Like so many things, it all happened by chance. We were staying for the weekend at Heathfield, our farm near The Plains, Va. We had not owned it very long and were not connected in any way to the horse world there. On a warm Labor Day weekend, the phone rang. It was a foxhunting friend wanting to speak to Charley. We met Mike because his wife was at Holton-Arms School with me. I always liked her. She was a friendly person who remembered me when we saw each other at an event at the races in Middleburg. It was so nice to see someone I knew who was a resident of the famous “Middleburg.” After that, we saw each other as a couple because Charley and Mike hit it off from the beginning. Because of her pregnancy and the birth of a son, Carolyn could not help keep the horses fit enough to hunt.
So Mike asked Charley if he wanted to ride with him to exercise his second horse. It was not so surprising that Mike invited Charley to ride with him because they were friends, and Mike knew Charley could ride. In those days, Charley was so much more interested in Golf and tennis. It seemed natural to him to point me in the direction of riding. It did not interest him at the moment. Charley said, “No, I am not a rider, but Bonnie is. Ask her!” And the rest is history.
That first day riding with Mike DuPont (an experienced fox hunter) showed me that my body remembered how to ride. I was scared he would think me a novice because I was not experienced at fox hunting. It was an effort to know what to do because I had NO IDEA. But of course, I have ridden from my earliest childhood and spent hours and hours in the saddle in Luxembourg under the tutelage of a Prussian riding instructor. It all came back to me easily. But, that first day was frightening. After riding, I went in to speak to Carolyn. Every time I came down to ride that horse during the weeks that followed, I would sit and talk to her. She encouraged me to move out of the city and to our house Heathfield, in the country. I still remember a bit about that first day. I was nervous. It was a beautiful typical Foxhunting country. We walked, trotted, and cantered, we probably jumped something small but not too much on that first day. Nevertheless, I was hooked. It was so much fun!!! Riding through the Virginia terrain, hilly in places with some wide open meadows in between, small creeks to cross is marvelous. Later there was Goose Creek to ford, if it was not too full, which is a sport in itself. You don’t need foxes to make it better. But they do make it better, which is something I was to learn later on.
We continued to ride on weekends a few times. I loved it. Mike asked me to ride the horse during the week to keep him going. I would drive down to the country one or two times a week to exercise this horse by myself. Mike was working in Washington D.C. and did not have time. It was exciting for me to go out by myself in the countryside. Coming from our house in the city to a rolling Virginia property, beginning to turn golden and orange as the leaves changed, was calming, restorative and beautiful. When he told me someone bought the horse, my heart sank. It was such sad news and unexpected. I felt tears prick my eyes but tried to be happy for him. He could tell how disappointed I was. He said, “Bonnie, why don’t you buy a horse for yourself?” That had not yet occurred to me. Of course. Why Not? If I could find a place to keep one, why not?
Soon enough, I was horse hunting. An old friend of my parents, Bettina Ward, helped me decide on a hunter to buy. She went with me to look at horses and taught me about hunting at the same time. I bought my own hunter, a thoroughbred who had come from the racetrack. His name was “What Not.” He pleased me and gave me confidence because he always took the jump. He never refused. Basically, I could depend on him to jump except in the very rare instance of there being some obstruction, making it impossible. Best of all, he never “ran away.” That made it fun to gallop across a field, knowing there was no danger that my horse wouldn’t calmly slow down and stop when I asked him to.
Some nights I would stay up until 1:00 am in the morning (or later) in Washington DC. We owned a part of Nathan’s, a bar in Georgetown. We spent a lot of evenings there after our children were in bed. We had a nanny who lived in our house. So I could stay up late and then get up at 5:30 am to go down to hunt during cubbing season. Thank Goodness, as the season progressed, the starting hour for the hunt was 10:00 a.m. so I could get more sleep.
Later, Charley got interested in hunting because it looked like such fun. His uncle had been a Master at Casanova Hunt near Warrenton, VA. He had gone hunting briefly as a boy. Now he began to really enjoy it. He learned everything he could as quickly as he could. Within a few years, he became a more dedicated hunter and horseman than I. I kept having more children and took time off. I never hunted as often as Charley once he got started. Our whole life changed for the better once we began hunting as a family.
Charley wanted to move to Heathfield almost from the moment we bought it. I did not. He was right. I was wrong. But that was very much still in the future when Mike made his offer to Charley about going riding. It took five years to get me to move out of Washington to live permanently in the country. When I did, I knew immediately that it was the right thing to do. What a trip! Most of my happiest memories have to do with that place. How I loved it.
The first time I rode with Mike was long before we moved to the country. We were living on Kalorama Road in Washington, DC. Our house was in an exclusive area where there were many embassies and homes of important people. Our house was lovely. It was a dream of mine to live there. It was hard to give it up. But what I didn’t realize was that a better dream was at hand at Heathfield. Living in the country was different. When I started to see the sunrise and sunset every day, it felt like someone took the bandages off not just my eyes but my whole body. It made my heart thrumb with excitement. It felt as if I came alive at last.
The huntsman at Orange County Hunt was Melvin Poe. Though he has left this earth and now hunts with that great Heavenly pack of hounds in the sky, he remains a legend. I kept my first hunter at Melvin and Peggy Poe’s farm. Occasionally I had the privilege of going out with Melvin just for fun, just the two of us. He was simply amazing. He knew so much about hounds and hunting it just oozed out of him. I learned so much from him, and yet it took years to really have a deep understanding of the sport. How lucky I was to have had that one-on-one with Melvin, to keep my horse there and have Peggy call me up saying, “Are you coming hunting in the morning?” Those were wonderful days. The memories are still fresh today. It pleases me very much that several of my children are fox hunters today. What a legacy to pass down to new generations. Tally Ho!
Copyright©. 2022 Bonnie B. Matheson