INDEPENDENCE — Jennifer Blanchard has loved riding horses for most of her life.
“Here I do jumping and I do what’s called eventing,” Blanchard said. “It’s three different events within one. It’s dressage, cross country and stadium jumping.”
She decided to kick it up a notch to celebrate her 40th birthday.
“Cross country jumping, that element of it is when you’re out in the field galloping and you’re jumping natural objects — logs and ditches and you go off banks and you do that sort of thing,” Blanchard said. “I’ve been doing that with my horse so I wanted to do something even more daredevilish, which was fox hunting because the thing about fox hunting is you’re following the fox.”
The Independence Police Department records technician took 10 days off last month to fulfill that wish at Dartfield Equestrian Centre in Ireland.
“I’ve always wanted to go ride horses in a different country and fox hunting seemed like a really good adventure,” Blanchard said. “(It was) something I definitely hadn’t done on horses and I knew would be very adventurous and there would be a lot of getting to gallop across fields and not on a trail where you’re stuck in a line behind a bunch of other horses.”
With the cross country jumping she normally does, she familiarizes herself and her horse by walking the horse through the area where they will be riding. Fox hunting is different.
“You know where you’re going to start and you kind of know where you should go because there are farmers that don’t want you in certain fields,” Blanchard said. “When you’re out and going, you’re going across these huge limestone walls and you don’t know what’s on the other side, so your horse has to be clever enough to figure out how far he should jump and how big and sometimes you’re half way over the jump and your horse sees something that they don’t want to land on so they’ll stretch out even more. That can be kind of scary for the rider.”
In addition to not knowing the terrain, she didn’t meet the horse until it was time to ride.
“I would just get on this horse, totally unfamiliar to me and go galloping across the field,” she said.
The experience was not without some guidance though.
The first day in Dartfield, owner Willie Leahy put the riders on Connemara ponies.
“He went out in the field with us and watched us ride,” Blanchard said. “First we started walking and trotting and he had a big flock of sheep that we herded around.”
Leahy directed the riders, one at a time, to different jumps with their horses.
“There was a group of about six of us and he’d kind of evaluate us,” she said.
The horses were comfortable to ride, she said. Her favorite was an Irish Draught horse named Socks.
“He was really cute,” Blanchard said.
“We usually were in the saddle for six hours or so,” she said, with a break for lunch.
Except for when they were fox hunting.
“I involuntarily came off,” Blanchard laughed. “My third wall. It was big wall, jumping from a nice meadow into a dark forest. My horse knew that he had to turn right immediately after the jump and I didn’t know that.”
She got back on and went over the next wall but got a fat lip when she hit her chin on his neck when she came down.
“After that I thought, I gotta start riding better because I’m not going to survive if I keep getting thrown around like this,” Blanchard said. “And then it got better after that. It got easier just because the land was more level. At first, we were just jumping off up hills, down hills and then it kind of leveled out.”
Blanchard’s husband and his friend accompanied her to Ireland, but she went solo on her fox-hunting excursion.
“I was going to go alone to this because it was something I wanted to do on my own but I thought, what if I break my leg? Maybe my husband (Jason) should go too,” Blanchard said. “He wanted to go but he didn’t want to go by himself.”
He and his friend Matt went on their own adventure. They rented a car and traveled all over the country, Blanchard said.
As for Blanchard, she made fast friends with her fellow riders.
“We were pretty much all strangers and we would get together and go somewhere to eat every night and we’d talk horses until basically they would tell us we had to leave,” she said.
Joining her were women from South Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota, Germany and French New Guinea.
“They were a lot of fun and one of the girls was celebrating her 40th birthday too,” she said.
Blanchard noted that the people in her group were anywhere from 40 to 65 years old.
“It wasn’t like a young crowd,” she said. “These were adventure seekers like me who didn’t care about breaking bones, I guess.”
Though they’ve all returned to their normal lives, the new friends have been staying in touch on WhatsApp. And they’re planning their next adventure.
“We’re talking about doing a riding vacation in France, maybe next fall,” Blanchard said.
Blanchard said her advice to anyone seeking an out-of-the-ordinary vacation is to read the reviews about the experience and then “absolutely just go do it.”
“I was totally out of my comfort zone on this and it was my best vacation ever,” she said.