Fox Hunting Life with Horse and Hound
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FHL WEEK, September 12, 2019

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A Woman’s Place

salley mcinerney and cort.smallThe author, a hunt coat, a stirrup cup, and a horse named Cort.Our Hunting World

I reached into the left, front pocket of my foxhunting jacket, a vintage black and grey-flecked wool frock made by Brittany Riding Apparel of New York. My fingers found something thin and soft—a faded blue pack of ten-cent stamps with an enthusiastic message from the postal service about using your zip code.

“Help us give your letters top speed.”

Five-digit zip codes were introduced in 1963; ten cent stamps were issued in the early 1970s; I was issued in 1955.

I inspected the stamp book further. What is the story of the stamps? And the story of a riding jacket I had been given by my mother on Christmas Day, 1972, but had never worn?

It’s the story of a woman’s place.

mcinerney stampsFound in the pocket of her hunt coat, forty-four years later.

No, I take that back. It’s the story of the many places a woman finds herself before she’s back in the place she loves best, before she comes full circle and finds herself where her earliest memories were made.

For me, that is in the saddle aboard a handsome four-legged fellow named Cort on a biting cold morning in the vast natural beauty that is thousands of acres of foxhunting country in Camden, South Carolina.

The air’s still damp from the passing night, but the ground is softening to the sun’s rising. Horses stamp their hooves, clear their wide nostrils with great, loud snorts. A researcher in France recently suggested that these snorts indicate positive emotions. Indeed, the horses are ready for the hunt to begin.

The huntsman sounds her slim copper horn. The thirty-some foxhounds lead the charge into the woods, scouring the territory, searching for scent, signaling to one another what they have found, “honoring” the discovery of a senior hound whose nose knows best.

And the chase is on. It’s a chase that’s been going on for centuries. Around the world. Here in America. In the tall pines of Camden.

I grew up riding horses. Sensible farm ponies to start. More complicated creatures as I progressed. As a young girl, I foxhunted with The Camden Hunt, established in 1926, but the boundless joy of that sport came to an abrupt end in September 1972 when I was packed off to a boarding school in North Carolina.

I’d been riding too much. Studying too little. Adolescence was difficult. Boys terrified me. Public schools were in racial upheaval. My parents deemed it time for me to go.

That Christmas, when I returned home from school, the handsome hunting jacket was underneath the tree. Its collar was adorned with a band of gold wool, indicating that I had been awarded my “colors” by the Camden Hunt.

Too little, however, and too late. Life intervened. A bad riding accident in college didn’t help. I would not wear that jacket or ride with The Camden Hunt for another forty-four years—a long time. Long enough to have been in many a woman’s place.

Long enough to get a college degree, get married, get a job, turn it into a career, have children, raise children, own homes, sell homes, move from this state to that state, keep a marriage going, keep hoping to win the lottery, have friends, lose friends, find them again, write a book, take care of countless pets, watch parents grow old, lose parents, hope you’ll find them in the hereafter, watch children stumble, get up, grow into adults and move into their own lives and then—only then, at least for me—did I feel this old place beckoning and realize the opportunity was mine to finally wear that wool jacket.

I started with ‘refresher course’ riding lessons. My muscle memory and instincts were intact. Then my husband and I moved to Camden—a community steeped in equine history and sport. A horse named Cort came into my orbit. He was young, kind, and sensible. He had never foxhunted, but he could jump the moon. And he was willing ... willing to do what I asked.

With a few alterations the hunting jacket fit, and on a cold morning in November, several years ago, I put it on.

Finally, I had arrived at an old, beloved place. It’s a place where the mornings are cold, the fog deep and thick in the woods. It’s a place where hounds are long and lanky, noses to the ground, charging through the underbrush. It’s a place where horses are sturdy and sure-footed, alert to everything around them. It’s a place where humans like to think they are in charge, but in truth, where wily foxes and stealthy coyotes run the show—circling in swamps, bursting through a line of trees, suddenly tiring of the escapade and disappearing into thin air.

After forty-four years, it has become my place again, though it’s not the same place as it was so long ago. On a recent hunt, after a grueling stretch of galloping, I pulled my dear red horse to a halt and collapsed wearily over his withers. My legs felt like rubber. My heart pounded. My breath came in gulps. A friend and her pony pulled up beside us. She laughed at my prostrate position in the saddle.

“Well now you know what it’s like to be shot out of a cannon,” she said.

Yes, I do, but I am not a circus performer. This new place where I find myself comes with age, with knowing that I am no longer young, no longer a fearless sprite bouncing off the ground like a rubber ball after a fall from a horse. I am aware of the danger, the unpredictability, the suddenness of a sharp turn or a screeching halt, the breadth of a big jump, the blistering speed.

In the cold air, I say a prayer for safety, for using my good sense and for Cort using his. Then, I press my heels deeper into the stirrups, anchors on either side of me. My body synchs with the leather saddle, the shape of my horse. I grasp the reins, the feel of the oiled leather so soft and right. I reach for Cort’s shoulder, rub my hand against his bone and muscle. I talk to him. His ears flicker backwards, listening. I trust him. I believe he trusts me.

The huntsman’s horn sounds and we set out into this most perfect, returned-to place. A place where an old riding jacket has been altered around the waistline and where a book of ten-cent stamps remains a mystery. I cannot say why it is there, but it stays in the jacket’s front pocket as a talisman—a thin, soft reminder of many years and this woman’s many places.

Posted August 30, 2019

Salley McAden McInerney is a former columnist for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. and author of  Journey Proud, a novel based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s.This story was previously published in Sporting Classics magazine.