As a vegetarian for 11 years – throughout my teens and early 20’s – and a passionate supporter of animal welfare, my membership in the Vegetarian Society served only to raise my concerns about fox hunting, and what it entailed. But life had other ideas and a year’s placement – as part of my HND course – would unwittingly change my view of hunting forever, instilling a love for the national hunt industry that Tanya Stevenson herself (I’m trying to get used to ITV racing, I promise I am) couldn’t have predicted.
The geography of college had ensured that the yards available for our placement year were varied and of a great standard, but as friends went off to work for Yogi Breisner, Paddy Muir, William Fox-Pitt, to name a few, I thought I would try out the Irish offering. I was recommended for a job looking after Bill Buller’s hunting horses, and my vegetarian morals gave me a bit of a dilemma. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I soon found myself setting up home in the groom’s quarters at Scarvagh House Stud.
I had never worked on a commercial yard before and wasn’t sure what to expect, but thankfully the Yugoslavian, ex-army, yard manager left me in no doubt as to what my daily routine would be. I was responsible for getting the hunt horses fit and ready to take Bill or Alfred out for a day’s hunting each Saturday and sometimes during the week. After a bit of a sticky start – involving concussion and not knowing why I was on a yard in Scarva – I had the most amazing time. The horses were some of the bravest I’ve ever ridden and when you go out for a hack around the fields (which doubles as the pre-novice to advanced xc course) with Bill and he says ‘follow me’, you don’t say no, and consequently jumped some of the biggest fences and hedges I have ever had the pleasure of ‘flying’ over.
The work was unbelievably hard and I had to get fit very quickly to make sure I could keep up, but it showed me an insight into what I was capable of, if I really pushed myself. Again there are horses and people that stand out as making that chapter of my life a bit more special and although I didn’t actually hunt myself during that time, my opinion was changed for ever. The horses were built for their job and they absolutely loved it. And they were so good at it, to not let them gallop across country, jumping every obstacle without a hesitation would have been such a waste.
With regard to the killing of a healthy innocent animal, most of the hunts were drag and if they were fox hounds it was extremely rare that a fox would ever be caught. Saturday’s were a cross country ride with hunting horns on which an entire industry, involving many horses and people, was based on. I decided at this juncture, that if I was given the opportunity to hunt, I would take it, as I wasn’t going to form an opinion on something I hadn’t experienced for myself. Little did I know at this point in time that I would go on to spend every Saturday hunting with staghounds, quickly coming to realise how addictive the adrenalin of a day’s hunting could be.