Trail Riding at the Gallop: Riding to Hounds with the Fraser Valley Hunt – November 13, 2016

Somewhere back in the mid 2000’s, my good friend Kerri-Lynne suggested that she and I take a trip over to the mainland to ride with the Fraser Valley Hunt, a club she’d ridden with back when she was a teenager. And so we did, she on Lyrique, her phlegmatic Canadian, and me on Phabulous, my very game one-eyed warmblood. I couldn’t have told you where we actually rode, but, this past weekend,  as I drove to the FVH meet Pai and I were attending, things started to look familiar. As we pulled in the driveway at the Kirkhovens’ Nicomen Farm on Nicomen Island, the flashbacks became solid memories: yup, this was the very same site at which I’d ridden my very first hunt, about a decade ago.


Phab showing his sexy sunken eye socket. Riding with the Hunt back in 2000-and-?

In the intervening years, Phab, my flamboyant, willing, spectacularly athletic jumping/dressage/eventing horse passed away, and Pai was meant to be his Horse Trials replacement. Except, that never panned out. Despite the piles of time and buckets of moulah invested in dressage lessons and jumping lessons and cross-country lessons, life and injuries and COPD variously got in the way, and we have competed in pretty much… nothing at all. (OK, yeah: one CTR and one LD, both in the past year).

In that three or four year interim, Pai and I did, however, find opportunities to ride with the FVH a couple of times, and we had a blast. And so, when my work schedule gave me a weekend off this month, my first thought was: HUNT.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Foxhunting (the FVH is a drag hunt: there is no live quarry) is unquestionably the biggest rush you can ever have on horseback. It is trail riding. Group trail riding. Group trail riding, at a gallop. Group trail riding at a gallop, with hounds. Group trail riding at a gallop with hounds, over jumps.

(What could possibly go wrong? Is it pure coincidence that Jägermeister and Irish whisky get passed around at pauses?)

It is also a beautiful way to ride, with the baying of the hounds echoing through the woods, and riders all impeccably attired (well, they’re impeccable before they get covered in the mud flung up from the hooves of the horses in front of them).

This is how it works:

The day starts off with a gang of mounted riders, all looking supremely elegant in coats and tall boots – scarlet (“pink”) for the men with seniority, black with green lapels for the ladies, and navy or black for the rest of us – gathering together to partake of the “stirrup cup”, which is the entirely well-advised tradition of knocking back a glass of sherry before heading off en masse at a gallop to jump jumps. The purported “fox” is actually a couple of riders who drip scent from a flask as they charge ahead over the designated terrain. They set off ahead of everyone else with a 5-ish minute lead time, and lay the course, which the hounds are trained to follow. The hounds are managed by the Huntsman, and one or two Whips who assist in controlling the hounds (and they do indeed carry hunting whips with long lashes). Two to three fields (groups of riders) follow the hounds, each led by a Field Master. The first field is fast, right up with the hounds. If there are jumps, they will generally take them. The second field is a little slower, and may or may not take the jumps (there’s always an option for going around rather than over jumps). If there’s a third field, it is slowest, and will often forego jumps entirely. Every 10 or 15 minutes, there’s a “check”, where there’s a break in the scent and the riders pause to knock back liquor in relief at still being alive rest the horses, while the hounds cast about, waiting for a new trail to be laid. The Field Masters take the opportunity to warn the field about potential known hazards up ahead. And then: the horn sounds, and we’re off again!


Hanging out at a check. The hounds with the Hunstman, Alysha.

As the riders were all marshaling at the start of the day’s ride, Pai began to demonstrate her Lipizzan genetics, getting alarmingly light in the front end. She iced that particular cake by shooting forward (with, you know, a cute little buck for good measure) if I applied the slightest bit of leg.  I began to think I ought to have put on my eventing back protector, since an involuntary dismount seemed extremely likely to be looming in my future.

In hunting, there is a bit of etiquette one needs to be aware of, most of it pertinent to keeping riders, horses, and hounds safe on what could otherwise be an utter gong show, and the FVH does a very good job at making sure everyone dies some way other than foxhunting.  Deciding upon the most sensible place, safety-wise, to position Queen of the World (who was wearing a bright ribbon in her tail as the prescribed notice to others of her personal space issues) when the hounds would set off was tricky, and I ultimately opted to ride at the back of First Field with my friend Carol, since I knew Pai would want to be fast.


The horn sounded, the hounds raced off all gorgeously baying, and Queen of the World lost any remaining vestiges of her cool. She blew off my aids, and I didn’t have enough hardware in her face to manhandle her into keeping the pace I wanted. She instantly figured out that Those Dogs were in the front, and she also instantly decided (seriously, I could see the thought bubbles coming out of her head) that if she could get ahead of Those Dogs, she would be the one running this entire show. And that’s what she tried to do.

So, yeah. That was fun.

We circled around to the back of the field a couple of times during the run in order to maintain a safe distance from the hounds, but, as the Field Master – a veterinary colleague of mine – pointed out, circling could potentially foul the scent line for the hounds depending on where it was laid. Oops.

(As an aside: I was wearing long underwear, because I always get cold, riding in the fall, and the forecast was for a cold, rainy, miserable day. I’m sure I have a mental Note to Self filed somewhere in my brain from previous hunts about how much work it is, but yeah, no. I had forgotten everything useful I had ever known. So when we pulled up at the first check, I was un-freaking-believably hot. WHAT WAS I THINKING?? Long underwear???)


Hounds casting for scent at a check.


Steaming hot horses at a check.

At the first check, Pai and I sheepishly (I sheepishly, she churlishly) dropped back to Second Field to avoid becoming personae non gratae through committing a giant breach of etiquette, namely, busting past the Field Master in a spectacular display of crap horsemanship.  Carol, my friend of twenty-five years and current Master of Foxhounds at the FVH, very gallantly offered to ride along with us, which was very helpful to my keeping my horse to a reasonable pace. Having a steady horse (Max) to canter along with neck and neck rendered Pai at least marginally civilized.


Pai (“WHO SHALL I DOMINATE NOW?”) and Max (“Chill the f**k out. What is wrong with you? Jaysus. Relax.”)

The hounds followed a path that had us crossing small forks of the Fraser River two or three times over the course of the hunt. At one point, the route involved a steep muddy drop into a deep (surpri-ise!), water-filled ditch, and up the other side. Horses were flinging themselves into the ditch like it was cross-country water jump, horses were (unsuccessfully) trying to jump that mofo like a regular ditch, horses were plunging around like there was a sea monster down there. I was inordinately pleased with my girl when she met that question with a blasé “Sure, yeah, whatevs,” and navigated the whole obstacle at a sedate walk: my good little trail horsie got her brain back when it counted.

The hounds charged along a route that crossed some narrow branches of the Fraser River. After having braved the chest-deep Red Deer River at Ya Ha Tinda more than a couple of times, with its round rock footing and a current that knocked the horses sideways, fording a deep but comparatively inviting fork of the Fraser was a meh. Because she wanted to be in front, Pai fairly pulled my arms out in order to march into the river where others hesitated. (I. WILL. BE. YOUR. QUEEN.)

It was a meh for Pai, but for others, not so much. The river was running quite high, and at least one pony had to actually swim to get across. And more than one rider ended up toppling off for an unintended Bathing Beauty award.


Pretty spot for a check.


Just hangin’ out, wondering where that First Field has gotten to…

It’s been two or three years since Pai has done any jumping, so I was delighted when she negotiated the jumps (well, all but one) nicely. I, on the other hand, likewise having not jumped for a couple of years, was supremely inelegant and, also, unhelpful. I dropped a stirrup over a log as we were galloping through a winding track in the woods, and was the polar opposite of deft in getting it back. (But got it before the next jump. Phew.)

One of the other people I  met up with on this hunt was Nichole-from-Squamish, whom I’d hit it off with camping in Merritt this past summer. Nichole and her Canadian mare Cricket had ridden with the FVH a couple of times earlier in the fall. On this hunt, which was a little less newcomer-oriented than her previous rides, Nichole shared my struggles with managing a green horse who gets over-excited in a group, but enjoyed her day nonetheless.


Nichole and Cricket at the pre-hunt marshaling. Photo: William Donnellan.

(Another aside: Nichole has one of these Arctic Horse all-weather riding skirts, which fill me with envy as winter trail riding apparel, and are now on my first-ever Christmas wish list. As she was walking down the laneway post-ride, someone told her she looked like the Empress Sissi returning from a hunt. And she did.)

At the end of the hunt, riders gather for a mock kill, where the hounds get their reward, and have excellent dog fun tearing it apart (“it” varies, but whatever it used to be, this veg-head can assure you that it is already as dead as whatever you eat for dinner) and gobbling it down.


The hounds arguing over ownership.

The ride is followed by the Hunt Breakfast (in fact a late lunch), served with or without “Irish” (whisky for your coffee). This day’s Breakfast was put on by the Mission Hills Pony Club, some of whom had ridden at the meet. They very shrewdly offered a fund-raising tack cleaning service post-ride, of which I would totally have partaken had I not already spent all my cash.


Missed my opportunity to have someone else deal with this mess.


The steed got a little dirty, too. Photo: William Donnellan.

Woo baby, what a ride!

Tally ho!

Notes for horsey folk:

The Fraser Valley Hunt holds its meets on Saturdays, mainly in farmlands around Abbotsford, with some special hunts being held at other venues: Washington State, Pemberton, and the Sunshine Coast, and occasionally elsewhere. The hunting season runs from September through April.

The Hunt members are a very friendly, welcoming group, and are happy to see new people show interest in the sport. They are also a wealth of helpful information for newbs, and are always concerned about safety.  At this meet, there were Pony Clubbers riding along in Second and Third Field, as well as a new-ish rider on an Appy, in a Western saddle.  Non-members are welcome to ride with the Hunt as guests, paying a “capping fee” to do so – see the website for tips, etiquette, fixtures list, and contact info. There is no formal dress code for guests as long as they are neat and tidy.

The terrain covered varies from flat farmland to rolling hills to winding lanes through woods, and hunts last anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. Footing can be muddy, and there may be water crossings.  Jumping is not mandatory.