Four Juniors from Fort Leavenworth Hunt in Kansas had a dream of competing on the national level at this year’s Junior North American Field Hunter Championship in Tennessee. The Championship included a mock hunt on the first day with an individual round on the second day for the top riders. Also included were opportunities to compete in hound judging, horn blowing, and whip cracking. The Kansas Juniors’ preparations took the kids and their parents on an adventure that showered them all with not only knowledge but also increased respect for the sport of Riding to Hounds.
The Juniors had in their corner three educators equipped with a passionate love of foxhunting. Once these teachers realized that their Juniors were serious about competing, they took the education of the Juniors beyond just putting on a riding clinic or a talking-head lecture.
These three educators all are members of Fort Leavenworth Hunt: current MFH Gayle Rue, previous MFH Cathie Kornacki, and Kristy Lathrop, former Junior Whipper-In and daughter of Gayle Rue.
Kristy is an educational consultant that travels the globe helping other educators provide methods to help minds learn. She also created a custom website and a rubric (a type of table to organize goals with tasks). Their main objective was to equip the Juniors with the resources to be successful. She wanted to bring the art of teaching (or “pedagogy”) to our sport of Riding to Hounds.
Gayle wanted to create a space that the Juniors could easily step into to be equipped with as much knowledge and experience as possible. Gayle was also the lead on tackling the logistics to get her Juniors from Kansas to the Championship in Tennessee, a twelve-hour trip.
Cathie helped source mounts for the kids, as one had an injured horse right before the qualifier. That Junior rode the borrowed horse just once before she competed with the mount for the qualifier. Cathie also provided information from Ronny Wallace’s book on hound judging as a resource.
All the Juniors from Kansas competed in First Flight in both age groups:
Michaela Frye, age 17, rode the borrowed mount. One rule with JNAFHC is the Juniors must compete in the Championship with the same mount that was ridden during the local qualifier. So Michaela had to bring her borrowed horse to Tennessee.
Macie Trickett, age 15, had experience in foxhunting as well as show jumping.
Callie Hill, age 12, rode a 23-year-old ex-barrel horse with Cushing’s, who needed a very extensive clip job to prep for the trip.
Ellie Joe Skrmetta, age 12, has only been hunting a few seasons, but she had an ex-Master’s horse as her rock-steady mount.
The goals of the educators were to create space for the Juniors, give resources, and include the Juniors’ families in the process. Each Junior was given a rubric that showed what the expectations of the competition were, what skills needed to be learned, and finally, if the Junior had been able to master it at home.
But the Juniors also had a custom-built website designed to give them different adventures in learning. The same questions kept coming up over and over, so Kristy built a website to address these common questions as well as others. The website was called, “Choose Your Own Adventure!”
The site had a menu with ala cart options for different areas where they could learn. Those Juniors that like reading could read lists, quotes, or descriptions on the website. Juniors that liked to talk could interview selected hunt members about their history and experience with hunting. And finally, the Juniors that liked to learn while participating had video challenges to practice riding skills that would be judged during the Championship. There was even a quiz on etiquette in the hunt field that the Juniors could take with imminent feedback if they passed or not.
Also created was a Facebook group for the Juniors’ families where videos, progressions, questions, and excitement were shared from parent to parent with the educators. The moms’ of the Juniors said that they had learned as much as their girls had from this format. When one parent shared what her Junior would plan to wear, they posted photos so all were on the same page of what was to be expected for turn-out. One parent also found and posted old videos of past Championship to help steer expectations.
When the Juniors arrived at the expansive venue in Middle Tennessee, they were a bit overwhelmed at seeing all the big, fancy rigs around them compared to their modest trailers. But the Kansas Juniors relied on the bonds that they had formed while preparing for the event.
Those bonds were further strengthened when Mother Nature tried to wipe the pop-up venue off the map. A very strong storm front with straight-line winds hit the venue the afternoon before the competition was to begin. The tent that covered the temporary stalls took the brunt of the wind with extensive damage. Fortunately, the Juniors were there to evacuate all the horses from under the soon-to-be ribboned tent. Holding several horses at once, the Juniors' help made sure that not a single horse or person was injured. Crazy circumstances like that will build long-lasting memories for those Juniors.
The weather also provided another obstacle – very fresh horses. The foxhunt that the Juniors were to ride in the day before was canceled. The Juniors couldn’t even try to ride the day before the event to hack out, practice, knock off jitters, or familiarize themselves with the new environment. And the horses had been stabled for several days. As the Juniors rode off on their Mock Hunt, the parents were more nervous than their Juniors. Despite the circumstances, all of the Kansas horses were well-behaved for their experienced foxhunting riders.
There were many events for the Juniors to participate in. The Mock Hunt judged how the Juniors managed their mounts while riding in First Flight or Hilltoppers. The Kansas Juniors had never ridden anything like the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee. Often described as riding the back of a green dragon, the undulating grassy hills are a blast to gallop once trust is found between rider and mount.
The top Juniors were picked from the Mock Hunt to compete in the individual round. This round was ridden individually and contained many questions or skills that are common in the hunt field. Like opening and closing a gate and dismounting to lead a horse over logs.
Charles Montgomery, MFH and Huntsman for Mells Fox Hounds provided hounds for the Juniors to judge. Ryan Johnsey, MFH and Huntsman for Tennessee Valley Hunt helped guide the Juniors in the finer points of hound conformation. Then the crowd-pleasing horn blowing and whip cracking events were held to the delight of spectators. And finally, the Juniors had been judged on Best Turned Out and Sportsmanship throughout the Championship.
The leaderboard at the end of the event showed what the Kansas Juniors accomplished:
First Field 13 and Under – 8th Place Callie Hill on Fashion
First Field 14-18 – 6th place Michaela Frye on Jerri
Hound Judging Award – Callie Hill
Best Turned-Out Award – Callie Hill
However, the leaderboard can’t show what was important for these four Juniors from Kansas: personal growth. Personal growth was built through working towards goals, the joy in making connections with other Juniors, team building from unforeseen obstacles (um – Mother Nature was a bit harsh), and having the courage to ride and compete in unknown territory.
In preparation for this event, these Juniors were excited sponges that soaked up the nuances of foxhunting, the science behind scenting, and the importance of land conservation. There is such a depth of knowledge in foxhunting that is just waiting for them to discover. The three educators wanted to provide a space for them to develop an appreciation for our sport and facilitate the preservation of the many oral stories that exist within our sport.
By all accounts, the event was very well organized (weather notwithstanding). The personal growth the Juniors had achieved on this journey showed in how well their fresh horses behaved in the Mock Hunt. The confidence the Juniors felt in the stressful situation is all due to their experience out in the hunt field in addition to the expert preparation provided by the educators who were determined to help their Juniors choose their own adventures. And succeed while adventuring.