Sarah Kate Byrne
This Diana of the Chase cum racing stylist has a ‘have a go’ attitude to fieldsports, though is happiest ‘on the wonk’ over drains and hedges
A YEAR ago I shot my first stag on a glorious estate in Sutherland, after a long crawl up a burn from where we’d left the boat on the loch shore. That moment confirmed my opinion that all sporting opportunities are precious and should be embraced and experienced. My mantra has always been to “have a go” and although I may never be a passionate stalker, I know I can place the bullet and cut the mustard. This is an important aspect of my sporting life and from a young age I developed a can-do attitude, especially where horses were concerned. I had the fortune to be raised in rural Ireland in a house full of animals, where horses came and went but not until they’d been under a sidesaddle.
My parents were forever accumulating old saddles and tack as they toured Ireland’s crumbling piles for their work, reclaiming and conserving historic houses. It was a sidesaddle from one such house that launched my passion for this style of riding.
I started hunting astride a Shetland pony in Carlow country when I was four. When the old sidesaddle turned up eight years later, I started to hunt ‘on the wonk’. Those days with our surrounding packs – the Carlow, Kildare, Wicklow and Shillelagh – were often hairy, always wet and my sister, Aoife, and I were the only children ever out sideways. The sense of adventure and exhilaration it gave me was palpable. I still feel it now, returning home annually for days aside with the Blazers, Limericks and Duhallow, to name a few. Having hunted sidesaddle with a dozen or more packs in England since moving over here in 2006, I have seen a real revolution in the way women approach their hunting. The sidesaddle movement has had a real shot in the arm from those true thrusters, such as Lucy Holland and Fran Moulaert, who don’t just look elegant but really go for it. I wouldn’t call it a sisterhood but it’s no longer a novelty and that’s a good thing.
Having missed the inaugural Dianas of the Chase sidesaddle steeplechase due to a ski crash on the giant slalom run in Verbier, I was determined to enter at the next available opportunity. Riding Karen Bamford’s trusty if a little sturdy Alfie, and despite a heavy peck at the last, we came home an honourable sixth, thus silencing one lady who asked me why I had chosen a cart horse as my mount. I always admit that my prowess in the saddle is entirely down to the bravery of the steed I am lucky enough to have under me.
My boyfriend is an obsessive shot and fisherman and I’m happy to get stuck in, too. My introduction to shooting was unplanned. Starting the day as peg fluff, I found a gun being thrust at me by a bored Special Forces officer who nonchalantly gave me some instructions while puffing away on a cigarette. Some years later, I found myself on a peg in Spain on a whopping double-gun partridge day. I’ve fished the Ballinahinch in the West of Ireland and the Deveron under the guidance of a charming gillie who recited poetry to me from the bank. However, these things don’t match the thrill of flying a black hedge or a deep drain on a forward-going hunter. I really enjoy the opportunities for visiting and the social side that fieldsports offer. On that trip to Spain, Martha Sitwell and I were the guests of a charming Spanish duque who took us pig-sticking and put us up on horses for a monteria, where we drove the pigs and deer towards the rifles. What a thrill to be able to do all this sideways in a country where hunting is taken so seriously and is so enshrined in ceremony.
My intention is to continue to give everything a go and seek new sporting opportunities. There’s talk of a trip to Africa and as the house is festooned with big-game trophies, I might as well try to add a few. The thought of stalking a buffalo with a double rifle appeals and as a natural thrill-seeker I’m sure it would deliver just as much adrenaline as the wildest day over walls in Ireland.
My work as a racing stylist gives me every opportunity to be around racecourses and racing people, which is in my blood. I’m an aesthete and I try to dress ITV Racing’s host, Francesca Cumani, in as much vintage clothing as I can. This goes hand-in-hand with my approach to the sporting wardrobe. It’s not a fancy-dress party but there’s always room for a little theatre and one should strive to look a little quirky. It’s all part of the fun. The joy of vintage clothes is that they are properly made and one-of-a-kind pieces that you won’t see on the lady next to you at paddock or covert-side. After all, we only do these things for fun so there’s nothing to be shy of when displaying a touch of flamboyance.