable room.’ And it’s right.”
Sam Butler agrees. “In the Warwickshire, we look to buy a horse that’s been made a bit. Gavin Field whips in a bit for us; he might buy a horse from Ireland and take it hunting for a while before the huntsman has it. But they’d be an Irish type: well put together, not too big, and they’ve got to keep sound.”
Again, temperament and reliability are vital. “A huntsman’s horse must be stoic,” says Abbie Hart, who field masters for the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent, as well as dealing in – typically – Irish hunters. “They must have a good tolerance; you don’t want them to be too bright or too thoughtful. They have to be sound for the next 10 seasons and take a multitude of riders of different weights and abilities, and do the job every day they are asked.”
“When the huntsman is concentrating on hunting his hounds, or the whip has to get to a place, the horse has to get on with it,” says Butler, “so they’ve got to be reliable. It hasn’t perhaps got to be as bold as a field master’s horse, but it must never let the whip or the huntsman down.”
And what if you want a horse that’ll make the perfect everyday hunter; one that will go along happily in the field, popping every hedge or bit of timber it meets along the way, crossing whatever country it needs to, stopping for refreshment breaks, and providing its rider with a thoroughly pleasant experience? That’s what most people need: after all, on any given day the majority of horses will be expected to spend the day in the field.
“It’s really straightforward with hunters as you can have a ton of fun on any horse – it doesn’t matter about bloodlines or breeding, as long as they don’t embarrass you,” says Abbie Hart. “They mustn’t kick: at all. That is an absolute no. I’ve always hated that, and I don’t find it ever comes out of a horse. For me it’s about temperament more than anything else. I’ve had a million lovely horses that can jump a house and look smashing, but if they raise a leg they are useless in my book.”
Diana Jack has over 40 years’ experience of providing hunt hirelings from her base near Leamington Spa, sending out horses to all the Shires packs. “I look for a horse with a kind eye and a noble presence – they don’t always go together, but when they do, you have magic to work with,” she says. “Personally, I’m not a fan of the thoroughbred for hunting and prefer something with more bone and stronger tendons, one that doesn’t start hopping on three legs when it loses a shoe! Three-quarter-breds are ideal as they have the speed and the stamina and cope with heavy going.”
What of the horse’s behaviour and talent? A horse needs to be able to jump and cope with the country, but manners are vital too, especially when having to queue or stand at the meet. “Good manners are available in any horse if you have the patience to find the correct approach,” says Diana. “There’s no cut-and-dried method, but it’s much easier to stop a horse from behaving badly before it starts than to correct it once it has started.”
The modern type of trail hunting means a level temperament is more important than ever in the field, believes Abbie Hart. “You will be standing around waiting for a trail to be laid, and the hounds will pick up the scent and suddenly both hounds and horses are blazing. Trail hunting days are so awkward for horses – when you’re drag hunting no one expects the horses to be anything but nuts. But with a foxhound pack you will be surrounded by kids, novice riders, older people or foot followers, so the horses need to keep their heads and not hot up when hounds start speaking.”
And how much does the country matter? A horse does of course have to be able to deal with the country you’re crossing, but “if you’ve got a good horse, it’ll go in any country,” says Angela Puffer. “But perhaps a good Blackmore Vale horse would be rather wasted in the Brecon Beacons. It’s horses for courses, isn’t it. Or horses for countries!”