Feature

Longtime Rider Stewards the Land

Bunny Meister’s passion for hunting benefits the Brandywine

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Perhaps no one knows the Brandywine land quite the way Carl “Bunny” Meister Jr. does.

A former champion steeplechase jockey, he’s been riding, fox hunting and racing across it for more than 60 years. At 76 he still fox hunts regularly with the Radnor Hunt, and while he’s not afraid of falling, he admits he needs a leg up to get back on his horse these days, thanks to a stiff hip and knee.

“The big thing is nerve,” Meister says. “Riding is a lot like playing football – if you’re afraid to fall you’re not ever going to be a rider. In football, if you’re afraid to get hit, you’re not going to be a football player.”

He’s also a steward of the land – his most recent effort includes chairing the Brandywine Valley Association’s capital campaign, which raised $3.2 million. A past president and board member of the BVA, Meister also chairs the annual Brandywine Valley Point to Point.

“I made an announcement that he is Mr. Point to Point,” jokes Jim Jordan Jr., executive director of the BVA. “It’s a signature event for the BVA and the equestrian community. He gets involved with everything from getting sponsors to getting race officials, and he oversees the course setup.”

He grows more serious when he talks about Meister’s commitment to preserving the Brandywine Valley.

“Some people talk the talk, but Bunny walks the walk. When he says he’s going to do something, he does it – he’s a very dedicated.”

A long history with horses

Meister came by his nickname as an infant.

“When I was a baby and they started feeding me little baby food like strained carrots, I loved them, and they said, ‘He’s like a little bunny” and it stuck,” he explains. He jokes that when he married his second wife, Linda, and the minister asked her if she took Carl to be her husband, she said ‘Who?”

His entrée into riding, around 9 or 10, also was propelled by his family, who had moved to Chester County from Philadelphia.

“I had an older sister and my father bought a horse for her. She was about 14 and was getting interested in other things – the night the horse was coming, she wanted to go bowling, so he gave the horse to me,” Meister recalls. He took lessons and began showing hunters and jumpers at local venues such as Devon and Harrisburg. By the time he was 16, he had a good jumper “and I went to some big shows with her.”

Through the 1948 Olympics, the nation had looked to its military to represent the U.S. in equestrian sports. But the military disbanded its cavalry program, and in 1950 the U.S. Equestrian team took over Olympic selection, dividing the country in 10 zones to find and train Olympians. Meister qualified to train for the 1952 Olympic team – but his family couldn’t afford the training.

“Which is just as well because I always wanted to race,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t have made the team, but the opportunity was there.”

His friend Bob Tindle asked him to exercise his point to point and timber horses, and he also started fox hunting.

“People who fox hunt are much more likely to race” he said, although he worries that in today’s world, with liability concerns, young riders “never get to heat up their blood.” While at Trinity College in Connecticut, Meister would come home on spring weekends to ride and fox hunt to stay in shape for racing.

Meister renewed an acquaintance with another of Tindle’s exercise riders, Betty Baldwin, who would become his wife. She died in 1997.

“Betty rode races – she won the ladies” point to points” he said. “She was also a great show rider.” In the 1940s and “50s she won at all the major shows in the Regular Working Hunter division.

The pair settled on Betty’s family farm, the 132-acre Tarad Hill, where Meister still lives today. He boards a dozen horses there – Preakness runner-up Magic Weisner, owned by Betty’s late sister, is a stately resident. Originally named Sycamore Farm for a tree that Meister believes might be the state’s largest, Tarad Hill is a combination of the names Ted and Sarah, Betty’s parents.

The inviting farmhouse kitchen is a sunny yellow, and the walls are filled with framed photos of Meister on a variety of horses through the years. A calendar with fox hounds on it adorns a door, a black cat snoozes in a chair, and a big window overlooks a pasture.

One frame showcases two photos: Meister winning the New Jersey Hunt Cup in 1967 and 20 years later his son Billy winning it for the same trainer, who presented them with the photo.

Meister won his first race at Radnor in the early 1950s. “There were 11 or 12 horses in the race and the pace was very fast,” he recalled. “I was on the horse that set the pace and nearly every horse in the race fell. At the last fence one horse was chasing me.”

He raced until he was about 40, specializing in point to points. “I rode very few hurdle or brush races because I was so big,” he said, although one of his biggest wins came in the Iroquois Steeplechase in Nashville.

“The biggest win in my mind was a point to point and I beat a very good horse by this much,” he says, holding up his hands to indicate less than half a foot.

Four times he rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup, a notoriously difficult four-mile race with four-foot fences, falling off twice and finishing it twice. His Hunt Cup mounts, McBeepe and Full Stop, were among his favorite horses.

Although he never won the Maryland Hunt Cup, in 1988 his son Billy won it and the second-place finisher was another son Jay. Billy has won the Hunt Cup three times as a rider and three times as a trainer.

“A friend said ‘You weren’t the greatest rider, but you’re a good breeder,” Meister said with a smile. Meister also has a third son, Richard, who rides, but not competitively. The trio often enjoy a round of golf with their father.

Of hounds and houses

The Brandywine Hounds, with whom Meister used to hunt, disbanded several years ago in part because of the pressures of development on the land. His interest in preserving the land led Meister into his second career, one in which he’s still active – real estate.

As a horseman, he often heard of a barn for sale, and his friend Jim Cochrane persuaded him to enter the business.

“I know more about barns than houses,” he said. “I got into real estate trying to preserve the land – the best way to preserve land is to have the right people buy it, people who can preserve and maintain it. A lot of people are moving into hunting communities who have no idea what hunting is. We used to be able to count on one hand the number of landowners.”

He knows it can be a shock for new residents to find a pack of hounds running full tilt through their back yard, and Meister jokes “sometimes fox hunters are their own worst enemies – the only people who make us look good are the bicyclists.” But he’s quick to point out that most newcomers welcome the hunting lifestyle and “We do have a lot of land in conservation.”

He hopes families will continue the riding tradition, but he worries that children today are too sheltered from such rigorous activity. “I love to see kids playing on a wall and falling off,” he says.