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December 27, 2012

Learning To Ride Backward

Big coops and gallops downhill have helped Mollie Bailey learn just why previous instructors told her to put her heels down! Photo by Liz Callar.

So many horsemen I admire learned to ride by the seat of their pants across fields or in backyards before civilizing their seats with formal instruction. In this day and age that’s much rarer, with society growing more litigious and more top riders than ever hailing from major cities. I’m a product of this trend, growing up in a non-horsey urban area. I learned to ride at the end of a longe line and in a ring, eventually showing hunters under the guidance of excellent horsemen who did their best to impart good horsemanship as well as correct position and style onto me.

When I moved to Virginia to work for the Chronicle in 2007 I knew it would be hard to make the connections to to ride such outstanding show hunters as I had before, so I put the word out that I had half-chaps and would travel. At the beginning I filled in aboard eventers, a dressage mount and a few rehabs, and it wasn’t long before a friend asked if I would help leg up a few foxhunters for the season.

Looking back, it’s tough to remember exactly what I knew about foxhunting before I started. I knew there were sandwich cases involved, and breakfasts that didn’t take place in the morning. And just living in Middleburg imparted that the canines involved were, emphatically, not dogs.

In some ways, it was an obvious transition, as I’ve always had a soft spot for tradition and felt keen on sampling different kinds of port. But I’d scarcely ridden outside the ring before moving to Virginia, and I’m also a naturally timid rider. But that’s where the port comes in, right?

You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A First Impression

I made an impression from the start. A few weeks in, I was out hacking a green mare with my foxhunting friends when we happened upon the staff from a local hunt club exercising hounds. Despite my protests, I was introduced as a “champion show rider,” and the staff kindly invited me along. My mare promptly showed her spirit, and I pulled instead of kicked, sending me through the air and into the grass, while she went to explore the neighborhood. While I picked myself up, a master galloped off to collect my horse, and a local steeplechasing legend introduced himself by asking what I was doing on my own two feet.

Regardless, a mistake was made, and a little while later I was invited to join the hunt. Gradually, I improved a bit and found I really liked the practicality of the sport. At first hacking across country with my friends’ dogs seemed like fun, not any kind of training, as did trotting up the road and stopping around the neighbors' houses to visit. But once we started hunting, our horses behaved perfectly with the hounds racing around, and they stood placidly at checks. I learned that you can trot any jump and invented all kinds of new four-letter words in my head as I galloped downhill at speeds that made my stomach drop.

Magical things could happen in this sport that I just haven’t seen anywhere else. Early season 6 a.m. meets mean that if the fixture is near the barn, I can hunt for an hour and a half and have my mount hosed off and back in his field by the time I slide into work at 9 a.m. And nowhere outside of a Jane Eyre movie can you go trotting by beautiful estates and run into young hunt staff who tip their caps and wish you good morning before cantering off. 

Necessity Is An Excellent Teacher

Years of lessons in a ring failed to impart certain aspects of horsemanship that clicked on the very first day of cubbing season. Throughout my junior years, trainers tried in a hundred ways to teach me not to jump ahead, but my body never listened. But that first time I aimed my horse at a seven-board coop that I couldn’t see over, all of a sudden, I was much better balanced. The refrain of “heels down” sounds dull in a perfectly groomed ring, but it really means something when the footing gets iffy and you’re on a run.

But some things I already knew stuck. I’d always excelled at the peskiest of those 19 equitation tests in the USEF Rule Book (mounting from the ground), and the flatwork I learned from years of schooling show horses and drilled into my new charges made them much more biddable. None of my fellow foxhunters could believe that it was my first time out after the end of that day, which I attribute to the effective seat drilled into me over a decade and a half.

Even though I have one of the more horse-friendly jobs around, it’s still not easy to find time to hunt, so I really feel for someone whose boss doesn’t understand. Hunt trail-ride season heats up while I’m in Kentucky for the late summer championships, and indoors gets in the way of cub hunting. By the time formal season kicks off I’ve been out of the saddle for a month but itching to get out hunting.

There’s a ways to go before I’m even an intermediate foxhunter, but I’ve stopped embarrassing myself—and my friends—as badly. In the long run, it’s made me a much better horseman, and I’ve finally found a sport that involves carrying a flask.

Each Thursday, we'll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Mollie Bailey, on our editorial staff, grew up training with SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y., showing in hunters and equitation, and worked for Susie Schoellkopf and Jen Alfano for several years after graduating from the writing seminars program at Johns Hopkins University (Md.). She lived in Europe and Brazil before settling in Middleburg, Va., where she lives with a (theoretically) rotating slate of foster cats and hunts with the Piedmont Fox Hounds.