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November 9, 2012

Foxhunting Down Under Leads To Life Lessons For A Worried Parent

Danny was in his 20s, and although he was prone to jigging, his experience helped save Karen Haeusler when they galloped into a field filled with holes.

I got pregnant when I was 38. When that happened, my obstetrician handed me a chart with all the stats that didn’t inspire much confidence in my odds of a perfectly healthy baby. I got lucky. Henry arrived with all the required pieces and parts. I tried to have a perfect pregnancy, and I was determined to be a perfect mother. It would’ve been a huge help if my doctor handed me a chart that showed the odds of that not being in my favor either.

I’m a control freak, an A-type personality, and I adore order. I’m also a rider. This isn’t a great combination. It has become apparent, as the mother of a just-turned-3-year-old, that my issues have no place in the riding arena or with my son. I’m learning to let go and trust before the jump, across country, on the playground and during play dates.

My biggest test to date was my three-week-long trip with my son and husband, Darren, to Australia. Darren’s family lives outside of the capital city of Adelaide. It’s beautiful country; rolling hills, gum trees, stone houses and horse country to the bone, with a healthy dose of sheep and cattle throughout the countryside. And it’s flooded with foxes.

The local hunt is the Adelaide Hunt, and Darren has been friends with the huntsman, Andrew Grey, since he was about 14. Needless to say, hunting was on the agenda. Now I’ve hunted in Australia as a newlywed before (and that’s another story for another time) but as a mother, this was a new kettle of fish.

As Henry gets older, and the magnitude of responsibility of motherhood occurs to me, I feel my nerve slip away. I over-think everything, but I’m trying not to so I don’t think myself out of everything. I don’t want to end up knitting in a corner somewhere with an unhealthy addiction to “Cupcake Wars.”

I’m also a bit stubborn. Add that to a control issue, and it can get a bit irksome for those around me at times. As with horses, there’s only so much planning you can do and the rest is up to the universe. Stuff happens. I’m learning to let it. Stop fearing the “what if’s” and just roll with it. Hunting and riding have always been my outlet. I understand it’s important to take time for yourself so you can be a good mother. That’s harder than it sounds, but I know how much more balanced I am when I’ve had my “horse time.”

The Journey Begins

I started planning for our trip about two months before we left. Our luggage weighed to the ounce, extra diapers stuffed in each nook and cranny, clothes for four seasons, toys and games to amuse a toddler and (hopefully) a good sense of humor, we were ready to head to the airport. It felt like packing for a horse trials except I forgot the horse, trailer and all of my tack. An hour and a half into the journey, we blew a tire. Fifteen minutes later and an hours’ traffic delay, we made it by the skin of our teeth to our flight. Not an ideal start and a great way to unleash the anxiety fairy within me. It would be funny later.

After 30 hours of travel, door-to-door, we arrived in Adelaide on Henry’s third birthday, and a party was organized the following night with more aunts, uncles, cousins and family than I’d ever experienced.

We confirmed that night that Darren’s cousin, Kylie, would babysit Henry the next day while we hunted. Kylie and her husband have three girls ages 5, 2 and 4 months. I couldn’t quite understand why she’d want to add to that, but Darren assured me she wasn’t just being polite. On top of her experience with her own kids, Kylie had been a professional nanny.

When I put Henry to bed that night, I told him about our plans for the following day; a routine I did at home to prepare him for potential appointments or babysitters. To him the main point was that he got to see his cousins again and play with their toys—an idea that excited him quite a bit. Having Henry meet the relatives the night before their play date was like being able to school the cross-country course before a horse trials, and I felt like I’d done my homework.

First Hunt Jitters

The next day, Henry lit up like a Christmas tree at the familiar faces and new-to-him toys in Kylie’s tidy house, which resembled a piece of daycare heaven. He made a beeline for the play kitchen and, without looking behind him, said goodbye and blew us a kiss. No spooking, bucking or rearing, this kid headed into the arena like a pro.

Darren and I looked at each other, stunned, and almost ran to the car. When we got to the meet however, all my nerves about leaving Henry in a “strange” place with “strangers” morphed into riding nerves with each passing open mile of hunt country… and hunt fences.

The jumps here are in wire fence lines. They have a round rail on top of a wire fence like the airiest jumper vertical in natural wood you can imagine with no ground line and set between 3’ and 3’6”. Done on grassland on a horse I’d never sat on before. Henry who?

When we got to the meet, Darren plugged in the cell phone to charge and assured me it was best left in the car than to risk losing it out of a coat pocket. That’s when the “what if’s” raged in my head about falling off, getting hurt, Henry getting hurt, and on it went. I nodded numbly and briefly entertained not going, but then that stubborn streak showed up and powered through the voices in my head.

Andrew pointed out my horse, Bundy, tied to the cattle truck he uses to haul horses and hounds. Bundy was named after an Australian rum drink, Bundaberg, and I wondered if it was because you needed some in order to ride him, or because he was so wonderful, he made you feel giddy like you’d had some.

Bundy was a small bay gelding who looked kind and relaxed on the ground. As soon as I got on him, however, his engine revved, and he minced around like a zippy little rabbit. Great.

Our first fox gave us a nice warm-up across the open lake lands. I tucked in near the joint-master, Richard, who was whipping-in. However our first jump did nothing to settle my nerves. Andrew jumped it following the hounds slightly to the right. Richard followed, but his horse drifted and ended up blasting through the top rail, plucking the wire fence like a guitar string. The twang of the fence and subsequent clambering made Bundy’s ears prick, and before I knew it, he had run down the fence line and opted for the pure wire-topped fence to the right of the hunt jump.

I sat in the back seat, slipped the reins and hoped for the best. Not an ideal start, but this horse knew his job. The hounds struck a second fox, and we kept the steady pace of the day. On this approach, I opted to give Richard a good distance. I picked up a steady trot, kept my right leg on and opened my left rein. Two strides out, Bundy cantered and, though a bit deep to the base, jumped straight and over the rail. Huge sigh of relief and a big pat. I was now looking forward to my third fence. The foxes didn’t cooperate however, and there were no more jumps that day.

The meet was at 10 a.m., and we were back at the trailers by about 1:30. Once my horse was untacked, I made a beeline for the car to check the cell phone. No missed calls. I called Kylie to let her know we were back. I’m sure I sounded a bit peculiar on the phone, breathless and excited and relieved all at the same time; I’d survived the hunt, and my son was OK. I was starting to enjoy my trip.

After a hunt breakfast at the local pub, we headed to Kylie’s to pick up Henry. He was having so much fun that he didn’t even notice we were standing in the living room for a few minutes. We climbed into the car, and Henry and I were asleep in about five minutes.

A Close Call

My mount for the next hunt was Danny, A lanky, gray gelding who was in his mid- to late 20s but didn’t act like it… and jigged like crazy when hacking home. Super. I didn’t really click with him but was happy with his first two jumps—it made up for all his other idiosyncrasies—so I shut off my brain and tried to focus on the hound work. It also helped stop the creeping guilt that showed up at checks about leaving Henry.

Once again we covered miles of open country. As we followed the hounds across a swampy cover, I heard Andrew calling back towards Richard who started yelling too. Over the wind in my ears and the sound of galloping hoof beats, there was a delay in what they were saying. Then Danny stumbled, and I instinctively sat back and took a pull. They were yelling: “Holes!”

Huge, cavernous rabbit warrens and a minefield of them. Danny showed his class, intelligence and experience by pulling himself up and standing like a statue when he stumbled at the first sign of them. Killian, the whipper-in, was going at a flat gallop on a young and inexperienced horse and didn’t fare as well. He sliced through the air like a yard dart and went head first into the holey ground. His horse fell and was just short of somersaulting on top of his rider. I could hear Killian groaning and trying to sit up. His horse took twice as long to right himself as they’d both had the wind clean knocked out of them.

Darren was the first to reach the scene. I got off Danny and grabbed Darren’s horse. The terrier man zoomed over in his truck, and everyone pulled up. Though no doctors were out that day, a football coach (Aussie Rules football) was car following and was used to tending injured players. He got Killian sorted and back to the meet and later off to the hospital. We found out he’d fractured two vertebrae in his back, but they were stable and just needed rest and some good painkillers.

I spent most of the jigging ride home in tears. The thought that I’d been in those same holes but my horse saved me shook me up as the “what if’s” got the better of me. I was more scared now than before I left home. Darren talked me off that ledge, as I was certain I shouldn’t hunt anymore. I decided to put it out of my mind until the following week and, without hesitation, ordered a pint of lager to go with my lunch.

Getting My Groove Back

On Wednesday, we headed off to yet another fixture in the Lake District. Darren assured me that this country was a bit different from the other day but that I needed to trust my instincts and keep my eyes and ears open. I knew I needed to push through this. And I did… until the second fence.

Andrew put me on a lanky bay gelding named Gonzalo who had failed in the polo field. Gonzalo was brilliant across country, sure-footed, light and comfortable. He was polite in the bridle, and I felt comfortable helping to whip-in. I kept my ears open and watched where Andrew went like a hawk. Then we jumped the first fence, and it all went to pieces. The ground was boggy, and Gonzalo lurched into a flat canter and got way too long to the fence. I jumped in the back seat, slipped the reins and thought, “You figure it out then, you moron!” He scrambled over it, stretched out, and we landed in a heap on the other side. I was still in the tack, and Gonzalo was upright, so mission accomplished, but I was mad now.

Hounds were working a fox in the reedy cover beside the lakefront, and we watched them work from the raised bank. When they broke cover and we headed back toward the meet, Andrew trotted over this innocuous fence. I followed suit, also at a trot to get my horse’s haunches underneath me, but to no avail. All this horse understood was launching himself from two strides out, and my impression of a Victorian foxhunter showed up again. I was in my defensive back seat position, but in the middle of the jump, Gonzalo twisted and popped me out of the tack. By some miracle, I landed in the irons on the other side. The tears came once more, and I headed straight for Darren to tell him I was going in.

He hopped off his horse, Colorado, and grabbed Gonzalo. “Get on my horse,” he said.

I was about to protest but he glared at me. This horse was an ex-show jumper, originally bred for dressage, who got sour in the ring and was relegated to the hunt field. He reared for the first six hunts he did, spooked so bad walking home that Andrew’s wife, Corri, fell off and fractured her spine. He could only be ridden as a staff horse. But for some reason, I felt completely comfortable on him. Darren reminded me not to “bother” him and just hold him to the fences. I did as I was told, and we caught up to the hunt, two fields away and three jumps later. I was as high as a kite. This horse could JUMP, and all my fears disappeared.

Hunting With A Smile

At the second-to-last hunt I got my big wish on this trip: to ride a horse called Remmington.  I’d hunted him on a previous trip and fell completely in love. He reminded me of my Irish horse back home that would jump anything, do anything and was an over-sized puppy dog. He was a horse that anyone could ride (and did), and he was getting up in years so he had a lot of miles on him. However, I suspect after all the “issues” I’d had on the previous horses, Andrew decided I needed a break. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t a stronger or braver rider, but that passed as the sheer joy of being on a familiar friend had me grinning like a crazy person the minute my butt hit the saddle.

It was an awesome day, and we jumped some of the biggest fences of the whole trip. I felt very lucky to be on Remmy and probably bruised his neck with all the pats. The hounds worked really well that day, and we ran long and hard. We finally got back to the trailers at 2 p.m., and the last fox of the day ran in a tidy fashion straight back to the meet site and met his demise by a huge stone wall. To top it all off, when we picked Henry up from Kylie’s this time, he thanked us for bringing him to “the lady’s house” to play. I was over the moon.

The last day of hunting was a brilliant day, and I was so comfortable with Danny now that I truly whipped-in and felt helpful. Danny thrived on a job, and we scooted about here and there, sometimes with other whips, pushing hounds back or bringing them on and essentially HUNTING. We even jumped a road double of fences and to top it off, had all the hounds on hacking home, with me in the front and not a smidgen of jigging from Danny.

Heading Home

The journey home was long and arduous. At one point during the longest leg of the flight, I was sure Darren and I were going to throttle each other. Henry was wide open the whole time and could only be placated by a constant stream of movies, activities and our undivided attention. Both of us just wanted to vegetate.

We were all slightly depressed about leaving. It’s home for Darren, but for me, Australia has become a place I know I want to be for various reasons. The sense of family and support was something I’d never known. It’s powerful, and I think it’s important for Henry’s upbringing. The hunting and horse life is also something I find attractive, and every time I’ve hunted there, I feel like I’ve improved as a rider and as a person. It toughens you up and teaches you things about not being afraid. My fears can get the best of me and cause me to over-think everything, ignoring my ability to sense and feel and trust. I want more of that, and I want to apply it to my job as a mother, spouse and friend.

I had two goals prior to this trip. One was potty training Henry and the other was to do the hunters with my new, young horse. I’ve been afraid of both of those things because it’s uncharted territory for me. Now I know I don’t have to be perfect at it. I just have to try and allow things to take their natural line. I feel braver now, and though I may still fear certain tasks, the upside is that I know I can change that fear into an accomplishment if I just stick to it, get in the backseat when it gets shaky and trust myself.

 

 
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