Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Farmington Hunter Pace 2016

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you may remember that a couple of years ago, I started incorporating the scrapbooking idea of December Daily into my blog. December Daily is basically any kind of scrapbook, pocket page album, or photo journal that documents at least one story for each day in December as a way to remember both holiday traditions and everyday life.  I do a December Daily scrapbook for my daughter each December, and I wanted to do something similar for Nimo.  I have really enjoyed the process for the blog and want to do it again this year.  So my first post in December is about the Farmington Hunter Pace.

I've posted several times about doing hunter paces with Nimo over the years and they have mostly been pretty great experiences.  For those unfamiliar with hunter paces, there are basically two types in Virginia:  the fun hunter pace and the competitive hunter pace.  I only do fun hunter paces with Nimo because he really prefers not leap over anything when there is a perfectly good path for going around it, and I really cannot blame him for that attitude.  Fun hunter paces have evolved a bit over the years and the rules can vary a bit depending on which hunt is hosting the ride.  But, hunter paces typically allow 2-4 members on a team that completes a 5-10 mile course through the countryside, with probably at least 8 obstacles like coops and fences to either jump or go around.  At least 3 divisions are included:  Jumpers (at least one team member must jump each obstacle), Pleasure (jumping is optional and western tack is permitted), and Juniors.  Some hunter paces include a division between Jumpers and Pleasure called Hilltoppers, for which jumping is still optional but riders typically compete in English tack and move out at a bit faster pace than the Pleasure division, but aren't as fast as the Jumper division.  Other paces call the Pleasure division Hilltoppers just to make things interesting:)

Winners are selected based on the optimum time for the course.  Whichever team comes closest to the optimum time, regardless of whether they were slower or faster, wins, and ribbons are awarded to either 4th or 6th place (depending on the hunt).  How the optimum time is set, though, is a mystery.  It can vary by course by year, depending on weather and footing conditions.  And it can vary by how fast each year's competitors finish it.  Some hunter paces set the optimum time as the average speed of all the competitors in the division that year while others seem to use times that are close to the fastest time, maybe because they are basing it on what a "hunt" pace would be or maybe for some other logic that will always remain unknown to competitors so no one really knows how fast they should cover the course.  This unpredictability is part of the "fun" for me, but it can be a bit aggravating to those who might be more competitive:)

This year, I found a steady partner (or rather, she found me!) and we did four of the seven hunter paces in the 2016 Fall Fun Hunter Pace Series in northern Virginia.  The final hunter pace in the series was held on November 6 by the Farmington Hunt down in Free Union, Virginia, which was easily the most out-of-the-way place we traveled to for the hunter paces.  The majority of the trip was on major roads, but the last 10 miles or so involved a lot of turns and one completely confusing section of road, which in good Virginia fashion was paved and then intersected with another road, after which it took a bit of a dodgy turn to the right for 15 feet on the intersected road and then a left onto a gravel road into nowhere without any kind of road sign to designate the path.  My GPS failed utterly and the only reason I made it was because my riding partner was right behind me and had been to the location the year before.  She had spent the better part of half an hour repeatedly turning around until she figured it out last year, so she was able to point me in the right direction.  (I have come to the conclusion that many horse events in Virginia are actually some kind of test to see how much you really want to ride your horse in the event or on the trail.  It can be so exasperating to find the darn places and get parked that only the most motivated people end up riding.)  Once on the gravel road (which was only wide enough for a truck and small car to pass each other but thankfully no traffic came from the opposite direction), we drove for a couple of miles in the wilderness and finally arrived at the location.  It was a field, which is normal, but there were so many people arriving at the same time that there was a traffic jam and lots of maneuvering required to finally get parked.

By the time I got parked and climbed out of my truck, I was sort of ready to call it a day.  My brain was fried from the crazy directions and driving for an hour and a half, and I wasn't sure I had much energy left for the ride.  But, I went through the motions of unloading Nimo and getting him set up with some hay, although he became immediately concerned because as I was leading him up to the trailer to tie him, a horse unloading in the trailer next to us fell on the ramp (which was a bit slippery from shavings and manure and at a very steep angle because we were parked up hill on a steep hill - and that is why I do not have a ramp on my trailer!).  I could tell Nimo was pretty freaked out by seeing the fall so close to him, and it took him a good 15 minutes to settle.  (The horse that fell was scratched from the ride even though he did not appear to be injured because his rider was worried about him.)

My partner and I went to check in and get our number and were surprised to learn that we were the last of the pre-registered entrants to check in.  But, we figured that would be OK because we wouldn't have to worry so much about being passed on the course.  We have been moving at a pretty good pace and quite close to the optimal time at the other paces that we did (and actually have only been passed 3 or 4 times total at all the paces we did this year), but we had an unsettling experience at the last pace where we were just walking along though a field while approaching some woods and two teams with 5 total riders galloped from behind us and past us without slowing down and without calling out to let us know they were behind us and planning to pass.  Both of our horses were so solid and completely non-reactive, but a green or sensitive horse could have really reacted and someone could have gotten hurt (which is why we reported the team to the ride management for unsportsmanlike behavior - obviously passing is OK, but even hunt riders should have the etiquette to at least call out to make sure the riders in front are aware).  It is actually the only time something like that has happened in all of the probably 8 or so hunter paces I've done, and I do realize that etiquette varies between different disciplines, but I'm going to draw a line and say that galloping a group of horses past other horses who are walking without at least calling out should be a violation in every discipline.

Photo by Rick Stillings Photography (cropped by me to protect my riding partner's privacy)
Anyway, we ended up being maybe second or third to last on the course, but that did not dissuade us from keeping to what had become our usual pace.  I have not clocked us, but my endurance intuition tells me that we ride somewhere between 5.5 and 6 mph.  On this ride, I think we ended up being closer to 5 mph, but that was solely due to the sheer number of gates.  This is the only hunter pace I've done where the competitors are responsible for opening and closing ALL of the gates.  (There are typically quite a few gates on hunter pace courses because the trail goes exclusively through private land that is often used for grazing cattle.)  Most of the gates only needed to be negotiated if you weren't jumping the obstacle, but there were others that all competitors had to do.  At the other hunter paces, the ride management stationed volunteers at the gates to open and close them, but apparently Farmington Hunt thought it added something to have the competitors do the gates themselves.  Or they just couldn't find enough volunteers, because there were literally at least 15 gates (I stopped counting because it was becoming too mentally taxing for a Sunday morning).  I was lucky to ride with someone whose horse actually competes in trail classes, so he is good at opening and closing them, but it took both of us to handle one gate that was on the side of a hill and about 12 feet long and heavy.  My partner stationed herself next to the post while Nimo and I pushed the gate up the hill.  Once we got the gate to the top, my partner moved her horse in to hold it while she did the latch.  Talk about teamwork!

With the exception of the gates, the course was lovely.  Some open fields and some wooded trails with almost no roads.  The terrain was quite hilly, though, so lots of good conditioning work for the horses.  The temperature was about 70 degrees and it was sunny, which to be honest, was a little much at one point.  I actually started whining briefly about the piercing sun beating down on me - it was the first weekend in November and I was really ready for fall!

We finished the course in an hour and 17 minutes (I'm pretty sure we used about 30 seconds to one minute per gate) and I think the distance was somewhere around 6 miles.  The winning time was an hour and 27 minutes (which I'm assuming is within a minute or two of the optimum time because the Hunt never published the optimum time - to keep us guessing for next year?), so we actually came in a full 10 minutes ahead and did not place.  But with 25 teams competing in our division alone, placing would have been a surprise no matter what the optimum time was.  (At one ride, we finished a mere 4 minutes ahead of the optimum time and still came in 8th place!)  Luckily, I don't do the hunter paces for a ribbon; instead, I do them because they are an opportunity to ride on land that is otherwise not available on a safe, well-marked course and to hang out with a friend and maybe even to get a bit of conditioning in for Nimo.  Plus, a couple of the rides are less than a half hour away from the barn where I keep Nimo, so the short travel time is a nice change.  Overall, it was a fun ride and provided the added challenge of the gates to keep us doing something different.

Photo by Stephanie Guerlain
 We did miss out out on most of the really good food for lunch because we came in a little later, but there were still some yummy desserts (homemade apple pie!).  The hunter paces I've been to often (although not always!) have a nice lunch for competitors after the course, but riding late tends to mean that the best food has been eaten by the people who must have gotten up insanely early or live close by.

My riding partner and I had such a blast doing the hunter paces this year that we are planning to try to get to all seven in the series next year.  Maybe Nimo will even consent to doing a jump or two!:)


  1. Gorgeous pics! A hunter pace is on my horsey bucket list. They're not at all popular out here.

  2. That sounds like fun! I'm in Sacramento and I haven't heard of Hunter Paces in our area. They probably exist, I just don't know about them. We do have lots of Poker Rides though!

    1. They may not exist out west - I think they developed out of the fox hunting that is done out here, so it may be a regional thing. And it's safer for the foxes!:)