Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Typology of Foxhunters, Part 5: Saddle Tramps

“There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode;

Never was a cowboy who couldn’t be throwed.”

Cowboy Proverb

This week we reach the halfway point in the Typology of Foxhunters with a consideration of Saddle Tramps. We have here an homage to the hardworking, too often unsung professionals who make up a critical segment of the foxhunting community. God bless ‘em, raise a toast, and pass the liniment!

So far in this exercise we’ve considered Nouveau Gentry, Juice Junkies, Falstaffs, and False Staffs. Still to come are Strivers, Posers, Hodads, Hunters Emeriti, and Chasers. Next week, though, we’ll take a little break with some excerpts from another piece in the Foxhunters Guide collection, “You Might Be a Foxhunter If…”

See the previous postings for my standard poetically worded Caveat Lector (Reader Beware!). And a nod to the wonderful artist Jean Abernethy whose “Fergus” provides this week’s pictorial embellishment.

Saddle Tramps

A few of those out hunting on any given day are professional horse people: jockeys, trainers, dealers, or grooms, as well as most huntsmen and some whippers-in.

The chasm between a pro and the average recreational foxhunter is akin to the gap between a cardiac surgeon and a Boy Scout who just earned his CPR badge. If someone’s paying you to take a horse out hunting, it’s because of one or a combination of several possible reasons.

  • The horse is a rank greenie that’s never seen a pack of hounds and when asked to remain calm in the face of an apparent attack by three dozen howling canines may strongly object.
  • The horse is fresh off the racetrack, not accustomed to going at a controlled pace behind several other horses, and when asked to do so may strongly object.
  • The horse is known to have bad habits, such as kicking or biting, and when reprimanded for such misbehavior may strongly object.
  • The horse refuses to cross streams, is unreliable at jumps, won’t stand at checks, won’t load onto a trailer, won’t unload off a trailer, bolts off a trailer like it was shot from a cannon, won’t stand when being mounted, bucks, crow-hops, or rears and when asked, no matter how politely, to refrain from such antics, strongly objects.

Should you ever be asked to work with a horse like this, even if offered a princely sum to do so, I have but one piece of counsel: Strongly object.

It is not hard to spot the pros in the hunt field. They will be the best riders and the most shabbily dressed. No one’s ever gotten rich riding and training other people’s horses. A pro’s clothing takes a severe beating and the pockets of those tattered breeches aren’t stuffed with wads of folding cash to buy new gear.

The pros ride in the back of the field, the traditional position for “servants.” However, while this might seem like they are being relegated to a subservient position, the foxhunting equivalent of the back of the bus, it is usually the safest place to be; not because the horses they're riding are dangerous, but because many of the non-professionals riding in front of them are. You're always better off staying behind those unable to control their horses. And the show can provide a nice bit of entertainment as well.

But despite the sheer enjoyment offered to the pros bringing up the rear, they often retire from the action early. This is likely because:

  • The horses they ride aren’t in good enough condition to hunt for several hours at a stretch.
  • The horses expend so much energy through their exuberant antics that even supremely fit animals soon reach a point of exhaustion.
  • The owner stipulated that he’d like the horse ridden for at least two hours and at the one hundred and twentieth minute the rider punches the clock and calls it quits.
  • There’s a string of eight other horses still to be worked back at the farm and daylight’s a-wasting.

There are two horse-related career options under the Saddle Tramps heading: exercise grooms and dealers with horses for sale.

Grooms are paid to take other people's horses out hunting for conditioning and to keep them settled in to the routine. This assures that when the owner goes hunting whatever horse he or she rides is ready to go and will provide a good day’s sport with minimal effort. (What services the groom provides to keep the employer properly conditioned is the subject for another article, possibly by another author.)

The remaining category of professionals consists of dealers – those with horses for sale, either their own or consignments. Used car salesmen have it easy compared to horse dealers. There’s no Kelley Blue Book with generally accepted prices. Take two horses with identical specs and one may be priced two or three times higher – maybe even more – than the other. Cars sitting on the lot don’t have to be fed, don’t require vet services, don’t need shoeing, don’t have to be trained or exercised, and don’t have to be taken out by prospective buyers under conditions where a wheel could fall off, the car could flip over for no apparent reason, or any number of similar disasters could occur, thus not only squashing the deal but lowering the object’s value. Many months and much further expense may be required to restore the asset to saleable condition. Worse still, the asset may be damaged beyond repair.

Some dealers tend to be the prickly type, easily riled by the slightest negative remark about a horse he has for sale. There’s no such thing as enjoying a relaxing day in the hunt field. Every outing is about making contacts and moving product. Horses aren’t the dealer’s buddies, they’re his business. Given that, some prickliness is understandable.

Those of us who lack the talent, athleticism, and courage required to be a professional rider are truly grateful for those willing to take our money and smooth out the rough edges of our beloved mounts. But I will offer up this word of advice to anyone with a desk job who might be tempted to consider entering the world of professional riding: No matter how romantically appealing their life may look, like the carefree cowboys of yore, envy not the path of the Saddle Tramp. Give your cubicle a big kiss and be thankful you can earn a living from the safety of a comfortable chair and not on the back of an explosive bundle of ill-tempered horse flesh.

© 2010, J. Harris Anderson

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