Mind your manners: Hunt etiquette guide

If you’re new to hunting there are a few etiquette pointers you need to know, as hunting expert Sarah Milne explains

Hawke’s Bay Hunt (Image: KAMPIC / Kerry Marshall)

Hunting etiquette is the unwritten code associated with the sport which ensures hunt day is safe and enjoyable. Many of the traditions are based on common courtesy: arriving at a hunt, it’s normal to greet the Master, and when landowners are present, they should always be acknowledged.

“Basic manners go a long way,” says Sarah. “So saying: ‘good afternoon Master’, ‘hello Huntsman’, and ‘thank you very much’ at the end of the day is really important.”

Who’s who

Make yourself aware of who is who, so you can be appropriately polite and give way when needed. You need to be able to identify the Master, Huntsman and the first lot of Whippers-In. The Master and Hunstman will generally wear red, although that’s not always true, because some hunts wear green, especially in the South Island, says Sarah.

The Master is responsible for running the hunt, kennels and hunt day. He decides, in consultation with the Huntsman, how the country will be drawn and when the Huntsman will blow for home. His role along with the Huntsman is to provide the best sport possible and maintain the wellbeing of the livestock and the property hunted. Riders are expected to attend the breakfast at the end of the day to be present when the Master thanks the landowners for sharing their properties and making the sport possible.

The Huntsman cares for the hounds and maintains the kennels and the hunt property. He exercises the hounds prior to the hunting season to ensure they are fit and ready to hunt. The Huntsman controls the hounds in the field on hunt day, using verbal and horn commands.

There are normally two ‘Whippers-In’ on a hunt day and their role is to help the Huntsman control the hounds. They ride the outskirts of the hounds and are ready to move the pack on in the direction desired by the Huntsman. The Whippers-In are responsible only to the Huntsman and Master.

Murray Thompson leads his last hunt as Hawke’s Bay Huntsman (Image: KAMPIC/Sarah Alderman)

Your first time

If you’re new to hunting, you should always phone the Master the day before to say that you’re coming, and then introduce yourself to the Master on the day of the hunt, says Sarah. “The hunt will usually allocate somebody for you to ride with, to help ensure you’re safe and understand some of the etiquette on hunt day.”

Staying out of harm’s way

If it’s your first day hunting, you are best to stay back behind the lead-goers, says Sarah. However, when you go to jump your first spar, make sure you are following a horse you are confident will jump. Always try to stay in sensible places. You must always try to leave fresh ground for hounds to scent, so you should not ever ride over ground they are likely to work.

Giving way

If a huntsman or the hunt is riding towards you, you must turn your horse’s nose to face them, never his bottom. That’s especially important if hounds go down a race: you should halt, turn your pony’s nose towards them and give them room. “That’s an etiquette that is so often missing,” believes Sarah. “Many times when I’ve been whipping-in I’ve been trying to get down a raceway and it’s just crammed with people who won’t let you canter through.”

Gate etiquette 

Learning to open and shut gates while mounted is an essential skill if you want to hunt. On hunt day it’s vitally important that you shut a gate if you are the last one through it, even if you have to dismount to do so, says Sarah. Also, if you pass through an open gate while on a run, you must call ‘gate please’ to the next rider behind you, who should wave and acknowledge they’ve heard you. “This means you’ve passed the responsibility on to them. If you’re going through an open gate and nobody is calling gate, you must ask: “Is this a gate please?” Only when somebody says no, do you not have to call it,” explains Sarah.

Learning how to open and shut gates on horseback is an essential skill (Image: Trish Dunell)

Common mistakes

Probably the most common mistake first-timers make is taking out a horse who hasn’t jumped across a fence-line before, says Sarah. “If you’re going hunting, you should always make sure that your horse will jump a spar and lowered wire confidently. You have to give your horse the belief that he’s allowed to jump across a fenceline.” If you’re just starting out, Sarah suggests putting a very low jump or even a pole on the ground, in a gateway. Build the height progressively, so the horse gets the feeling of jumping across it. Then move to an actual spar or a lowered wire.

Make sure your horse is confident jumping across a fenceline before you tackle a spar or lowered wire like this one (Image: Trish Dunell)

Get used to riding in a group

While it does take most horses a little while to get used to hounds, the mass of horses can be even more unsettling. “If I was starting out a young hunter, I would go out trekking in the summer-time and get him used to being in big groups of people. At the beginning, pick treks where they only walk,” advises Sarah. Many hunts now run treks as fund-raisers, to help pay the Huntsman and feed the hounds.

What to wear

On hunt day, says Sarah, you should wear good joddies, usually white or cream, along with a shirt and stock. “You should use a proper, traditional hunting stock, not a pre-tied one, and there are a couple of reasons for that,” she explains. “Initially it was to help you stop breaking your neck, but of course if you’re going to break your neck, you’re going to break your neck! But once I was out hunting and my horse cut himself really badly in the wire, so I took my stock off and pressure-bound it. It really did make a difference. So, a proper stock is the correct etiquette and it also looks really good.”

A tidy jacket is a must and while all hunts have their traditional colours at first, when you are just visiting, you won’t wear a coloured collar. A crash helmet is essential, and it’s nice if you have a black silk cover to go over the top. Later, if you start hunting more seriously, you can use a hunt whip which has a handle to help open and close gates. Hunters don’t wear boots on their legs, because of the risk of getting caught up in wire. The saddle blanket can be any colour, although many people have saddle blankets with a pocket, for a hip flask or lollies, says Sarah.

About Sarah 

Besides being a respected rider and coach, Sarah is an equestrian journalist and author of the book The Thrill of the Chase: celebrating hunting with harrier hounds in New Zealand, for which Sarah hunted all around the country, recording every aspect of the hunting season.

Sarah Milne is a respected trainer, breeder and coach (Image: Trish Dunell)
  • This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony