October traditionally sees the start of the Hunter Trialling season. The trials were originally run to test hunters and their riders across the country before the start of the hunting season and were also enjoyed as something of a social event; a chance to catch up with friends and admire new horses etc. Most hunts still run a hunter trials event in the early autumn as a prelude to the hunting season.
The format of a hunter trial varies but usually consists of a course of two halves; the first shorter part is timed and the latter is not. Fences vary in height depending on the event. Riding club and small local events tend to be smaller, ranging from 2 feet to 3 feet and the course is shorter whereas trials run by hunts are larger and more challenging and are run over a longer course.
Obstacles can be anything you would expect to find when riding across open country out hunting and vary depending upon the hunt country; some areas have huge hedges with ditches (yikes!), whilst others feature dry stone walls and water ditches. Fences are built in the main from natural materials; hedges, water, logs, walls, straw bales, pheasant feeders, lamb creeps, ditches etc and make the most of the natural topography available to the course designer. There are not usually too many technical challenges, like corners or related distances although the occasional bounce stride might be put in to catch out the unwary.
In addition to the usual classes for novices and open competitors, a pairs section is run.
These days, riders wear cross country colours for hunter trials but traditionally a tweed (or rat-catcher) jacket and tie or stock would be worn. Horses would be plaited and usually clipped out in readiness for autumn hunting.
There’s something deeply evocative of happy times and exciting days from my youth when I looked forward to the brief trialling season. The days always seemed to be bright and sunny, with skies of the clearest, brightest blue and that special clarity of light that only comes at this time of the year. I remember setting off for the yard through chilly, misty early Sunday mornings to groom and plait up my horse with a feeling of nervous excitement building as a drove through the lanes. The hunter trials was the last outdoor fixture held by my local riding club and the day always had a sort of end of term feeling about it, as if everyone would disappear into hibernation for the dark, wet winter months to emerge again the following spring.
Now I just attend our local trials as a spectator and it looks like this year will be a good one. The trees are turning golden and red and thanks to the recent dry weather, a crisp carpet of fallen leaves crunches underfoot as we walk the course and the ground is perfect.
Good luck to everyone hunter trialling this year; see you next spring!