The Thorougbred Hunter Horse
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
HUNTERS—If the combination of means, opportunity, and no more than a moderate bodily weight enable a man to own a thorough-bred hunter, he can desire nothing better. The blood horse is at all times, and, in the writer's opinion, in every country, the pleasantest and, as often as not, the easiest to ride. He can skim over Leicestershire, surmount the formidable earthworks which divide field from field in Devon, and can prove himself quite a hunter in every intermediate kind of country. If, therefore, the man who can ride can mount himself on a thoroughbred horse, so much the better for him; but the novice may well content himself with a more ordinary animal until he has learned enough to be able to utilise to the full the advantages the blood horse offers to him who really means " going."
It is a wonder that more men do not attendthe various bloodstock sales and pick up some of the cheaper yearlings and two-year-olds. Plenty of "rubbish" is bred annually; but a horse as "slow as a man in boots" for racing purposes is nevertheless a fast hunter, while an unfashionable pedigree does not matter for the hunting field. Of course these youngsters will require to be thrown by and forgotten for a year or two, and they would be out of place in the stable of any one who cannot himself make them into hunters or obtain the services of some one who can.
As, however, the thoroughbred hunter is not common, men must ride something else, and hunters vary in character as much as they do in size. In the field one sees every possible type, from the horse which only just misses being thoroughbred, the old "cocktail" in fact, down to something very nearly related to the cart-horse ; while in size they range from fourteen to seventeen hands, with an occasional specimen below and above these heights. Thus it is practically impossible to put forward any stamp of horse as the true type of hunter, except in the highest class of horses, horses fit to carry fourteen stone and upwards up to the tail of the hounds in a stiffly fenced country.
Just as the tyro at fiddling can do with a less valuable instrument than a " Strad " or a " Joseph," so the novice at hunting can enjoy a great deal of amusement on a very moderate priced mount. Yet even this cheap conveyance must possess certain attributes. He must, of course, be workably sound ; and here let it be written down as a rule never to be broken that no one should, under any temptation of price, buy a roarer. In nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand the infirmity will grow worse with each succeeding season ; while the noise is unpleasant both to the rider and other members of the field. Again, no horse with defective vision should ever be bought for hunting purposes, nor should the purchase of a horse suffering from fever in the feet or navicular be entertained, for no humane man would find pleasure in riding a horse which is suffering from pain, not to mention the fact that a steed so affected would bring next to nothing if offered for sale. Opi nions differ as to the risk in riding " nerved " horses ; but the novice had better keep clear of them.
The hunter on which early experience is gained should be temperate and bold, that is to say, he should go at his fences only just quick enough to inspire his rider with confidence, and jump his places cleanly enough to show the beginner that a fence is not such a terrible affair after all. A lad or man who learns on a slow sticky jumper will be a very long time in acquiring the art of getting readily over a country ; but as the beginner will not be in a position to sit down and ride with the best and boldest, it will be no harm if his early mounts be rather aged and show come amount of wear. They will know their business, and teach the learner his, while blemishes, of course, will not matter in the least. Make and shape, however, must not be left out of consideration, not merely because a nicely made horse is pleasant to look upon, but because without a certain conformation a horse is no good for use in the hunting field. A horse with bad shoulders is not comfortable to ride ; he will never gallop freely, and is very likely to fall when going down hill. Good quarters and hocks are equally necessary, or he will never spread himself over his fences or get up hill; if he is somewhat long in the back it does not matter. It is a cardinal defect in the show ring; but except when a very heavy weight has to be carried it makes little difference in the hunting field.
The visitor to a fashionable country, such as the Quorn, Pytchley. Mr. Fernie's, the Cotesmore, and others will at once be struck by the number of fine horses to be seen at the covert side. A few may be home-bred, and a few picked up by chance at comparatively small sums; but the majority will have been bought from dealers at a high price. The dealers making hunters their chief line of business have agents all over the horse-breeding districts, Ind they themselves travel about to pick up all the horses which they deem saleable. They have to be transported home, in many cases schooled and brought into better condition ; frequently credit has to be given ; and accident, disease, and death have to be reckoned with, so that by the time a really good horse reaches the buyer's stable he has cost a good deal of money. Any one, however, who has once ridden a really perfect hunter will cease to wonder at the large sums of money given for horses of the right kind. The hunter which can gallop fast, will not turn his head from anything, wants norousing and but little holding, one that skims over water, and can jump timber, that will walk through a gap, and so spread himself at his fences as easily to clear an unexpectedly wide ditch on the far side is not to be picked up every day, and when found must be paid for.
Still there are hundreds of men who cannot afford hunters costing from a hundred and fifty to four hundred guineas, and who have, of necessity, to put up with something cheaper, though it must not be supposed that a long price necessarily means a good horse ; while, on the other hand, many a first-rate hunter is bought at quite a low figure, and it frequently happens that a horse regarded by his owner as being no more than middling is found, when the question is asked him, to possess galloping and jumping abilities of a high order. Nor must it be forgotten that much, very much, depends upon the man in the saddle, for some men could never show to advantage on the most brilliant hunter that ever looked through a bridle, while others will " shove along," to use an expressive hunting field phrase, on almost anything.
The upstanding, weight-carrying hunter necessarily commands the most money, owing to his scarceness. He must show as much quality as possible, and be able to gallop and jump with the lighter horses ; and hunters fit to carry men like the late Mr. Heywood-Lonsdale, Master of the Shropshire, or the late Mr. Bisset, for so many years Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, can only be found now and then. No one at present has discovered how to breed these weight carriers to order, and they are entirely chance bred animals. Occasionally a thoroughbred horse gets a weight carrier from a mare which may not be of any great power ; sometimes a cart stallion or a cart mare is responsible for a great strong horse in which cart blood is not observable, but it is seldom that two weight carriers are bred by the same parents in two successive years.
The light weight rider has a very wide field open to him from which to mount himself, as he can either ride weedy well bred, or thorough-bred horses, or can get along on smaller horses, horses, that is to say, which would bring good money were they but a little bigger ; but, although people talk a good deal about the excellence of little horses, the almost universal feeling is in favour of horses from about 15 hands 3 inches to 16 hands r inch in height, and a horse standing less than 15 hands 2 inches must have a very grand reputation to realise a long price. Here then is the light weight's opportunity ; he can afford to buy misfits of all kinds, while, if he be a good horseman, he can afford to disregard sundry little peculiarities of temper and temperament which would cause the horse to be rejected at once by any one ready to pay a good price for a hunter approximately perfect.
One hears a good deal at times of the horse for this country and the horse for that; but much of it is pure theory. One or two propositions certainly stand out prominently, one of them being that an indifferent horse is of no earthly use in the shires. If his rider does not want to jump he must at any rate gallop from gate to gate; but if a man "goes" on the grass he must have a good horse. But the horse for Leicestershire is also the best horse for every-where else, and in no hunting country in England does the workman buy an indifferent hunter if he can afford a better. Mr. Charles Brindley, better known perhaps under his pseudonym "Harry Hieover," wrote in one of his books that a fifty pound hack was quite good enough for Surrey. Well, if any of the packs hunting over that county find a good fox on a good scenting day and get away on good terms with him, any one who thinks a common horse good enough for Surrey will learn the erroneousness of his opinion, especially if the line happen to lie in one of the Vales, the Godstone Vale, for instance. " Do you call the Blankshire a difficult country?" a young man is reported to have asked of a Nestor of the Chase. "My friend," was the reply, "all countries are difficult when hounds really run," and this should be kept in mind by horse buyers. In Essex, with its interminable plough, a stranger would scarcely imagine that there is ever much of the gaudy side of fox-hunting to be seen, but let him be out when scent lies and a stout fox is before the hounds, while the going is deep; the best horse in England will not then be found too good for the occasion.
It has often been said that you want nothing more than a cob in order to enjoy the sweets of hunting the wild stag on Exmoor or the Quantocks. There are many days on which a cobwould suffice for Leicestershire or Northampton-shire ; but the man on a cob who happened to be in a fine run which came off with the Devon and Somerset during September in the present year (1897) would have seen very little of it. Similarly, in the more wooded portions of Kent and Sussex, it will be found that the best horse procurable is better than an inferior conveyance.
So far as regards the physical characteristics of different countries, horses very soon grow accustomed to a change of fences. A Leicester-shire horse would not be long in mastering the banks of the Blackmore Vale, or even the big banks to be found further west, but it is to be noted that, as a rule, a horse used to a flying country becomes clever in a cramped or banking country in less time than a horse accustomed to banks learns to jump freely in a flying country. Many Irish hunters, when they first come into the hands of English dealers, are by no means free jumpers, and take no little time to school before they perform in a manner which will commend itself to the buyer who desires to ride over a flying country ; but a horse which may be regarded as somewhat rash over this description of country soon learns not to rush at banks, and quickly gives up attempting to fly them. Although, then, one can scarcely have too good a horse for any country, a man may have too good a horse for himself ; that is to say, if a man does not jump, there is no necessity for him to go to the expense of buying a hunter fit to go anywhere. With respect to those good sportsmen who can afford small sums only for their horses, it may be asked where do the fifty and sixty pound horses—many seen in the field cost less—come from? They come from everywhere. A hunter out of an unknown stud sent to the hammer never realises much ; a horse which will not go in harness or into a horse-box has a good deal of his value knocked off, while a tendency to pull or be light-hearted is amongst the causes which make hunters and other horses pass from hand to hand at little money.
And now just a word to the inexperienced on the subject of buying horses. Buying at auction is very dangerous, unless a man be a very good judge and know something about the horse he proposes to buy; nor should the novice rely upon his own judgment when buying privately.
There is no royal road to buying a hundred pound horse for half that sum, nor for obtaining a fifty pound horse for twenty-five pounds ; so the beginner should at once abandon all idea of bargain hunting. Those who live in the country can generally hear of a horse by mentioning their wants to their friends, and when the time comes for selling the cub-hunters by auction a suitable mount can generally be obtained, or recourse can be had to a dealer who deals in the kind of horse required. It is a very common idea that every horse-dealer is a rogue, but there are just as many honest men in that calling as in any other, and if the beginner go to a respect-able dealer, tell him what he wants, and the price to which he is prepared to go, he will probably not have reason to repent his line of action.