Little Red Pepper's First Hunt

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By Betty Baxter

The Fraser Valley Hunt Club has been organizing “drag scent” hunts in British Columbia every fall and winter for almost 50 years. A local horse and hunt enthusiast hosts the opening hunt for the club each fall from his farm on the upper slopes of Mount Elphinstone on the Sunshine Coast. This story begins in early November when the core group of dedicated hunters arrive from the Fraser Valley by ferry with several trailers of horses and one of hounds.

Amid the crowd of horses milling about on the lawn, the field master in a red jacket and dark helmet on a dancing, athletic bay is a striking, commanding presence. The hounds, released from their trailer, run throughout the crowded space with their noses to the ground, dodging horses and people alike. A woman in a green jacket, the huntsman, snaps her long whip in an attempt to keep them away from other riders and the priest who stands on the edge of the crowd. Another woman dressed in hunter green rises in her stirrups and presses the curled brass of a horn to her lips. At the resulting sound all is suddenly quiet. The priest steps up to the huntsman for a whispered exchange and then takes the microphone to say a short prayer and bless the hunt. The last of the riders mount up, glasses of sherry are distributed for a solemn toast, the field master shouts short instructions, then nods to the keeper of the horn who sounds a three-note blast — and they’re off!

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Riders of the Fraser Valley Hunt (FVH) are keeping alive the excitement and age-old tradition of riding to hounds. The FVH is a drag hunt, where hounds follow a scent laid from horseback; no foxes are hunted. Photos: Andrea Pratt

The field master and huntsman lead the first group of 20 riders in dark jackets, fancy breeches and neck ties, most of whom struggle to manage their excited mounts. They exit the property and canter the path where scouts have laid a fresh fake fox scent to begin this insane activity: a humane hunt.

Those of us in the hilltop group — the dozen remaining riders who might just crest the hilltop as the fast group vanishes ahead over the next one — have been instructed to wait and proceed at a quieter pace so the junior and beginning riders can experience the day safely. This group looks even more chaotic. No fancy dress here, just jackets and jeans on a cadre of kids and moms mounted on a motley crew of horses keen to be part of the event. Our slower start is a good plan as, when we move to the open, wide trail under the powerline, several riders struggle to balance as their horses strain to gallop after the leaders. Within the first kilometre, not yet near the forest trails for the entertaining ride, three riders have come off in the dirt. Although they are unhurt, with each fall the whole group stops, checks for injuries, waits for the rider to remount, and begins again.

Related: The Power of Play with our Horses

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Photo: Andrea Pratt

I am riding my Canadian stallion, Monty, and Sarah, a teenager and good rider who has worked at my barn for several years, is riding my little four-year-old chestnut mare, Red Pepper. Red Pepper is sired by Monty and taking part in her first public event with this crazy, over-stimulated group of horses. We stop for the fourth time when nine-year-old Kendra comes off for a second time right in front of us. Her pony is spinning and jumping about, wild with excitement. The leader of our hilltop group stops.

“Walk him back home, dear," she tells the little blonde girl. “He’s not going to let you ride him today.” Kendra starts to cry.

I don’t get off Monty as I need to keep the stallion a few paces away from the rest of the horses, but I look over my shoulder at Sarah. She is sitting on Red Pepper with the reins loose, calmly texting on her phone while waiting for the group to start up again. The spot of white on Red’s forehead, a perfect Christmas tree outline, is shining in the sun as she stands quietly and looks about, alert, but without fear.

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“Sarah,” I say. “Red seems to be doing well. Would you be willing to swap horses with Kendra so she can still ride? If Red Pepper gets too excited, we can always switch back and Kendra can take her horse home.”

Sarah quickly agrees and tucks her phone into her pocket, then hops off Red and passes her reins to the little girl. Kendra wipes the tears from her eyes, replaces them with a look of wariness as she passes Sarah the pony. Sarah keeps a hand on Red while the new, much smaller rider climbs up.

The group leader looks at me with a question in her eyes. I nod and say, “Let’s give this a try. The mare is quiet.”

Sarah mounts the pony, spins him in a few circles to let him know someone with more strength and authority is now in charge, and we all walk at a sedate pace to the cut-off for the forest paths. The leader moves her horse up to a trot and we traverse for some time without incident.

By now, the group of formal riders with faster horses is well ahead. As we approach a clearing, they must have completed a full run as we can hear them coming behind and our riders crowd off to the side to let them pass. The pack of hounds race up, followed closely by the huntsman and the master of the hounds. As the galloping horses come through, many of the riders in formal hunt attire elect to jump logs at the side of the path landing in a large pond and spray water everywhere. It is clear they are having a great time, but no one seems aware that one horse is running steadily behind the others, jumping logs and splashing through puddles, with an empty saddle and stirrups flying. There are first aid and viewing stations along the way so we can only trust that the missing rider was able to get help if needed.

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At this point we’ve had a couple of hours on the trails with nobody coming off, and our horses are tired enough to stand while the first group thunders past. We pass a few jumps and ditches with puddles on our quieter route, but as we follow the leaders for the last run, our rookies are inspired to attempt the jumps. I laugh as a smiling Kendra cruises past me on Red, right through a puddle and then over a log a few paces later. We reach a gravel road leading home as it begins to rain, and I watch the steam rising off the horses’ warm bodies as we settle into a comfortable walk.

The hilltop group’s leader approaches now and rides beside me. “You know,” she says, “You couldn’t have a better advertisement for your breed than that little red horse of yours. She’s given that kid a great ride this morning. How old did you say she was?”

“Four. Under saddle just coming up to a year.”

“She’s a good horse. You selling her?”

“Yup. This guy is her dad. If I want to keep breeding, I’ve got to sell some.”

“I’ll keep her in mind for my students.”

Little Red Pepper Fraser Valley Hunt Club

Little Red Pepper. Photo: Deb Harper

Before I can say thanks, we turn in to the meeting place to end the ride. There is a great celebration as the hounds are given their bin of tripe to reward them for a good day’s work. The yard is crowded with tired riders taking saddles off and walking their steaming horses out. A loud cheer causes everyone to look up. Walking on foot down the driveway is a very wet, well-dressed hunter rider looking for the horse who completed much of the hunt without a mount. Someone brings the horse to her and there is applause. Sarah and I chat about how lucky we all were with the day. Kendra’s pony even settled down and managed quite well, despite the saddle being too small for Sarah. We were grateful that the rain held off until the end. 

Kendra approaches on Red, dismounts and moves forward to reclaim her pony from Sarah. The little girl is beaming as she strokes Red’s neck. Clearly, she has had a wonderful time.

“You had a good ride then?” I ask her.

She nods and continues stroking the horse, not quite ready to give Sarah the reins. 

I am so pleased with my young horse. Red Pepper was probably the least experienced horse on today’s ride, and several people comment on what a great job she did for the young rider she’d never met. Sarah and I are tired, but wear big smiles as we remount and ride out the driveway, heading for home to put our horses away. It has been a great hunt.

Related: Foxhunting in Canada

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Main Photo: Sarah on Little Red Pepper (right) ready for their first hunt, and Betty Baxter on Pepper’s sire, Monty (left). Credit: Andrea Pratt 


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