EAST CLARE FARMERS DRAG HUNT… dipping a toe into the water
With the weather turning colder, the days getting visibly shorter it is time to prepare for the season ahead. Hunting season will begin in the next few weeks here in Galway, and as I sit in a cold tack room, cleaning saddles and bridles all bundled up from the cold, I am reminded of my first foray into the wonderful world of hunting in Ireland….
My first attempt at foxhunting in was in the not so distant past, with the East Clare Farmers Drag hunt. Why a drag hunt? My foolish notions that somehow it would be easier than a live hunt, and back then i was mistakenly under the impression that foxhunting equated to animal cruelty. Oh how wrong was I?
My opinion was based on the usual rhetoric that one would hear and read about. Always one sided information and horror stories. Never in my wildest dreams did I envisage myself drag hunting, never mind hunting. I didnt even understand the difference between the two activities. It never occured to me that drag hunting and hunting was a family activity, and both kinds of hunting compliment each other.
Over the years since my first drag hunt with the East Clare Farmers I have evolved my opinion, witnessed for myself the cunning skill of the foxes, enjoyed the company of fine people, with this pack and other local packs. One cannot make the mistake to judge without knowing, which i was guilty of. But that is a story for another day. Today it is about reliving the glory of my first day hunting.
D-Day was to be 16th January 2011….. Location Oranmore, Co.Galway. Research and some snooping on the chosen was hunt was performed. I reached out to others who I knew were going to attend this particular hunt, and everyone said “you’ll be grand, great day out”.
The morning of my first hunt started off quite unremarkable, but on arrival to the yard I realised this was a big deal. Just like a live hunt, the proper attire had to be worn, horses needed to look clean and smart, and all the chores needed to be completed before we even thought about getting any horses ready.
My mount for the day was Flame, a gorgeous chestnut Connemara pony. She had seen me through some rough scrapes on my journey to this point so she was put in charge of keeping me safe for my big adventure. I was lucky that the meet was to be held close to the yard, 40 minute hack, so I could use that time to settle my nerves and gain a little confidence. On arrival at the meet with the my two fine companions, we signed our lives away! Such a great start to the hunt… I was introduced to the people in the hunt, welcomed, encouraged and had a little bit of fun made of me, all with the aim of calming the nerves. It worked for a while until the off was heralded. Remounted, hounds let loose to follow a scent of raw meat with Perno poured over to give a strong scent. There was no turning back for me.
The field was huge that day, 100 riders if not more, all riding to raise funds for a local charity. I stuck close by my two stalwart companions, James and Mike, seasoned hunters that had taken the job of introducing me to hunting very seriously. We all queued for the first wall, which to me, looked very innocent but it caught out a few good riders in the field, and it also caught out me. I wasnt the first to go down, I certainly figured i wouldn’t be the last. After being given a leg up , I thought the hardest part of the day was over, the first(and only) fall was behind me… before me was 4 fields with huge walls and bushes to navigate. By gosh, I went for it then. My pony was a seasoned hunter and I let her do all the hard work, she chose the spot on the wall, I tucked in behind another horse and we sailed over 10 walls in a row! BEST RUN OF MY LIFE… the only run of my life up to that point! The hunt circled back to the first field and we all had a breather. I was joined by James and Mike to see how I had gotten on, and a few others from the hunt to congratulate me on my “balls” to keep going after the first wall. One really couldnt have asked for a better first run. Feeling so proud of myself and like I could take on the world I was eager for more. My smugness lasted up until the moment I realised that the steward trying to reunite a phone with its lost owner was acutally holding my phone. Rookie mistake! I had forgotten to zip shut my pockets. With my head held as high as I could manage, I trotted over and retrieved my phone. If the entire field hadn’t known before then that it was my first time, they all did now.
What was to follow, was to be one of the most memorable days. There was walls, ditches, drops, some fallen tree trunks, and the odd double of walls. It was at one of these obstacles that I witnessed first hand, the great spirit that is embued in hunting, be it drag or live.
I had positioned myself in the middle of the field to give me a better chance at the walls. My hope was that others would knock the walls and fell a few stones. Good plan that was working for me up until one wall. I had tucked in behind James and his mount for the runs, but they were faster so I was being left further behind. Eventually I was following a complete random stranger who refused the second part of a double of stone walls, and naturally I didnt jump either. It was our first refusal, and with it I wondered did i have the guts to be able to do this on my own. With the crowd watching we retraced our steps and the combination in front of me sailed over the wall, but Flame refused again. I found this situation very confusing as she hadnt refused before. This was all new to me, James and Mike were ahead with the rest of the hunt and I was left trying not to get in everyone elses way. At this point, 3 hours into the hunt, my legs were like jelly. I didnt know where I was going to get the strength to squeeze Flame on. She refused a couple more times, I was disheartened, and by now I was the last rider, bar the safety steward. Hats off to the crowd, they got behind me, clapped and roared as I made yet another final approach to that wall. Two strides out, Flame skidded to a stop, I just had nothing left in me! All the adrenaline and confidence I had built up just flooded out of me. The crowd had witnessed me at the highest point, and now at my lowest that day. A collective groan rang out as she came to another stop in front of the wall. Yet again, I couldnt believe that I couldnt get over this wall. It wasnt even the biggest I had faced that day. There was no other options out of this narrow strip of land, I had no choice but to turn around and try again. Another lesson was on the cards! Never, ever give up….
The whole hunt had halted for me, the crowd were there shouting support, no one was leaving until I had made it through the other side. It was only me holding Flame back at this point, I knew she could jump, I just had find the guts to ride on through and do it. Facing the wall again, i urged her into a canter, squeezed my legs on her belly and tried to picture us landing safely on the other side. This time I refused to look at the wall, I kept my eyes firmly peeled on the hunt group patiently waiting in the next field. I shouted at Flame to keep my nerve, and to give myself a boost. Somehow I had made it over this time. From the crowd rose a cheer so loud, they were clapping and everyone congratulating me. I took a bow as gracefully as I could from the saddle. Flushed from the effort I rejoined the hunt. I had learned a valuable lesson at that wall. Never, ever give up and to always ride through. The rest of the hunt whizzed by at a glorious pace, jumping dry stone walls and hedges. With my confidence as high as it had ever been, I didnt have another stop or fall for the rest of the day. Many other riders during the rest periods came over to congratulate me on my ride that day. I was truely sad that the time had come to hack on home with our horses. It was the people, on foot and on horseback that had made my day. While each rider wants to ensure their own safety, no one was left out, and the whole hunt banded together to get anyone, mainly me, through a tough spot.
I am thankful that I was encouraged to participate, to keep steady and canter on. It certainly gave me courage, the inspiration, and confidence in myself and my abilities. I would recommend that everyone come hunt with the East Clare Farmers Drag Hunt. Since the beginning of our yards association with this pack they have welcomed everyone we have brought to ride with them. Truly a great pack that deserves recognition for their activities and endeavours.
The East Clare farmers hunt was formed back in 1992 by a large number of local people who love to follow and take part in other hunts in the area. It comprised of mainly farming families and local equestrian owners. On the night the hunt was formed a committee was elected and officers of the hunt selected. One of those officers is also one of the Hunt masters, Mr. Tom Hannon . Others involved in setting up the hunt now have children and grand children hunting on a regular basics with the East Clare Farmers Drag Hunt.
The Hunt is hugely lucky with the vast amount of varied countryside that’s on offer to them. They start the season off in October in Bridgetown, Co. Clare , where there are lovely bitches, dykes and some stone walls on offer. Hunting territory is varied and stretches from Clare, Tipperary and Galway . If you visit their Facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/eastclarefarmers.draghunt?fref=ts) you can enjoy many photos of each meet, see the different land and just how popular the drag hunt is. The land has mixture of stone walls, ditches, dykes, man made fences.
The sent is often some raw meat with Perno poured over to give a strong sent which the hound follow.
The pack is comprised mainly of dog hounds and some young pups. Their bitch Rosie breeds pups each year and they are brought on and trained when the time is right and the older dogs retired. The pack if picked by the Hunts man. anything from 10 to 14 half couples would hunt each week.
Over the past number of years many different charities have being involved in raising money in charity rides with the East Clare Farmers Drag hunt. DSI Ireland , Irish Heart Foundation, Milford, local organisations in Oranmore and Claregalway.
Drag hunting is organised weeks and days before it takes place, all the farmers are asked and the route is sent , ditches are marked so we know where we jumps. the drag is either pulled by horse and rider or lad on foot. They would set of 15mins before the hounds and followers. As a live hunt the hounds lead the pack giving tongue as there always a scent to follow. Following the hounds are the huntsman, whips, then hunt masters, the field including field masters, members and visitors from very young age of 7 to riders in their 70s. From families comprising of both parents and there children , to mother and father bringing on their sons and daughters and the individual who just loves to join in. The hunt is mainly family oriented.
As the route is set for jumping each week, it can suit all levels of riding abilities . Often jumping being optional for all. We find drag hunting suits an awful lot of people. You are always guaranteed jumping, always varied jumps, you have great fun for hours each week. Its not an expensive sport to join. The experience a young rider and horse can gain is invaluable for their future.