I want to talk about a horse. After nearly fifty years of hunting—around North America, Canada, Ireland, and England—on my own horses and on countless strange horses for the first time, I speak from some experience. Most of the horses have been darn good, even many of the strangers. A memorable few of the strangers have been especially good! Very few, thankfully, have been rank or dangerous. But I have to talk about one horse in particular—one of my own.
His name is Guitar. Yes, that simple. He’s registered with the Jockey Club just that way. Plain dark brown, sixteen-hand high, he was bred by the late Bill Backer of Smitten Farm in The Plains, Virginia. He’s by Our Native out of Royal Pastime by Tudor Grey. Sixty-four percent of Our Native foals were winners, and fifty-three percent of Tudor Grey grand-foals were winners. Guitar was bred to race, but he was never even put in training—no tattoo. My good luck.*
Guitar passed through several hands, got tried at various disciplines, and came to hunting with John Giovenco’s string of field hunters in The Plains. John was winding down his hunting activities, and dealer/trainer Katy Brown knew I was looking for a field hunter.
“I found the perfect horse for you,” said Katy by phone. “He’s point-and-shoot. Go see him.”
On the crossties at John’s stable he wouldn’t stand still for a moment while being tacked up. He dragged me to the mounting block, and I was sure this wasn’t the horse I needed. I looked back at Chad, the professional at John’s barn who was leading another horse out to accompany me on the trail. I must have looked pretty dubious. Chad smiled and said, “Just get on him,” so I did.
I kept the reins loose as Guitar stepped briskly away from the mounting block, wanting to see right off where it would all lead if it were up to the horse. He took a deep breath, let it all out, dropped his head, and walked on completely relaxed. Apparently, all he wanted was to get out and get on with things. And that’s the way he was for the next ten years of his hunting career. Wouldn’t stand still on a cross-tie...just wanted to get out and get on with it.
A few days later I hunted Guitar at Orange County and in twenty minutes my mind was made up. I was sold, but there were two others in my life who needed to be sold as well. One was my wife, Joan, who is generally concerned about my health; the other was Caroline Treviranus (now Caroline Leake) who has taken care of my horses for about twenty-five years. Joan was no longer hunting when I found Guitar, but she’d been hunting before I ever did, was always in front of me in the field, and had an eye for lameness in a horse that surpassed most vets. Guitar had to pass Joan’s scrutiny. He did.
I had heard of Caroline before ever meeting her for the first time in the hunting field. She rode for the U.S. in two World Championships in the Three-Day Event in the 1970s. I asked her to cast back in memory and tell me her impressions of Guitar when he first arrived.
“When Guitar arrived at Norman’s stable for the first time I can’t say he endeared himself to me, but I invisibly shrugged my shoulders and thought, Oh, well....
“Norman planned to cubhunt him on Saturday, so I arrived at the stable early, fed the horses, and arranged the tack. After Guitar finished eating I led him out of his stall and began grooming. Well, I tried to groom him. Guitar was in constant motion—no big moves, but never still. Tied by crossties, he walked forward and back and left and right. Being “on trial” and not Norman’s horse, I was very subtle with my discipline. No results—just continuous movement. He was not aggressive; he just wanted to go.
“What are we putting Norman on? I wondered. And I was worried.
“Finally tacked, I...whoa, pony! (with little effect)... loaded him onto the van. At the meet, a restless horse charged down the ramp. I finally had him stand by the mounting block as Norman mounted. Norman’s leg had no sooner swung across the saddle when Guitar was on the move at a strong walk. Within a fast ten walking strides, Guitar took a deep breath, settled, and went on to give Norman a very good ride indeed.
“Fast forward several months: I lead Guitar out of his stall, drop the shank on the floor and groom an obedient—if not completely motionless—kind horse. He stands while I tack him, quietly walks up the ramp, ships to the meet, and unloads like the gentle horse he wants to be.
“Now at the age of twenty-eight, Guitar continues to display good manners and needs no discipline. He’s a proud horse and knows the routine. He knows what his life is about, and he knows that we know he knows it. When coming in from the field, it would be a disappointment to him to be led to the stable on a lead. He knows the way perfectly well and can find his stall on his own, thank you.
“When I call Guitar and his pasture mates in from the fields, Guitar looks up from the far end, takes a deep breath, and starts walking towards me. Pasture mates might push him from behind, but they have respect for him. They don’t pass him, but follow, realizing he is king.”
I bumped into Chad recently at the Maryland Hunt Cup, and he reminisced about hunting Guitar at Orange County for John. “I loved hunting him,” Chad said, “but he was starting to pull me to the fences. So one day out exercising, I asked a friend to gallop down over a schooling fence in front of us. It was a steeplechase fence, and as Guitar pulled me down to it I steered him right at the standard, figuring that would stop him. Well, he went ahead and jumped the standard!”
Oh, yes, he could jump anything. He was savvy and confident. He loved to be up front. But you know the very best thing about him? He was a perfect gentleman. He never took advantage. If I got loosened up, he never made me pay. He just kept going straight until I got myself back in the middle.
In a field of galloping horses I would often have to bridge the reins at the withers, but approaching a fence he was all business. In a pinch I could drop the reins and trust him to do the right thing.
One season some years ago at Blue Ridge we had kennel cough and couldn’t take out hounds. Several hunts in the area brought their hounds to us for a day, which was really nice. Piedmont invited us to their country for a day’s hunting, which was especially nice. I took Guitar that day, and we were having a good time.
Looking ahead at one point, I could see that horses were taking a sharp right, trotting up a hill in single-file, turning sharp right again, and, from the racket, could hear them jumping a tricky fence very soon after. When I got close enough to peer up the hill, I could tell they had no more than a few strides after that last right turn because you would hear each horse rap the fence right after the turn.
It was obviously a loose post-and-rail fence because it would continue to rattle after the initial rap. Bang! Rattle, rattle, rattle. We turned right at the bottom, trotted up the hill, and saw the horse in front of us turn right. Bang! Rattle, rattle, rattle. As we made the right turn at the top, the rail was still vibrating noisily. It was fully a straight up-and-down four-foot rail fence. There’s no impulsion after trotting up a hill and turning a sharp right, and it seems all the riders were trying to activate their horses in the few strides they had, but it wasn’t working. I loosed the reins, closed my legs, and decided to let Guitar figure it out. He trotted the three strides and slid over as quietly and softly as a cat. He never touched it.
I rode him a number of times judging foxhound performance trials some years ago. My first time at the J. Robert Gordon Field Trail Grounds, a nine-thousand-acre bird dog field trial venue in North Carolina, we judges were warned the night before about the hazards of the country: stump holes (where the stumps of dead trees had rotted out and disappeared, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground sometimes camouflaged by grass), and the bogs and how to recognize them.
The next day I got separated from my guide, who in real life was a whipper-in and couldn’t break the habit. So I was cantering alone, trying to get ahead of hounds by their sound, and I steered him right into a stump hole. Guitar pitched straight onto his nose, and I was flung to the ground rolling, stopped cold by a tree. As I scrambled to my feet all I could think of was, ‘I have no idea where I am, there’s no one in sight, and if my horse runs off, I’m sunk.’ Guitar trotted a large circle with the reins wrapped around his front ankle, stopped, looked at me, and waited. A perfect gentleman.
He was the kind of horse you could allow a visiting friend to hunt, and know he/she would hack home with a smile. Two friends, Steve Price and Denya Clarke, have long offered to write an ode to Guitar. “Don’t wait until he’s gone,” said Denya. So I asked them both to have their say.
Steve Price is the author or editor of nineteen books about horses and serves as a member of Foxhunting Life’s Panel of Experts. “I had the pleasure of making Guitar’s acquaintance during my first visit to Norm’s farm nine years ago,” writes Steve. “Coming from a hunter/jumper show riding background, I’d not done much in the way of cross-country riding in decades, and so I reverted to form the moment I mounted Guitar: I gathered the reins and tried to collect him. His fussing at the contact prompted me to apply more rein pressure to try and put him into a frame.
“What are you doing?” asked Norm, his expression as astonished as Guitar’s.
“Why, I’m...riding,” was my reply.
“Whereupon Norm suggested that I put a loop in my reins and a song in my heart and just let Guitar carry himself and—in the process—me too.
“Which Guitar did not only that morning but on subsequent adventures during my semiannual visits to the Fines’ slice of heaven. We’ve done many trail rides around the farm and with the hunt in their summer schedule. We hunted with the Blue Ridge, mostly hilltopping during the cubhunting season where Guitar, who would have much preferred to be in the first flight, adapted to his rider’s limitations with the good grace of a perfect babysitting host.
“I can’t think of Guitar without thinking of the word purposeful. Whether a casual walk along a wooded trail or around a pasture or in the company of other horses and riders, Guitar’s mission is always to get from Point A to Point B in the most workmanlike fashion. There’s no denying that the old boy knows his job. Even when he’s going in a relaxed fashion with—yes—a loop in the reins, he’s always engaged, and not just in the sense of working off his hocks.
“I ride because it makes me feel like a better person. And I’ve never felt better than when covering the ground on Guitar’s back and viewing the world between his ever-alert ears.”
Denya Clarke (Caroline’s sister) has also spent a lifetime with horses. Foxhunting is in her blood, both parents having foxhunted in Ontario and Virginia. Their father rode for the Canadian Three-Day Team, their mother whipped-in to hounds, and their step-father was Alexander Mackay-Smith. Like her sister, Denya is an A-Pony Clubber, and she’s hunted and evented a wide variety of horses.
“So what makes a horse extraordinary?” Denya asks rhetorically. “I say heart, smarts, and confidence. Manners are a bonus. Natural ability may vary, but willingness to be your partner is critical.
“Guitar is such a horse. I loved everything about Guitar when I first met him years ago—a wise expression, a funny little quirk when he gets tacked up, a gentleman, and a handsome dark bay Thoroughbred with dapples to boot. What’s not to love? Then I rode him. Not physically a big horse, but that perception totally vanished as he moved out. In his own head, he’s a very big horse.
“Norman let me hack him whenever I brought my half chaps and helmet to Virginia. Such generosity! I got Guitar the Wonder Horse, and he rode whatever other horse he had.
“Norman asked if I’d like to hunt Guitar. No fool me, I accepted with alacrity. Oh, said Norman, he might get strong. Ok, I can deal with that. Hounds moved off, and he was eager, yes, but foolish, no. A gentleman? Totally, and it was very clear he knew his job. So we agreed to be partners and I stayed out of his way. And boy, could he jump—just sit quietly, and he would fly with such ease. I felt so safe, and happy. A great horse should make you happy.
“But it is his genuine nature, big heart, and kindly eye that has always won my heart.”
I rode him for years as an outrider at the point-to-points. I don’t really know how many miles have passed under his girth for the both of us, but from a simple calculation it has to be more than three thousand—at least the distance between Bangor, Maine and San Diego, California.
When I bought him, I was hoping to get five years of hunting from him. He gave me ten, right up front. He’s twenty-eight years old as I write this, and we still hack out regularly into the country. I don’t know for how much longer that can last, but every day with this horse is a special gift to me that I cherish.
Posted July 28, 2016
* His pedigree also stood him in good stead as a sporthorse. Our Native was the sire of Be My Native, a leading National Hunt sire in England and Ireland and the sire of an internationally-ranked event horse. Tudor Grey is an ancestor to Over The Limit, winner of the Rolex Three-Day CCI***, and Trust Me Too, a successful Amateur Jumper.