There’s nothing more thrilling than watching an experienced field of first-flight foxhunters gallop across the countryside behind the hounds, easily popping over coops and post-and-rail fences, all while respecting their fellow riders. Except, of course, being a part of the action yourself.
One of the allures of first flight, besides the adrenaline-pumping pace and addition of jumps, is that riders are closer to the hounds. This group follows behind the huntsman, giving the field a chance to watch the hounds work. These riders are experienced and savvy in the hunt field, allowing them to stay with the hounds as they gallop over all obstacles, through water, and all types of terrain.
Needless to say, first-flight riders don’t acquire their skills overnight. It takes years of thoughtful training with knowledgeable mentors, fine-tuning jumping and cross-country skills, and gaining experience in the lower fields before riders move up to first flight.
If moving up to first field is something you’d like to pursue, there are several factors to consider. Long-time field masters and 30-year veterans of the hunt field, Rosemarie Merle-Smith, who often leads the field at Keswick and Thornton Hill, and Joy Crompton, MFH of Farmington Hunt, offer insight into how to make the transition as safe and smooth as possible.
First and foremost, before moving up, riders need to address any potential safety concerns. Though rideability in any of the fields is always a priority, when traveling at higher speeds in first flight, it’s imperative that a horse’s brakes are in good working order. At this level, overbitting is generally a better option than nothing having enough. No matter how generous the horse in front of you may be, his rear-end isn’t a brick wall to slow down your own mount. Having complete control of your horse at all times, especially at the gallop, is important for a safe, enjoyable day out hunting—not just for you, but for everyone around you.
“There have been a couple of instances where people I know crashed because they were out of control or too loose in the saddle, and they were lucky they didn’t get badly injured,” says Merle-Smith. “Plus, if you crash and burn, you ruin the day’s hunting for a number of folks who stop to assist you.”
Rider responsibility and capability is an integral part of being in first flight. “If you are going first flight, the field master shouldn’t have to be looking after you as they do in second and third flights,” says Crompton. “The horse and rider should be confident enough to be up to the challenge or get help from someone more experienced.” Consider enlisting the help of an experienced first-flight rider for your first few outings. Their mentorship and guidance can be invaluable for helping you learn to be safe and self-reliant as you and your horse get used to the more challenging field.
A major difference between first and second flights is the addition of jumps. Some second-flight field masters will allow their riders to pop over some of the smaller fences out hunting as a way to gain confidence before moving up, granted they don’t bother the other riders in the field. But that’s no comparison to the height and variety of fences that are jumped at speed in first flight.
To become more comfortable jumping out in the hunt field, a horse and rider should be able to school at home over jumps six inches higher than they will navigate out hunting, says Merle-Smith. “This is because jumps in the field are rarely on level ground and require going uphill or downhill or even on the side of a hill to get over the jump,” she explains.
Besides becoming accustomed to jumping higher fences, riders should also school over cross-country jumps that they will encounter in the hunt field: coops, post-and-rails, stone walls, or any other types in their hunt’s territory. They should always be able to jump with an easily adjustable canter, and they will also need to be able to easily trot a fence as well.
An experienced trainer can help fine-tune your general riding skills and solidify your position, giving you the best chance to safely control your horse’s speed, rhythm, direction, and balance when jumping. The more proficient a rider is, the better their chances are of successfully negotiating any obstacles they encounter throughout the day. “If one is moving up to first flight, they should be capable of hanging on, no matter how high the fence, deep the water, or wide the ditch,” says Crompton.
When jumping in the hunt field, spacing is an important consideration. Riders should always leave at least three to four horse lengths in front of them at the canter. “Don’t ride so close that you could end up jumping on the rider ahead of you if he falls,” warns Merle-Smith. “And if you stop at a jump, move away quickly, and wait until everyone else has jumped before attempting it again. Stop and try to fix any jump you have damaged, or you see anyone else has damaged, and report these damages to a Master.”
Have a Plan
When you feel ready to move up, chat with your Masters to let them know your intentions. Most hunts don’t require permission to go first flight, but it’s nice to keep them abreast of your plans.
As you look ahead to your first few hunts in first flight, choose the fixtures wisely. If you don’t know which ones are the most inviting for green horses or riders, ask the Masters or experienced hunt members. “When you do move up to first flight, it should be at quieter meets on weekdays with smaller fields, and if you’re lucky, smaller jumps,” says Merle-Smith.
Also, many hunts will allow riders to travel between fields, which is a good option for a horse who is still getting used to first flight. “We are happy to have folks start in one field and move to another, as long as they inform their field masters,” says Crompton.
Always have a back-up plan if your horse seems rattled, tired, or you are anxious. Make arrangements in advance with both first and second-flight field masters that you are moving your horse up, and if it's not going well, that you'd like to drop back. Then when then there's a quiet moment (usually a check or break in the action) and both fields are in the vicinity, approach your first flight field master and ask if it's okay for you to now drop back. Only go with their permission—never drop back without letting them know. Then quietly leave and let the second-flight field master know you’ve joined their group.
“It's not uncommon to move back to a slower, easier field as the day gets longer or physically taxing,” says Merle-Smith. “You want to give your horse a good experience.”
Preparing a Horse for First Flight
Rosemarie has been hunting since 1984, often whipping-in or leading the field at various hunts where her husband, Grosvenor, served as huntsman all over the country and even in Ireland. Over the years, the Merle-Smiths and their daughter Nicolette have learned how to successfully introduce field hunters to the sport.
For a horse to have a long career in the hunt field, advises Rosemarie, it’s important to begin the process slowly and one step at a time—trail rides with groups, proper conditioning, cubbing, and then getting the appropriate experience in the lower fields. By the time a horse is prepared to move up to first flight, he would have mastered all the skills and fitness requirements at the lower fields first. “If at any time the horse seems upset along the way, you should go back and take each step slower. Not all horses are suitable for hunting, so it might be a clue that your horse might not take to this sport.”
When training hunt horses, riders should never start up front and fast, as it can shake a horse’s confidence, Merle-Smith warns. “Take your time. Move up only when it seems your horse can handle it.”
Each step taken forward can end up disastrous, so it’s best to not overwhelm your horse, adds Rosemarie. “If your horse shows signs of becoming dangerous to you or others around you, leave with your mentor immediately. You don’t want be that person -- the one everyone else is talking about or complaining to the Masters!”
Crompton, who also whipped-in before becoming a Field Master at Farmington, helps organize safe and educational outings for riders preparing their horses for the upcoming season. “At Farmington, we are fortunate to have many occasions to practice riding in groups and going cross country,” explains Crompton. “We have ‘Walk & Talk’ rides once or twice a week in off-season.”
Additionally, the hunt offers a two-day clinic where experienced Masters teach different levels of riders about spacing, practical protocol (“Staff back” and “Ware hound”), opening gates, and riding cross-country in an orderly fashion. The second day is a real hunt, just for participants with their Field Masters explaining what is happening—a great opportunity for newcomers to first flight to practice what they’ve learned. The hunt is followed by a lunch that includes the huntsman teaching all various calls on the horn, a display of proper attire, and a Q & A session.
Whether you ride in first, second, or third field, always remember you are sharing your day of sport with others. It is incumbent for you to be as prepared as possible. By taking the time to gain the experience needed, working with seasoned professionals to hone your skills, and ensuring that both you and your horse are up to the challenge, you’ll have the best chance for a safe and successful move-up to first flight.