Having a Madison Avenue fashion industry background coupled with a lifelong love of horses, one very big item that’s always been on my bucket list is to join the hunt. More than wanting to check off any box for successfully competing at some specific level at any number of the disciplines I’ve dabbled in, something about riding with the hunt was both exhilarating and terrifying to daredevil me, and I swore that one day I’d experience it myself.
It all started years ago when my high stress performance anxiety OTTB Sky crashed and burned in just about every discipline we tried. Show jumpers at home was a huge success! At shows? We couldn’t get around more than a 3’ course and even that was a challenge that took years to accomplish. Hunters? Our attempts were laughable. Eventing? That was my first love originally, and so we eventually — against all odds — tried that.
Schooling was masterful. Starter was so easy he barely tried, Beginner Novice was a marginal effort at best, and we ended our day schooling over Novice with ease that made riding fun and my horse seem (finally) like an easy ride. But the show a week later, over the lower levels (not Novice!), was a disaster. I had even brought my tried-and-true eventer Clydesdale cross to compete first so that I went into the ride calm and with confidence.
Coming off the schooling prep, I was looking forward to our first truly fun show. What I got was, well, not so fun. Sky was tense and upside down in dressage, shying from every spectator, decoration, and the judge herself. We crashed a crossrail in warm up, and spooked on cross country so hard we were off course by the first jump. *Sigh*
So when someone invited me to ride a hunter pace hosted by Windy Hollow Hunt, I thought heck, what do I have to lose? He’s safe over fences without an audience, and wonderful in open fields as long as no one is around to watch — what could be better? From then on we were hooked. But joining the hunt was not for us as it was too much of a crowd. Finally, years later, as Sky was heading into semi-retirement, I obtained an incredible Dutch Warmblood that had the brain and skills for hunting, and I promptly joined Windy Hollow Hunt in our first season together. Bucket list: check!
Sky and I were great in the hunt field by ourselves. Can you believe we jumped that all alone, while our teammates did the go-rounds outside of the fields (different route — we met up at the end of a series of five massive jumps) all with NO safety vest of any sort? At least I had a helmet on …
Video by CJ Millar.
While I knew hunting was all about tradition, what surprised me most was that so many people in the hunt rode forward, jumping very large solid obstacles, with their horses in road studs or borium as we often hack along roads and hard ground, all with no real protection. I did notice a few people in air vests, but they were the older, bulky kind, so I set out to find out more. Could it be that tradition really trumped safety in the hunt field?
As a graduate of Centenary College’s Equestrian Studies program with a long background in eventing (among other things), the use of proper safety gear has been drilled into me for as long as I could remember. Even so, I still rode in whatever I had on hand until I witnessed a good friend have a terrifying fall that could have claimed her life — but did not thanks to the safety gear she was wearing at the time: a Helite air vest, a Racesafe body protector, and a Uvex helmet that together protected her. While she still ended up in the hospital, she’s back riding again. Without that protection, the results of that fall would have been far more tragic (her horse was OK).
Coupled with today’s technology, and the use of more and more safety gear that was also stylish, from that point on I took it upon myself to learn more about what was acceptable for safety gear when hunting — and what I could do to incorporate it into my fashionable hunting attire.
Here’s what I learned:
- Headgear: While not traditional, Windy Hollow Hunt and most hunts these days encourage the use of approved headgear with safety harness. In the case of Windy Hollow Hunt, it’s required for juniors, encouraged for all, and even mentioned in our sourcebook. Score! Of course, making sure you have not only an approved helmet, but one that is of the highest of safety standards is important. It should fit snugly, and comfortably — for me, that’s either a Samshield or a Uvex but as far as brands go, go with what works for you –as long as it’s safe! As for bling — ask your huntmaster. Ours prefers helmets are plain. Matte or velvet (or the new suede look) is acceptable as well. Crystals and other bling are frowned upon unless it’s very subtle. Sorry, no big flashy designs allowed!
- Gloves: These are up to rider preference for most hunts, so ride in what you like. I prefer gloves and rubber reins (also OK), but I learned the hard way on approach to a rather large coop between fields in the rain that all weather grip is also important. I traded out my leather show gloves for Uvex eventing / all weather gloves for the next outing, and didn’t lose my reins thank goodness! Again, bling-free please, and basic colors (brown or tan is preferred) but know that some hunts have a preference and you can always ask your hunt to be sure.
- Attire: Riding wear … ugh where do I start? I have a short (read: almost no) torso with boobs and curves (standard equipment for most women) that makes breeches gape at the waist, show coats bunch, any safety vest fit bulkily under a show coat and ride up under my chin. Four hours in a hunt field with a rubbing hunt vest riding up my chest was NOT fun. And let’s not talk about a four-hour wedgie please. Recently someone tipped me off to Cheata Sport and I do have to admit that when I first put on their full undergarment set of leggings + bra, I felt a bit like Jack trying to look younger and slimmer in this season’s Will & Grace. But it was surprisingly comfortable to do my morning chores around the barn in before heading out to ride, this case a hunter pace. Better was the fact that my boobs stayed put, I rode wedgie-free, and there was no chafing despite chilly yet damp weather. Score! Added bonus: my old school safety vest fit more loosely than before. I was able to snug it up, ride more comfortably, AND it didn’t ride up at all! YAY!
- Safety vests: These are a whole ‘nother matter, as mine was, well, old and therefore likely not safe anymore (compared to current standards). In looking at options, I was surprised to learn there are new body protectors with ventilation so that I don’t turn into a sweating puddle of goo under my attire when hunting in warmer weather. Even cooler was the fact that they now made air vests that just zip into a soft shell vest or jacket, or even a show or hunt coat! *Drool.* Sandy Ferrell, the woman that won the 3’9” green hunter championship at Devon this year, had worn her body protector over her show coat and recently switched to the Racesafe Provent from Soteria USA. After doing some research I saw in our Hunt sourcebook that vests are also allowed. Since I ride in so many disciplines, I decided on a Helite soft shell air vest that would fit underneath my hunt coat (which is a stretchy show coat version) but the hunt also allows us to wear it over our coats — especially recommended if you are in a traditional wool coat (it’s recommended to wear over if you’re not sure). Even better, this air vest can be paired with a body protector when eventing or out on hunter paces if I wanted. Thanks to the Cheata bra, I was a size smaller than usual, and actually riding safely and comfortably and even more exciting was that I was stylish, too! All within hunt guidelines. Wooohoo!
- Gear: And for your mount, horse protection is usually allowed, but the key message here is to use colors that match what the horse’s natural coat colors are so that it doesn’t stand out. If you are using road studs (or any kind of studs for that matter), be sure to use leg protection suitable for the conditions. Majyk Equipe’s eventing boots are what I’ve found to be best as they don’t hold water or muck and won’t pick up burrs when crossing uncharted or uncleared terrain. They also offer superior strike protection — I once had a neoprene boot cut clean through when an unshod horse accidentally clipped my horse from behind! That was something I’d rather not repeat as I was lucky my horse only had a small scrape from that incident. Had the other horse been shod, the outcome would have been far worse. I was able to get approval to ride in black boots (for my black horse) and my friend could ride her grey horse in white boots and I do have to admit they look dashing! As a bonus, I was able to get the approval to ride in black and royal boots which just happen to be my cross country colors since royal is also our hunt color. They also match my stirrups which are by FreeJump not only for safety reasons (no one wants to get dragged by their stirrup through the field in the event they part ways with their mount!), but also due to the fact that I’ve had four knee surgeries and they are the ones that I am able to ride in without issues for the longest amount of time. I already had my stirrups in blue, so I requested approval, which I received, but for future reference having a pair in a more traditional color may be preferred. Lucky for me, royal is our hunt color.
I’m sure there’s even more to the list that I’m forgetting, and as this is my first season as a member of the hunt, I’m still learning and would love to hear from other hunt members about what you do to stay safe in the field. Prior to this summer, I always rode in what I had on hand, but learned from watching my friend’s experience that safety is even more important than tradition and I am glad to have found a way to ride safely in style. I’m also grateful to have such a wonderful hunt to ride with that is so accepting of new technology and how it can fit into modern day hunting while still following age old tradition and good ol’ English style.
Remember, it’s never good to be fashionably late to a hunt, but it is always good to be fashionably safe. Tally ho!