Talk to any foxhunter, and he’ll have a story for you about the best mount in the field. Time after time, it’s not the boldest staff horse or the most sure-footed guest packer that he’ll describe, but a shorter and scrappier fellow: the ideal hunt pony.
Nearly every hunt has one of those special animals that becomes the envy of everyone in the field: game, athletic, smart, forgiving, with an instinctive understanding of the sport. Those extraordinary individuals become hand-me-downs, reserved and spoken for years ahead of time.
“That pony’s got to be able to get across a groundhog hole or a bridge or whatever else is in the way, on his own,” said Iona Pillion, who has been producing hunt ponies and young riders in Northern Virginia since the 1960s. “If your pony can’t do that brilliantly, you don’t want to put your little darling on it.”
We tracked down a few of the legendary first mounts who have left a legacy of capable, confident foxhunters across the country.
The Most Famous Pony In The Valley
It may have been nearly five decades ago, but Nancy Donnan Coleman still remembers the day that launched her children’s riding career like it was yesterday. She’d been on the lookout for a suitable mount for her children—four under the age of 8—and all she’d found were runaways.
One day she looked out her window and saw aman walking a tiny butterscotch and cream pony around her yard. Coleman marched out and politely informed the pony dealer she wasn’t interested, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. She finally agreed to keep the pony a week, but at the end of the time that barely-broke 4-year-old had found himself a permanent stall in her barn.
“He didn’t know anything, but he was so sweet,” recalled Coleman. “The kids taught him to do everything, and he was fantastic. They joined Genesee Valley Pony Club [N.Y.], and he became the games champion. He showed, raced, jumped cross-country, everything. To this day my four children still have horses.”
Coleman’s children took turns aboard the reliable 12.2-hand fellow with Genessee Valley Hunt (N.Y.), and Freddy earned a reputation for jumping any fence and galloping through any terrain without a second thought.
“I remember there was a well-known man from Buffalo hunting with us on this big, beautiful white horse,” recalled Coleman’s son Greg Donnan. “He said something to me about buying the pony. I told him I’d maybe trade him his big horse for my pony. Everyone got a chuckle out of that.”
After Donnan and his siblings outgrew Freddy, Austin Wadsworth, MFH, and John Chanler, whipper-in, went in together to buy the pony for their children. Martha C. Wadsworth had Freddy first, until 9-year-old Andrew Chanler demanded that his father deliver the pony to him. Freddy took Andrew from barely posting to helping his father whip in.
“There was no coop he wouldn’t jump, no ditch he wouldn’t go through,” said Andrew, Geneseo, N.Y., who passed Freddy to his sister after he outgrew him. “I remember one time we were out when Austin Wadsworth was hunting the hounds, and he was trying to collect hounds. But they were in a covert and they weren’t coming. He said, ‘John, you go get the hounds out. Andrew will stay with me and help keep the hounds here.’ I felt like a big-shot because the master said I could help. I could crack my whip off him and the whole shooting match.”
Freddy then went to whipper-in Ted Kinsey for his son Nat, then on to Thorne’s home, where he took her three children from leadline to first field. Eventually, after 30 years hunting, Freddy retired to the Chanlers’ farm, where he remained an ideal companion and the king of the property. He died in 2001, at the age of 40.
“I feel so lucky to have been able to ride the most famous pony in the valley,” recalled Andrew, who now whips in for Genesee Valley. “My kids are 7 and 5, and I think all the time, ‘How am I going to duplicate Freddy for them?’ ”
A Dependable Teacher
For decades, Nancy Dillon has been showing up with trailer loads of ponies every Saturday at Piedmont Hunt (Va.) fixtures. But one of those charges—Looking Glass—has the distinction of teaching the better part of the field their way over a coop.
Looking Glass, by Cymraeg Rain Beau, found his way to Dillon when he was just 3. Nineteen years later, he’s carrying Dillon’s grandchildren first flight.
“He was a lot of pony at first,” recalled Dillon, Philomont, Va. “You couldn’t catch him, and you had to turn him out with a lead shank. But after he was broke he’s been great ever since. He can trot or canter a four-foot fence whenever you want him to. He’s taught kids who have now graduated from engineering school and have kids of their own.”
Despite his spectacular breeding and lovely form over fences, Looking Glass found his niche in the hunt field, rather than the show ring, never having been a fan of jumps that were “flowered up,” as Dillon put it.
“He’ll jump anything in the hunt field. He’s a wonderful jumper, just like all the Rain Beaus,” she said.
According to Dillon’s daughter, Daphne Alcock, Looking Glass can win a team chase one day, then gallop cross-country in a packed field with a novice foxhunter the next. Alcock trusted Looking Glass to take her oldest daughter, Hayley, across tough country in the first field when the young rider was just 8.
“I’ve never seen him do anything common,” said Daphne. “He doesn’t pull, and when a kid tries to override him he does let them know. But he always tries to please, and he always wants to take care of the kid who’s on him. Even the kids who aren’t gutsy feel like they can do the world on him.”
Like all good ponies, he has the heart of a teacher as well.