‘Horses: they break your bones, they break your heart.’ And I can testify to both these things, writing as I am now with a severely fractured clavicle, and several cracked ribs as a result of a ‘riding’ accident earlier this year.
Oh, all right. I’ll come clean. It wasn’t a common or garden riding accident, it was a proper, fully-fledged, balls-to-the-floor hunting accident, honourably sustained while attempting to fly over a rather nasty, trappy fence on an excitable mare, on an up-till-then glorious day out with the Heythrop.
Do I regret it? No! (Well, only my idiot refusal to wear one of those inflating jackets which would have spared me an awful lot of grief). I don’t think this makes me particularly heroic, or stoical, or unusual – just a typical horsey person. If you love horses, you love riding, and you love hunting, then you know, without question, that you have discovered the closest thing there is to the elixir of life. Indeed, I’m all but certain that when – not just yet, I hope – I pass through the Pearly Gates, I shall find God not with robes and a white beard, but wearing britches, top boots and a red coat, sitting astride a magnificent 17-hand Pegasus. Why wouldn’t He? Hunting is the best thing ever invented.
And I’ve tried quite a few of them: fun things, I mean. A few months ago, I jumped off a 300-foot cliff in Africa, freefalling for two thirds of it before the wire caught me. That was quite exciting. So too was diving in a cage with great white sharks; going round the Isle of Man TT course on a Honda Fireblade; racing round Brands Hatch as the passenger of the world sidecar racing champion; skiing down the legendary black run at Tortin; nearly being shot by drunken soldiers in Uganda; and so on.
It’s a cliché that you’re never more alive than when you’re close to death, which I’m sure explains the rise and rise of adventure sports. Now that we no longer have major wars for chaps to test their mettle in, we sorely need a cultural substitute – ideally one that doesn’t involve violence. Kite-surfing and bungee-jumping are all very well but they’re never going to beat the original and best adventure sport: riding hell for leather across uneven terrain on a supercharged beast pumped up with adrenalin and huntlust and even more insane than you are.
This is the edge that riding has over very-nearly-as-exciting motorbikes: the fact that you’re dealing with a barely tamed, wild animal with a personality and mind of its own. It makes everything more unpredictable and more dangerous, obviously, but also more fulfilling. There’s that sense that you’re constantly being challenged (the moment you let your guard down, that’s when you’re screwed), but there’s also that emotional bond with your mount, which brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Seriously. Until I discovered horses, rather too late in life, I’d never been a particularly intense animal person. I’ve liked all our various pets, I love going for walks with our dog, but it’s only horses that bring out my inner 12-year-old girl and make me go all soppy. From the tacking up at the beginning to the sponging down at the end, each ride is like a special date with your dearest love.
Women often feel this even more strongly than men, which is another of the things I so love about hunting: here is arguably the most macho sport in the world where, bizarrely, the girls often outnumber the boys. And there are often children doing it too in their smart pony club ratcatchers. If hunting were invented now and legislated from scratch, none of this would be allowed to happen, especially not the kiddie part. That’s another of its glories: it’s a throwback to a vanished age – the one before Elf ’n’ Safety ruined everything.
If you hate the modern world as much as I often do, this unrepentant archaism has an especially strong appeal. When you go out there – dressed like an 18th-century gent in your handsome stock and your elegant fitted coat with its flared tails, the womenfolk oddly all the more sexy for the fact that their hair is in nets – you’re doing something that has been sanctioned by custom and tradition over generations.
There’s little that separates you from Siegfried Sassoon in the 1920s, Trollope in the 1840s or, indeed, the foxhunters in the late 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. This is England, and you are bound to its history and its landscape more intimately than most people will ever be lucky enough to experience.
It’s not just an old-fashioned world in the hunting field, I think, but a better world, where so many neglected values still prevail. Stoicism; courage; endurance; horsemanship; intense camaraderie; a sympathy with nature; an ability to read the landscape; thinking on your feet and acting decisively. (This is why Wellington preferred his officers to be foxhunting men.)
There’s no getting away from it, though. It is dangerous. And that, of course, is at least half its appeal – not just the adrenalin rush it provides but, also, the effect it has on hunting people’s behaviour. There’s a courtesy, a mutual respect, a degree of care and concern which you rarely find these days elsewhere in life, because everyone knows damn well that each hunt could be their last.
Until a few months ago, my dearest ambition was that, one day, I would go hunting with my daughter. I fear it’s going to remain unfulfilled. Though I’m perfectly happy to go on risking breaking my neck, the rest of my family has had enough. They think – not impractically – that 50 is really too old for a relative novice to take up so hazardous a sport. When you’re a husband and a father, I guess, your life is not entirely your own. But, even if I do never hunt again, my heart will always be out with those who do. You are my people. The bravest of the brave, the best of the best. Kick on, I say. Kick on!