This section is from the book "Hunting: A Manual of Fox, Hare, Stag & Otter Hunting", by J. Otho Paget. Also available from Amazon: Hunting: A Manual of Fox, Hare, Stag & Otter Hunting.
There is no better place than the hunting-field to learn the art of horsemanship, yet in a crowd of three hundred at the covert-side you can generally count on the fingers of one hand those that are really first-class. One excels in hands, and another in his seat, whilst a third has the power of making his horse do exactly what is required of him, but the man who combines everything is very rare. The majority of men do not acquire the art until late in life, when loss of nerve renders them unable to enjoy the benefits of their knowledge.
Good nerve is the most essential requisite in riding to hounds. Therefore, if you wish to enjoy yourself, take every possible precaution to preserve your nerve, and do not imagine because it is strong at the commencement of life, that it will not fail under the strain of irregular habits. Be moderate in eating, drinking, and smoking. Avoid strong tea and coffee, go to bed early, and remember that a failing nerve may be always traced to the stomach. Want of nerve and funk are not the same thing, yet the nervous man is in a manner afraid. i do not believe the absolute coward exists any more than the man who cannot feel fear. We shall all have to face death some day, and i do not think any of us fear that moment; but it is the manner of death that makes us afraid. The soldier who has led a forlorn hope with a smile on his face, might be afraid if asked to do what a chimney-jack does every day; yet i do not suppose that death from a fall of a hundred and fifty feet would be any more painful than being riddled with bullets. The man who has the character of not knowing what fear is, will perhaps cower under an operation that a delicate woman would bear without a murmur. We are not all built of the same material, and the thing that frightens one man will have no effect on another; but I think every one fears something, though when the nerves are strong it is always possible to overpower that fear.
More accidents in the hunting-field happen through bad nerves than anything else, and the good horseman who has lost his nerve is more likely to fall than the indifferent one. He has always assisted his horse with hands and legs at a fence, but when his nerve goes he does it the fraction of a second too soon or too late, with disastrous results to himself. The man, however, who has always left everything entirely to his horse, rides still in the same style, and, not attempting to interfere at the fence, is much less likely to come to grief.
I would advise the beginner to leave his horse entirely alone at the fences. The art of assisting a horse to jump is a natural gift bestowed on only a few men, but it must be carefully cultivated by long practice and experience to be a success.
In Ireland the snaffle alone is generally seen on a hunter, but in England nearly every one uses the curb, and the majority of horses are over-bitted. In the hands of a perfect horseman the heavy double-reined bridle can do no harm, because he will not apply it at the wrong moment, but with an indifferent rider it is an instrument of torture to the animal and a source of danger to the man himself. There are probably more perfect hunters to be seen in Leicestershire than in any other country, and yet, if half a dozen horses jump a fence, one of them is certain to break it down. If you watch, you can easily see the reason for yourself. The good rider sails over without disturbing a twig, and then comes a nervous man or one who is a moderate horseman. He involuntarily clutches the reins as the horse is spreading himself to land, the curb tightens, the neck is bent, and the hind legs crash through the fence in consequence. If every one used snaffles, or shorter cheeked bits, there would be fewer falls, and the farmers would not have to complain of broken hedges. The beginner should remember this and avoid over-bridling. All he requires is a bridle with which he can control his horse, but even then he must not make use of the reins to regulate his balance in the saddle. If he should feel at all insecure, it is far better to clutch the pommel for safety than to make the horse's mouth bear the weight of his body. When the beginner has learned to sit over a fence without moving in the saddle or holding on by the reins he may then use a double-rein bridle, but it should only have a short cheek to start with. I have said that it would be better if every one used snaffles, but no one can become a perfect horseman who rides entirely with that bridle, and I advise only those with bad hands to use it altogether. There are many degrees in ' hands' between the very bad and the very good. Though the latter are only given to the few, I consider the former ought not to exist at all if the rider is careful not to get into bad habits at the start. The gifted few are born with a sensitive touch in their fingers, and when this is properly educated the slightest pressure will convey the rider's meaning to the horse. My father's advice to me as a boy was to imagine the reins were silken threads which any sharp pull would break.
I have known many first-class men across-country with the very worst of hands, but though they may get safely over fences and occupy a foremost position with hounds, they miss half the pleasure of riding, and their horses are always uncomfortable. These must be men of undaunted nerve, and they will generally get more than their share of crushing falls, whilst the state of their horses' mouths—dry, set, and perhaps bloody—will show what the poor animals have endured.
Don't get the idea into your head that your horse is to be stopped by physical strength, but always keep a gentle feel on the reins and encourage him to play with the bit. Keep your hands down low and your elbows in. The more you pull at a horse, the more he will pull at you.
Because a man is a nice horseman, it does not follow that he will be a good rider to hounds; but he will have a distinct advantage over the duffer on a horse, and those who desire to hunt should learn to ride. An exhaustive treatise on horsemanship would require a volume to itself, and my intention is to give here only a few hints, which I hope may prove of use to the beginner on his entry to the hunting-field.