As soon as I see Bertha’s rear end backing down the tailgate towards me, I think there has been some mistake. They told me they would find a nice quiet mare, given that I have never been riding before. Advancing upon me are the towering bay buttocks of the biggest horse I have ever seen.
In a daze, I mount the stool, held for me by Di Grisselle, joint master, shove one foot in the stirrup and try to swing myself over. Bertha chooses that moment to reverse, and I begin my first day’s hunting, in the last week of that ancient custom, by slowly and dreamily falling to the concrete farmyard floor.
So let us leave me there, between the stirrup and the ground, and review the reasons for this desperate act. ‘You’re very brave,’ everyone keeps saying, ‘not to say foolhardy.’ In fact, by the time I come to grips with Bertha I have been made — I suspect deliberately — apprehensive. ‘When I took up hunting again in 1997,’ said my host Charles Moore as we drove to the meet, ‘I hadn’t done it for 25 years, and I didn’t sleep a wink the night before.’ Really? I said, as it dawned that I had slept last night in the tranquillity of ignorance.
We passed a single magpie, and I could not help noticing Charles’s long mumbling prayer of propitiation, all about ‘say hello to Mrs Magpie …give her my best …my name is Charles Moore,’ and so on at such length that I became seriously rattled. Charles is a veteran, a pro. He is entitled to the pink, green-collared jacket of the East Sussex and Romney Marsh. He is never happier than when he is hurtling from the saddle, collarbone first, towards some dry-stone wall or briar patch, and if he was so spooked about events ahead that he was doing magpie prayers, what hope was there for me?
Apart from an hour on a camel in Egypt, and a few hours on an elephant in India, I had never been properly transported on a large mammal, and though I have done some things that are arguably brave, such as attending the births of four children and driving at 160 mph on the M40, I have never ridden a horse at speed.