April 19 03:18 PM

Aspiring to new heights

Tradition lives with horses, riders in Metamora Hunt Club

Erin Ferguson Strayer and her horse, Tahoe, literally soar through the air at Metamora Hunt competition earlier this month. The pair won the Mini Prix prize of $4,999 with a no fault round. photo by Catherine Breakfield.

June 27, 2007
For 80 years Metamora Hunt Club has graced the hills of Lapeer County with its flashing scarlet hunt coats and the musical voices of baying hounds. But unlike their England fox hunting counterparts, who originated the "Riding to Hounds" tradition in the mid- 1700s, Metamora Hunt members are busy protecting wildlife, maintaining trails, sponsoring horse shows and hosting picnics for the landowners who graciously allow them to hunt on their land from August through March.

Fox hunting consists of mounted riders chasing wild quarry with a pack of trained hounds. The sport was developed out of necessity, you might say. An overpopulation of foxes in Europe in the 1700s proved an undesirable nuisance—fox were considered vermin. Farmers with chicken, sheep and small poultry wanted their numbers controlled. They were tired of losing their livelihood to these crafty animals.

The first hunt club in Michigan began in 1911 inGrosse Pointe. The Bloomfield Open Hunt came in 1914. The Metamora Hunt Club dates back to 1929, when a group of avid Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield fox hunters built the present kennels located on Barber Road. The Grosse Pointe Hunt's facility, later to be renamed the Metamora Club, was located at Win-A-Gin Farms on Delano Road. The Grosse Pointe Hunt clubhouse (later Metamora clubhouse) burned down in the 1980s. As development moved in, Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Open Hunt moved to the sparsely inhabited rolling hills and woodlands of Metamora, an excellent fox habitat, and the Metamora Hunt Club evolved.

Much of Metamora Hunt Club's budget is earmarked for the improvement of the land and maintenance of trails and bridle paths. Throughout the year hunt members participate in activities to protect and enhance the local ecology like trimming trails, picking up trash, rebuilding bridges and conserving wildlife. Many stables and training facilities sprouted up. Owner and trainer Tim Wright of Waverly Farm and Debbie Butler Proulx of North Adams Farm have established their training facility at Win-A-Gin and many hunt members throughout the years have utilized their professional expertise.

Twenty-two-year-old Rachel Elizabeth Wright grew up in hunt country and is an avid fox hunter like her dad. She's followed in her father's footsteps professionally, now a riding instructor herself with clients of her own. She enjoys teaching what she knows and watching her clients reap the rewards. She's just given her Dutch thoroughbred, 'Dutch Regard,' a massage. Another of her horses, 'Reggie' is entered in the Mini Prix at Metamora's Annual Horse Show, now in its 75th year at Win-A-Gin Farms. This Class A event collected 170 horses and riders.

Loyal patrons of the hunt sponsor many of the events: The Children's/Adult Jumper Stake of $1,500 is sponsored by Greenstone's Jewelers of Birmingham, and the Gambler's Choice award of $1,500 is sponsored by Dragonfire Farm—owner Bob Tyler is a member of Metamora Hunt. The highlight of this vigorous four-day jumping competition, which was held June 14-17 is the Mini Prix with a prize of $4,999 sponsored by Solitude Farm in Kalamazoo.

Metamora Hunt's Annual Horse Show is an auspicious event that generates a loyal group of more than 500 visitors who dine during the event. Members hand out ribbons and trophies, set up tents, tables and chairs for a garden-type dining intimacy while enjoying the entertainment thrill of the Mini Prix.

British born Peggy Hutton, adorned in her customary white gloves and the prettiest hat of all, determines the first, second, and third place winners for the annual hat contest during the landowners' picnic event. Everyone is included in the festivities, even the children. Honorary Chairperson and Horse Show Manager, Dr. Thomas Schnur says he's elated to see more children entering the pony hunter classes this year. The lead line class takes place during the dinner hour and children under five parade proudly before the smiling crowd perched upon their well-groomed ponies.

Soon the arenas are cleared and jumps are set in place for the Mini Prix.

"Reggie will jump the moon for me," Rachel Elizabeth says with a laugh "I love to compete."

Though Reggie looks totally relaxed, Rachel's eagerness for the evening's competition to begin is apparent as she smiles and nods her head, saying, "I like to be anxious."

Rachel couldn't describe better the eager feelings electrifying through the anxious crowd of spectators, trainers and young equestrians, craning their necks for a better view of the Mini Prix that encouraged ten riders to compete for the prize money and horse blanket donated by Equine Gatherings embroidered with Metamora Hunt colors.

The Mini Prix is a course of 4'-6" to 4'-9" high jumps with a three to four foot spread, consisting of Swedish oxers, brick walls and triple bars. Riders must finish the course before the designated time, generated from a desired speed over the distance of the course measured in meters. The course time was 382 meters per minute. Infractions over the time allowed are one fault for each quarter of a second over. A pole knocked down or disobedience is four faults.

"There's a very fine line between success and penalties," says announcer Dan McCarthy as he explains that though the horses made it look easy, the course was far from that. "You try jumping over a shoebox seventeen times in a minute and a half."

Professionally laid out, these jumps demand athletic and expertly trained horse and rider combining skill and teamwork to win the event. The steep, vertical jumps catch at the legs of the horse so the rider has to gather the horse up to spring over the three- to four-foot spread that follows. It is true poetry in motion when horse and rider beautifully aspire to new heights.

Erin Ferguson Strayer riding 'Tahoe' from Solitude Farm of Kalamazoo wins the Mini Prix with a no-fault round.

That's okay with Rachel, though, who says she's pleased with her horse's performance.

'Reggie' boldly accepted every jump in powerful strides, tugging at the reins with every hoof beat.

"I needed another me," Rachel says, "I didn't have enough strength left!"

Rachel explains that half way through the course, she wished it was already over. The more experienced of the team, Reggie, was eager to go. Rachel knows now what her team must learn in order to win.

"Reggie's got to learn not to be so strong," explains Rachel with a shrug, and then a smile. Oh, well, there's always next year.

In the lengthening shadows of the day's end, another Metamora Hunt tradition folds like the linen tablecloths, gently away. Hunt members pack up tables and chairs and the remaining leftovers. The 75th year of Metamora's horse show ends with little celebration, for after all, it's just the annual Metamora Hunt tradition.

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