A day out on Murphy with the Hunt
A picture speaks a thousand words. Here the followers are waiting for the terrier man over the edge of the ridge to dig out a foxhole. We followers were taking a breather and a swig.
These photos were taken on one of the ridges in the Black Mountains in South Wales. It is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and as such is protected from further development. The few locals make their living either as livestock farmers, or from tourism and sometimes by supporting the second home owners. Interestingly for Forum members, there are four trekking centres along the length of this one valley. If you are a competent rider, then it is a magnificent place to ride on one of the locally trained, sure footed cobs This is not the terrain for fancy Thorobreds, rather it is the homeland of the Welsh Cob. The hillsides have barely been touched by mechanised farming although the vegetation has been shaped by sheep, deer and rabbits. In the summer months it is a glorious place to visit, but in mid winter it is best to stay at home unless you are one of the hardy types. Access to the area is by private car or bike, there is no public transport. One stays in boarding houses or pubs, there are no modern hotels nearby.
There are two fox hunts which work this area. It is a fact of life that foxes kill lambs in the spring, so either the hunt chases them or the farmers shoot them. The local farmers will defend this policy. However without the fox there would be a plague of rabbits, so there is a careful balance for man to reach. Venison is also a source of income but the numbers of deer allowed to run free must be managed carefully. Buzzards and hawks of various types fly overhead. There are no other predators except man.
On the day, the Hunt had met in the grounds of the Abbey - an settlement founded in 1100 AD by a Norman knight named William de Lacy. Today the roofless ruins still stand but in the grounds there is a pub, a guest house and a small tea room plus, importantly for we riders, a trekking centre. It was from here that I hired Murphy, my trusty steed for a days hunting.
Hunting over this terrain calls for special riding expertise. Most of the chase takes place up on the ridges. To get up there the horse has to first climb the steep, loose tracks. The terrain is largely covered by bracken and pitted with rocks, clumps of vegetation and holes created by rabbits and foxes. The dark areas of vegetation usually indicate the presence of a bog, some of them quite deep. The local horses know where to put their feet down safely, the visiting rider hasn‘t a clue. When the huntsman blows that horn then the horses are off and surprisingly the unevenness of the terrain does little to slow the horses down. One minute you will find yourself on a sandy track, the next minute in a sea of bracken. One minute you are going uphill and the next you are going downhill. You’ll be lucky to catch sight of a fox and you‘ll spend the day chasing a pack of fox hounds and a man in a red coat.
But there is a saying: “what goes up must come down” and towards the end of the day the huntsman will direct the hounds back down the steep sides of the ridges towards the lane which runs along the bottom of the valley, The horse will be too excited to walk, and the slopes are too steep to canter so invariably you’ll find yourself trotting downhill on a sandy path at a 45 degree angle on a 45 degree slope. The horse will be fired up with adrenaline, you’ll be exhausted as you start the descent and your muscles will be utterly destroyed by the time you reach the bottom of the hillside You can’t sit in, you can’t rise, so you stand to the trot. You daren’t lean too far forwards, you’ll put the horse on its forehand; you’ve got to lean back to help keep the horse and yourself in balance. You must give the horse its head to balance itself and thereby you give back to the horse control of both direction and speed of pace. There is no horn to cling to on an English saddle. If you fall you’ll roll down the side of the hill. Your feet are rammed home in the stirrup irons and one foot, is held higher than the other. Your legs are wrapped tightly round the barrel of the horse to stop yourself from sliding forwards. It is the grip of your calves and under thighs which keep you in the saddle. You are preying the horse doesn’t lose its footing. If it does, it might break a leg and you will wind up lying underneath it. It is one of those moments of a lifetime which you’ll never forget. There’s no subtlety, no style, no grace; it is a terrifying yet exhilarating ride. This was when my coloured horse Murphy excelled. He carried me down the hillside without putting a foot wrong but in the process he destroyed me. I was physically shattered by the descent from that ridge.
A regular criticism of ‘Murff ‘was that on an ordinary trek he was lazy. His day job was to carry riders up and down to the ridges. Unless you chivvied him along then he took it easy. He was also his own man and if he didn’t like the rider’s style of riding then he would rebel. But on this day I saw another side of him and I could not have had a better partner for the day. For this sort of terrain he had proved himself to be absolutely superb. We had reason to believe he was bred by Gypsies and if this is the stamp of horse they like to ride and pull their carts, then I can well understand why.
Some folks get the impression that Fox Hunting in Britain is one of the class dividing sports. With the fox hunting over this ground, nothing could be further from the truth. As a rider you were judged not by what you wore, or even the look of your horse - you were judged by whether you could keep up with the Master. There were no jumps but there were bogs and I know which of the two is the easier to negotiate. It was largely because of this day’s outing with Murff that later when the opportunity arose I bought Joe who was his stable companion.
Outings with this hunt were not so much about chasing an elusive fox but all about an exhilarating day out on a sure footed horse in absolutely superb riding country. In truth such days are rarely possibly outside of the UK.
(Actually the picture told 1145 words).