“Craic” (Irish slang for “fun”) is exactly what Susan Corwin had when she embarked upon an Irish sidesaddle foxhunting adventure exactly one year after undergoing a double-mastectomy.
Little did I know when I was writing incoherently on Facebook in my morphine induced / post double-mastectomy surgery haze, that exactly one year to that day I would be sitting in an opulent hotel lobby in Ireland preparing for the adventure of a lifetime over the next several days.
It was during another visit to Facebook that I learned about this amazing Irish lady and her lofty goal. She wanted to break the Guinness Book World Record for the most ladies riding aside to hounds (foxhunting in a sidesaddle) at one time.
At first I thought there was no way I could afford it. Cancer is expensive, but then I saw that the whole package including lodging, horse, sidesaddle, foxhunt and even the hunt ball was only 200 Euros. I couldn’t believe it! But what about the flight? Ugh, $750… too much. But wait, frequent flyer miles? Oh yeah, plenty! So plans were made: “I’m going to Ireland next week!”
As I was packing for my trip, the thought did occur to me that it has been about five years since I have foxhunted in a sidesaddle. I actually haven’t’ even been riding much at all for the last year and will only clear my required “four weeks of no riding” after my most recent and final surgery, on the day of the hunt itself. Undaunted, I packed all of the sidesaddle gear I could still find. I couldn’t locate my habit, but was told I could borrow one there.
I left on Wednesday and landed in Ireland on Thursday. There I was in the motherland preparing for the ride of a lifetime! Being that I was one of the first to show up, I had a very unique opportunity to spend time that day with the organizer of this amazing feat, Susan Oakes.
She collected me from the hotel and chatted away with her lovely Irish brogue as we sped through the Irish countryside on her way to one errand. She had decided to do a steeplechase on Sunday, so she needed to school her race horse. We arrived at the muddy facility and met up with her father (maybe the most Irish Irishman who has ever lived). He had the horse already tacked and warmed up before we arrived. Before I knew it, she had galloped several times around the racetrack, hopped off, hosed off and handed off her horse to her father, who took him home.
Back in the car we went. I was told we were going to get a quick bite and some tea at her mum’s. I sat at the table feeling like a member of the family. I was served a delicious quiche, a piping-hot cup of tea, and an apology that there wasn’t much salad left, as we were the fifth to have come for lunch. We were shortly joined by two more.
During lunch, Susan Oakes planned the transport of about 20 horses (she is incredible.) I found that I would be riding her mother’s pony, Percy. I met my adorable bay Connemara and it was love at first sight. I was ready!
Friday was a blur as people arrived from all over the world. Being there alone, I quickly made friends with three other ladies who were there alone as well: Charlotta (my roommate) from Sweden, Oleksandra from Italy, and Anne-Beatrice from France. None of us had ever been to Ireland before.
There was a lovely reception Friday night where five pairs of Dubarry boots were auctioned or given away with a raffle. No luck for me there. Off to bed!
Saturday started out a little ominous: sleet, rain, wind and cold. No going back now! We assembled on the hotel staircase for the photographers and Susan Oakes brought in her white stallion, SIEC Atlas, a famous show-jumper. It was very dramatic!
After the photo op, we mounted a total of two buses and off to the hunt we went. As we sat on the bus, the butterflies in my stomach were doing a bit of a dance as I looked to my right at my friend, Oleksandra, who had gone white as a ghost. This is when she revealed that she had not only never hunted before, but had never ridden outside the ring in a sidesaddle either. And I thought I was nervous!
There was a man on the bus who is in Her Majesty’s Cavalry and spoke endlessly about history and details of the tack, etc. and was a great distraction.
We finally arrived at the meet, which was starting in a large parking lot. Fortunately someone had the sense to bring some hot port. Just like an assembly line, horses were pulled off “lorries.” The horses’ names was called out and riders mounted. Before long I heard “Percy!” Within a flash and a flurry of apron, I was on my trusted steed.
I very quickly learned that Percy is not the type of pony who appreciates being told what to do. After several attempts of suggesting he goes someplace or stand still, I decided to let him do whatever he wanted. He was going to anyway!
For the first 20 minutes or so, while waiting for the remaining ladies to mount, Percy got to have his own personal kind of fun, which included systematically walking up to larger horses and giving them anywhere between a nibble and a bite before walking away. Maybe being short, he felt he had something to prove or he was bored and entertaining himself.
After all the ladies were mounted, we made our way to the beginning of the hunt which required a very long, bumpy pony trot down the road.
Needless to say, I was incredibly relieved to find that he had such a wonderful, smooth canter and managed to hold onto my breakfast after all. More pictures, and off we went!
I had missed the practice ditch and so was thrown in head-first. It was here I was first introduced to an “Irish facial” – being completely splattered with mud!
After about the second ditch, a very kind Irish gentleman handed me his flask and assured me that the more I drank now, the smaller the ditches would get, and the more I drank at the pub later, the bigger they would get.
By the time I came to the third ditch, there was a bit of a backup as the first path over had been abandoned and the second path over was still filled with a gray horse, so I decided to go for it and try for the first, abandoned-way over. I found out quickly why it had been abandoned!
Percy leaped across and then slid backwards down the far side and I bailed out. The mud, being very, very deep, made for a well-cushioned fall. By the time I got myself together, Percy had climbed out of the ditch and was standing on the other side. After locating my stirrup and leather and re-attaching it to the saddle, a very helpful lady came to my rescue. (I found out later at the pub that she had abandoned the gray, still in the ditch, to help me get back on.) Unfortunately for her, when she went to give me a leg-up, as I attempted to bound off the ground in assistance, my foot sunk about a foot into the mud, requiring the poor lady to wrestle me awkwardly back onto what I was very glad was not a large horse (I’m sure so is she!)
I found myself back in the saddle and everything back in its original place, but when I looked to see who had followed me, no one had. Deciding there was no way I could go back the way I came, I looked far ahead and saw the hunt, so Percy and I were on our own, hunting the hunt!
Several more ditches later, all of these successful, I caught up to the hunt just in time to lose my stirrup. After several attempts to get my foot back into it, I resolved that I would be hunting without it, when much to my delight, a couple had stopped ahead of me to fix a strap that had snapped off of a saddle. This gave me ample time to take a breath and retrieve my lost stirrup.
And then there were three. Somewhere between ditch number six and the first upright fence, I discovered that the lady hunting with me was also the owner of the habit I was wearing. This made me relieved as I now knew she would not be surprised at the condition it would be returned in.
When we finally came to our first upright, I was very pleased to find that my pony could jump up, and not just across. Especially as his owner was standing right next to the fence!
I can’t be sure, because I stopped looking down, but I would say that the ditches had to be at least six feet deep, and varying degrees of width… and that’s not the pub talking!
The second, and only other, upright on course was a metal gate, similar to the gate that prevents my horse from leaving his pasture. Let’s just say it was tall and solid! Pony was perfect.
And then, the unthinkable. As I was navigating a relatively shallow, wide ditch, slowly at this point, my pony jumped to the right, pinning me under a tree. At this point I was trapped with my leg still stuck in the saddle, my bottom behind the saddle and my head on the pony’s tail. As my companion, Emily, described it: “Emitting from the wood was the sound of a woman’s voice screaming first that she was stuck, then laughing hysterically like a lunatic!” My other companion, Dermet, finally had to dismount and come break the tree off of me. He thought it was very amusing that the first thing I wanted once I was reconnected with my saddle was a swig from his hip flask. Well, what would you want?
The Lady Martha Sitwell at the end of the hunt
I was informed that my face was covered in blood and after wiping it on my sleeve, I declared I now knew what “Irish lipstick” was.
And so the three of us continued to hunt the hunt, Dermet having an involuntary dismount of his own during the process. We finally caught the hunt at the very end.
At the end, while waiting for transport, I borrowed a blanket for my heroic pony and turned him over to his fortunate owner and grabbed the first ride to the nearest pub. Once there I discovered that everyone else there had fallen off at least once and met the lady who had the misfortune of giving me a leg-up early on in the day. She was not very amused with my lack of assistance getting back on the horse.
The Lady Martha Sitwell at the end of the pub, being escorted by the British Cavalry officer
Later on that night was an amazing hunt ball featuring the huntsman on his horse in the ballroom, speaking to the 450 attendees. Only in Ireland could you have two horses in the same hotel in one day!
Charlotta, Oleksandra and me
I left the following morning to come back to home and reality and my wonderful supportive husband, eagerly awaiting my return. I must have been a little tired as I slept for 22 hours straight!
After all, we did break the world record with 50 ladies aside, blowing the previous record of 40 out of the water. What a craic! (Irish for “a good time,” pronounced “crack”.) I’ve never done anything as crazy as this, and can’t wait to do it again!
Thank you so much to Susan Oakes and family, and also to County Meath Hunt, all the volunteers and amazingly patient horses for giving me a lifetime of memories, and some of my new best friends! And last but not least… thank you so much to my wonderfully loving and supportive family!!
Photos used with permission from Susan Corwin and their respective photographers.