I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some folks think of the staff horse that the huntsman or whipper-in is riding as just another horse. So before all the ‘egg spurts’ chime in, let me explain a little about the staff horse. Just imagine getting a jumping racehorse fit and ready for a race—weeks and months of preparation and hardening plus schooling over fences until the day arrives and the horse is off to the races.
Now think about getting a horse, if not racing fit, then pretty darn close to it, and not having one big race every couple of weeks but going out maybe twice a week and running for four to five hours. And in all weather, fair or foul. In the case of the huntsman, keeping up with hounds no matter the obstacles faced; in the case of the whipper-in, staying with or even getting on ahead of hounds in the ordinary course of the job. The staff horse puts in many more miles on a hunting day than does the field hunter. That is what’s required of it. No options.
Admittedly, here in the USA, the time out hunting often varies between two to three hours. There are, however, packs here that will put in a four- or five-hour hunting day, but not many. In the UK and Ireland a short day would be three hours and the norm, four to five hours. Either way the staff horse has to be tough, resilient, bold (it’s out there all alone), and athletic to cope with whatever comes its way.
Tough yes, indestructible no! Keeping a hunt horse fit and well throughout the hunting season is an art in itself, and we are all blessed that there are so many knowledgeable and experienced staff and grooms looking after these true athletes.
Correct feeding, careful observation, proper shoeing by a knowledgeable farrier, veterinary care when required, and safe paddocks for turnout. All these and more are necessary to keep the staff horse fit and well. Trying to do things on the cheap might work if you are hunting only occasionally and not breaking a sweat when you do, but for the professional hunt horse only the best should do.
Hunt staff are a resilient lot. Admittedly, I have been asked over the years to ride horses that were totally unsuitable for the job and proved so very quickly. But the hunt staff should be on the best horses the hunt can find. They have a job to do, and if you care about the quality of your sport, that job cannot be done on anything other than a quality staff horse. No, they do not come cheaply, but it’s cheaper than losing your huntsman or whipper-in for the best part of the season because of an avoidable accident from a horse that they are forced to ride.
Yes, we have all seen that four-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred that turns into a hunting superstar, but as huntsmen and staff get older and wiser they realize that (1) they don’t bounce like they used to and (2) they should expect a decent horse that can do the job and not some cast off that someone else has given up on.
I remember being given a horse to ride and try by its owner as the hunt was short of horses that season. The horse had no brakes, and when I say no brakes, I mean NO BRAKES. Worse still, it hated jumping. The first decent-sized hedge had me flying through the air with the horse still on the take-off side. I had a few choice words to my boss that day that probably should have seen me get sacked, but in fact he realized the hunt’s mistake and returned the horse to its owner.
A good hunt horse that does its job without a moment’s hesitation and looks after itself and its rider is a joy to sit on. I know many of you reading this will have had the pleasure of sitting on great partners like this, and we owe them everything they need to help us do the best job we possibly can. And by the best I do not necessarily mean the most expensive. There are many generous, honest, and decent horses out there that won’t cost the earth. The key is in knowing a knowledgeable and reliable person to ask.
Once you have that horse in your care, it’s so important that it is cared for by trained, professional staff. I, like many huntsmen, try to save the hunt money by carrying out a lot of the medical side of the job both in kennels and the barn. But there will be times when a vet needs to be called, and you should always feel that this is something open to you if in your judgement the horse or hound needs it.
So next time you see the huntsman’s horse, please give him or her the respect they deserve. They are true athletes, made and reliable, that most certainly don’t grow on trees.
Posted November 14, 2019
London-born Andy Bozdan carries the horn for the Camargo Hunt (OH) and is a regular contributor. For previous articles by any of our contributors, type the author’s name into the Search Function in the left-hand column of any screen.