The idea of the inter-hunt relay is believed to have been brought over from Ireland, by Cynthia Higgins, 15 or so years ago, and was first introduced in Pembrokeshire. “The idea,” explains Cynthia” is that there is an element of the unexpected – after all you never know what you are going to be jumping out hunting – but also an element of speed combined with control.”
What was once regarded as a fun, and in most cases, foolhardy way of buzzing up your hunter in the months before the lure of autumn hunting raises the more avid from their slumber at some inhuman hour, has become a fiercely competitive sport, requiring courage, skill, and yes, a dash of the rash.
Inter-hunt relay competitions take place at most of the major shows in England – the Royal Welsh at Builth Wells, the Royal Show at Stoneleigh and the Great Yorkshire – as well as at several local shows. But these days, it isn’t so much a question of hauling your slightly unfit hunter out of the field for an awkward round over a few scratch fences.
The fences are more along the lines of those in an Eventers Grand Prix – some fixed and some knock-down, although with rustic rather than coloured poles – and teams of four riders dash around them in relay form, sometimes competing side by side with another hunt over mirror-image courses. The fastest overall time wins.
Some hunts have been practising for months; they wear studs to ensure they can execute the tightest turns, and the competition shows a degree of professionalism that was hitherto unheard of.
Derided occasionally for taking the competition “a little too seriously”, these teams ride as if they are usually out to win, but after all, the reputation of the hunt is at stake. Which is a particularly precious concept.
Several of these hunts will face the biggest inter-hunt challenge of the year at the Silver Fox Inter Hunt Challenge in Oxfordshire later this month.
The Silver Fox Inter Hunt Challenge, which takes place on the 26 September this year, is the pinnacle of the season, with a £3,000 first prize, and the status that goes with it. 32 hunt teams gather at the Hambleden Estate, near Henley, for the event.
Teams run against each other over a mirror image course, with the fastest 16 teams going through to the next round, and so on. There are a total of five rounds, with the jumps increasing in height each time.
The scoring works on a penalty basis for refusals or knock-downs, although riders have the option of jumping a “joker” fence – in this case an Irish bank – to clear their score sheets.
“An amazing mix of characters take part,” explains Lisa Hughes, who runs the event. “There are some fairly portly cobs, with their Mr Sponge lookalike riders, who are pretty useful about the place; the point-to-pointers whiz round, with their jockeys sprawling about, and the eventers usually do a neat job.
“The Irish, who always produce very competitive performances, certainly aren’t all on smart neddies, while, you tend to find that those from the Bicester and the Pytchley, true to type, are kitted out pretty smartly.
“It is light-hearted, that’s the main thing. However competitive it may be, it is all very much in the spirit of hunting fun!” she adds.