I remember the buck that threw me off in the middle of that hunt field—swift and clean.
My friend came cantering up behind me, having missed the entire event. But she saw my horse continue on up the hill as though nothing had happened, while I was still staggering to my knees.
When I first took a lesson on a horse I was 30 years old and living in New York City. In those early lessons, I never imagined my equestrian path would lead me to foxhunting. My introduction to riding was civilized and occurred in a schooling ring with a trainer by my side. Instruction was doled out with immediacy and specificity: “Keep your heels down. Lift your chin up. Look where you want to go.”
Life circumstances eventually brought me to a new barn way out in northwestern New Jersey. One summer afternoon, having just finished a lesson with my new trainer, she mentioned her barn also fox hunts.
“Foxhunting? People still do that?”
“Yes,” then she quickly added, “We’re a drag hunt—we lay our own scent. We don’t hunt live quarry.”
She invited me out to watch and see for myself.
I quickly became a regular spectator. For an entire season, from the end of summer to the onset of winter, I drove out from New York City to Warren County, NJ to watch the hunt.
Perhaps people wondered what I was doing there, this woman from the city with barely any riding experience. I paid it no mind, showing up every weekend and watching the adventure unfold. It was unlike anything I had ever seen—horses and riders galloping across massive fields and jumping coops and stone walls.
This was the kind of rider I wanted to be.
My trainer, a whip in the hunt, noticed me visiting every weekend. She approached me one winter afternoon with an offer: Traveler, the moodiest gelding in her barn, had finished his training program and was ready for a rider. He proved to be a very reliable foxhunting horse—confident and bold—but his knees would never allow him to consistently do the demanding work up front with the huntsman and hounds. His future health and wellbeing required a slightly less arduous ride.
And so you could say Traveler downgraded in human and I upgraded in horse, each of us massively unprepared for one another.
Toe-biting, kick outs, bucks and occasionally a complete refusal to move a single muscle made up a typical ring lesson.
“He’s better in the field,” my trainer would patiently remark, while talking me through canter transitions from hell.
And it was true, to an extent.
When we went out roading (no scent is laid; typically walk or trot rides) with the hunt he was easily well-behaved.
But the first time I took him out in a field he made it clear he had grown weary of my incompetence as a rider. We were only moments into that corn field when I felt Traveler bolt out from underneath me. My arms and hips locked. My brain froze. Panic prohibited me from doing anything at all—except maybe vomiting.
Somewhere in the middle of this short-circuited galloping disaster I realized what was missing: my trainer. There was no one next to me telling me what to do, how to handle this. It was just me and Traveler in this by ourselves.
I came out unscathed, but after that incident I thought a lot about quitting riding all together. Every time I swung my leg over his back, I told myself it was okay if I wanted this to be my last ride. I guess I never successfully talked myself out of riding though. I kept on showing up for lessons.
Foxhunting season officially began that summer. I became a member of the hunt and stayed in the hill topping group, mostly known as being the quietest field in any hunt and best suited for either new riders or new horses.
But Traveler and I still hadn’t figured one another out. He often hurried after the horse in front of us—I think he put more faith in herd mentality than he did in me. It was in one of those tense moments Traveler dispatched his infamous and glorious buck, continuing on with the other horses ahead of him.
The one thing that bonds all equestrians, regardless of our skill or experience, is how we must face our own fears. There I was, alone in a hunt field without a horse, beginning to realize my own fears were getting in the way of me and Traveler making any progress.
I finished that hunt season as another winter drifted in. I committed to a lesson and a hacking routine and forced myself to stop dwelling on the past and comparing myself to others. Some lesson days were good, other days hurt—mentally and physically. There were no miraculous ah-ha moments. Sometimes there were no saddles or no stirrups or no bridle.
And there was also no quitting. Traveler and I kept plugging along.
Just before foxhunting season began again someone in the hunt remarked to me what a great pair Traveler and I had become. I smiled and was gracious, of course, but privately dismissed the remark. I had grown very fond of Traveler, but I didn’t see us a team.
And so I began my second hunt season all the same. It wasn’t until we were nearing the end of Opening Day when I noticed something different.
For starters, I wasn’t a complete emotional mess. Because I wasn’t over thinking every single thing, my eye was naturally looking up and farther down the field. I was half halting and giving with greater fluidity. Our ride had become surprisingly reasonable—trotting when it made sense, cantering when it was time to move up. We would come up on a big green field and together decide to hand gallop across it. I’ll be damned if one of the photographers didn’t capture me out there with a smile on my face.
After a couple of hunts, this became a consistent trend. Maybe we weren’t perfect, but we were both having fun!
The other day, after our most recent hunt, my trainer wandered up to me and Traveler in the wash stall.
“How was he today?” she asked.
“Relaxed. And happy,” I replied, still surprised with the answer myself.
“Figuring one another out, I see.”
And she walked away, smirking as though she knew all along.
About the Author
Erin Nebel works in finance by day and volunteers as the Treasurer for Spring Valley Hounds in her spare time. Her horse, the aforementioned moody gelding Traveler, loves riding outside, snacking on jelly donuts, and finding clever ways to live up to his bad-boy reputation at the barn.