“What is it about hunting?” Alastair MacLeod of Patey Hats asked me in a Scottish accent as we sat on the plump sofas of the Grand Salon in the Royal Dublin Society last week, sipping tea and balancing plates of scones on our laps. “Some of the people who buy Pateys hunt every day. What makes it so addictive?”
Alastair comes from six generations of tailors. In addition to Patey Hats – England’s finest custom hat maker – he owns Hand & Lock, who do splendid embroidery for haute couture, film, military uniforms, and more. He understands many things, including craftsmanship, heritage, business – but the joys of fox hunting? Not so much.
I tried to explain: It’s the sharp early mornings. It’s the fields spread before you, the quiet of them, the secret revelation of them when most people are still asleep. It’s the things you see: a white frost, a glinting dewy spider web, a sunrise, a fox dashing across a distant hillside. It’s the feeling in your body, the exhilaration, the cold, the fatigue, even the aches and pains. It’s the bravado. It’s the camaraderie – between the other people who love the sport, but also between the people and their horses, and the humans and their hounds. Fox hunting is one of the last opportunities modern westerners have of working alongside enthusiastic animal partners in the open air – and that’s a deep and ancient thing.
Dublin Horse Show is a sprawling, diverse, modern, urban show, but it’s also a reminder of a time when most work required the assistance of equines and canines, when the development of a new breed of hound, carriage, or saddle horse was as big news as a new computer is today.
The Dublin Horse Show was founded in 1864 by the Royal Dublin Society, with support from the Agricultural Society, as part of its mission "to improve Husbandry, Manufactures and other Useful Arts”. The horse show was – and still is - intended to promote and reward the best possible Irish horse breeding. Although the show is held smack in the middle of Dublin city, with a huge thoroughfare in front and streets of mansions behind, its 19th-century bones are still apparent in the Ladies Side-saddle class, the Ridden Connemara Pony class, the Irish Draught Mares and Foals class, the Cobs class, the Working Hunter class, and others.
Only Irish-bred horses are permitted to compete in these classes, and most of the horses are traditionally bred. The Ladies and Junior Side-saddle champions are smooth-gaited and elegant, often with a bit of Irish thoroughbred blood. The Connemara is a native breed developed in the 15th Century, and the Connemaras at Dublin Show are small horses, usually grey, with long manes and tails; they look just like the dapple grey FAO Schwartz rocking horse I longed for as a child! They’re athletic, sure-footed, kind, and they “get fat on stone” (they need only minimal amounts of food). The Irish Draught was the backbone of Irish agriculture and hunting for hundreds of years, but is now an endangered breed, with only 400 foals born each year. The Draughts at the Show are strong solid animals, a bit like a refined draft type, but graceful as cats and capable of jumping huge fences. The Cobs at the Show mostly dozed through their class in spite of the shouting children, waving balloons, throngs of spectators – they looked the perfect confidence builder - while the Show Hunters were a bit lighter and more forward-going, but still calm and obedient, with plenty of bone.
I saw all these classes this year, and the horses looked to me like good servants - sensible, capable horses you could trust to keep you safe across all kinds of country. The Dublin Horse Show is billed as a showcase of the Irish Horse, and it’s also a shop window – almost all the horses are for sale, and often at very reasonable prices. I happen to know, for example, of a lovely 8-year-old that was in the ribbons in the Dublin Ladies’ Sidesaddle Class and ‘has a bit of hunting done’ that can be had for €5000. Most of the winning Hunters at Dublin – some of the finest-bred animals in the world – can be had for under €20,000. Given how important a good hunter is, how one treasures him and relies on him to keep one safe – this seems to me remarkable and wonderful.
There are no tailors in my family, but my grandfather bred champion Tennessee Walkers and Labrador Retrievers to hunt duck and turkey on his Tallahassee shooting preserve; my brother did a bit of foot beagling; my mother enjoyed driving Hackney Ponies round the wide dusty roads of her family’s dairy farm. I’m the first to admit I don’t know much about making things, but I do understand the pleasure of working with animals in spectacular countryside, and that’s one of the great pleasures of fox hunting.