Thursday 29th of October 2020
The Hedge Hopper

Hedge Hopping: Hunting & Happiness

We are delighted to introduce our new Hunting blogger, artist and marketing consultant Sophie Harden, who is based near Banbury, as she gets her Autumn adventures in full swing and revs up for the hunting season.

The Bicester Team Chase

The Bicester Team Chase

Bicester Team Chase

Bicester Team Chase

On a dark, foggy and damp March morning in 2016, I headed up the M1 to Leicestershire. As I drove, I thought about the 30 horses in the past month I had sat on, and the seemingly impossible task of finding the ‘right’ horse.

Certainly the idea of having a few days at the end of this season on said horse were dwindling. Tacked up and ready to go in the stable I gave Otto a once over. Checking feet and limbs, nothing abnormal other than the odd wire cut or scrap or bang from jumping the famous Belvoir hedges the week before. As I pulled him out he was bigger than expected, an Irish sports horse type (no breeding of course, he is Irish after all) with a kind eye, great jump and a fun attitude to life.

A spin around the fields and a jump in the school, backed up by glowing reports from the hunting field and a 5 stage vetting then he was mine!

Morning out with the Bicester

Morning out with the Bicester



One thing taken away from this experience of buying a hunter is do your research! References are so valuable on a horse’s behaviour especially on the hunting field when manners are crucial. Find out if it kicks (horses or hounds), queues for fences, has ever been noticed for the wrong reasons! It will pay dividends and give you a bit of confidence when hunting starts.

With a summer packed full of weddings, long weekends and producing one of my mother’s homebreds, July was upon us and following a trip to The Festival of Hunting at Peterborough it was time to get moving.

After a long break in the ‘top paddock’ Otto had doubled in size in more ways than one! A big tummy, mane down to the floor and I was also convinced he had grown a hand. We started the mundane and tedious job of the walk work for 6 weeks, slowly getting to know each other, saving each other from horse flies and the summer heat as we pottered around the lanes. I forgot how you see an area in a totally different perspective when riding and having moved to the area only a year before it has helped me to get my bearings.

Morning with Warwickshire

Morning with Warwickshire

The Harley Hedge Hoppers - L-R Sophie Harden - Otto Sarah Holmes- Alan Flora Seddon - Douglas Rhian Smith-Wiz

The Harley Hedge Hoppers – L-R Sophie Harden – Otto Sarah Holmes- Alan Flora Seddon – Douglas Rhian Smith-Wiz

Not everything is peachy and delightful with horses and they are often there to challenge us in more ways than one. A scratched eye in the first week, shoes being pulled off left right and centre and spooking down the road like a newly backed 4-year-old were some of the challenges of the first few weeks of work.

It is surprising how some horses take time to settle to their new surroundings and build trust in new owners, but perseverance is key. They certainly teach you a thing or two about anger management and patience!

Life is full of ups and downs, 8 weeks had past and Otto and I had our first jump in the school, this was where I knew it was business. Although a bit unbalanced and hunter like as we turned, he just ate up everything I put him at.

Canter was certainly the key point to work on.  With the brilliant facilities at Culworth Grounds and with a lot of ‘boring, but productive’ mornings in the school on ground and pole work he improved substantially, so much so that I thought it be wise to put a competition in the diary.

After a few kind pointers from Robert Snaddon and Lucy Jackson, mainly sit up, look up and hands up (trying not to revert back to the hunting/racing seat) we entered up for a 1m ODE, ambitious perhaps but why not push yourself!? With a 33 dressage, double clear and a couple of time faults XC we were 6th in our section and thrilled to bits.


Sophie and Otto left, Sarah Holmes (sister) and Alan right (Harley Hedge Hoppers)


Autumn Hunting


Out with the Bicester

Post hunting spa

Post hunting spa

To strike whilst the iron was hot, Sophie Buckley, showing guru and owner of Culworth Grounds, advised me to try the showing scene, so I entered the working hunter at Addington. I don’t think I had been to a show since I had pigtail plaits and legs stuck out sideways on a 12hh pony. Nonetheless, I walked the course and felt slightly uneasy when it was announced as the pre HOYS warm up!

A seemingly straight forward course with a water tray and style, Otto jumped clear and at least we got to come back in for the showing section. Pulled in last, I stood at the end of the line like the last person to be picked for the school sports team. We went through the motions, the undressing, standing for confirmation and trot up. He stood like a donkey on the confirmation, then took a lot of fast walking and dragging to trot, less than ideal! Then it was time for the judge to ride and one thing I hadn’t really appreciated was what my horse looks like ridden having been the only one riding him.

As I stood on the ground I was relieved to see that actually he looks fab and that the judge was seeming to have a nice time and spending a good few minutes longer on him than the others (perhaps he was just being kind). To my utter shock the final line up was called and I was pulled in 4th, an amazing recovery. Otto and I cantered around the arena to the HOYS lap of honour music, both with a big grin on our faces.

Watch this space, maybe working hunter might be something for next year?

With all this showing, dressage and jumping Otto and I got down to what he was bought for… hunting. We had our first morning out in early September, with the Warwickshire near Chesterton at the ungodly hour of 6.30am.

We unboxed and stood as the sun rose, a beautiful calm start with the morning mist settling on the stubble, mixed with the Autumnal smells of harvest singing through the air. The hounds worked well given the heat and dry ground (scent is often best cold and wet) and the sound of the hounds in full cry is something that everyone should experience and still at the beginning of each season it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The field of about 35-40 had a good spin around the newly harvested fields, with all horses being thoroughly excited to be out again. Although not getting off the ground apart from crossing a couple of ditches, Otto behaved like a pro; stood like a rock, went off on his own, opened gates had hounds all around and under him; the references were true ‘he knows his job’.

The next morning I was out, was with the Bicester down near Kirtlington Park. I spotted a few friendly faces having hunted with them a few times the previous season.  Another misty dry start, still very little rain had fallen and the conditions were challenging.

I was only out for a couple of hours, but fun was had and we were kept busy, yet another part of the country explored. Talk was in the air about their up and coming team chase at the beginning of October which I had already earmarked in the diary. I had been trying to build a bit of an idea of a team over the past few weeks and between my sister and a good friend Flora Seddon we had decided to enter. Time to step up the training and get Otto over some hedges!


The hedge training took place at Washbrook Farm, Aston le Walls. With every cross country jump you could imagine, and manicured grounds, my sister and I put our horses to the test. We warmed up over a few roll tops, logs and brush fences and worked our way around to line of the hedges from novice to advanced as they went up in size. Naturally we started small then worked up, incorporating a course with the advanced hedge with a whacking great ditch in front to finish. Both Otto and Alan sailed round and our minds were a little more at ease when we came to walk the Bicester Course the following weekend.

Big and bold would be the way I would describe the course. Hedges came thick and fast with 6/7 of the Open hedges shared with the intermediate course. Our team ‘The Harley Hedge Hoppers’ kindly sponsored by Harley Equestrian was made up by myself, my sister Sarah Holmes, Flora Seddon and her eventing buddy Rhian Smith. 

The course rode very well and all of the horses skipped round, although not without the odd satnav error that you may see on the head cam clip below. Speed was not our strong point and no prizes were won – tactics for next time…no parties the night before, walk the course properly, remember it and pick up the pace. A great day was had by all and some brilliant organising by the Bicester Hunt.

Team chasing is such a fun sport to get involved in and is great to give your horse a bit of confidence for the upcoming season. It’s not often you get to school over a line of immaculate hedges with three other horses, it also helps you get your eye in when first get faced with a hedge on a day’s hunting.  There are still a few left in the Autumn season, so book yourself in.



Sophie’s animal portraits make wonderful presents. If you would like to discuss a commission, contact Sophie on 07740 777488 

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