It's almost like an internal clock constantly ticking in their heads that has made Maryann Ghadban and Makayle Boggs stars in the sport of hunter pace.
Last season, the championship duo won week after week, taking two firsts, a second and two thirds in the eight-week season.
The pair put together precision coursework, using one part feeling, one part intuition and two parts "educated guess” to come closest to the top-secret pre-set optimum time.
To win once is great. To win all season takes some sort of mental stopwatch because the singularly hunt country-esque sport of hunter pace involves a fair share of mystery.
“You just get so you 'know' what a good hunting pace is,” said Debbie Welch, sometimes pace-setter for the Old Dominion Hounds, which hold its event April 7.
“There's no way you can actually work out how many minutes, or how many seconds, because the courses are different lengths, and different places, in different conditions,” she said.
“But what you can do is develop a feel for the territory you're crossing, and the footing that day, and the typical pace set by the [host] hunt. That's how you win.”
Virginia's spring hunter pace circuit begins Sunday, Feb. 24 with the Casanova Hunt hunter pace at Winfall Farm near Casanova.
Riders will get their chance to outguess organizers in three distinct divisions – adult optimum time, junior optimum time and hilltoppers -- as well as the relatively daredevil riders competing in the easy-to-understand fast-time division.
Set over courses of about three miles for pairs of riders, competitors go out two at a time, negotiating the marked route – some divisions with jumps, others without – with start and finish times recorded to within 1/100th of a second.
The so-called “optimum time” is set early in the day by a member of the hosting hunt club, who rides the course ahead of time and marks down his or her finishing time.
The time, naturally, is kept secret until all riders have competed the course.
Winners are determined by which pair comes closest to the pre-set optimum.
It isn't a complicated measure, but with hundreds of horses and riders, dozens of volunteers and handfuls of stopwatches, accurate results can be difficult to compile.
Given that year-end prizes are awarded in four divisions, veracity is key, and the chief organizer is culpable.
“I could fill a book with all the hunter pace stories I have,” said Casanova organizer Suzy Gehris. “Figuring the time differences for the optimum time division by hand is very difficult, and takes a lot of time. In 1998 I [integrated] a computer program to sort out faster-than finishing times and slower-than finishing times.
“I used Excel on my laptop the following year and let it do the hard work,” Gehris said. “I wrote a simple 'program' to calculate times and results, and we use it still today. If I had to eat my hat the number of times a first- and second-place winner had times within a second of each other, I'd weigh 200 pounds – it happens more than you think.”
This year's pace series includes 10 events, running February through the end of April. Last year, Casanova ran more than 50 pairs.
Since the sport was introduced to the circuit in the early 1960s, it has remained a popular wrap-up to the foxhunting season.
Most competitors are members of the dozens of Virginia clubs, though many travel from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and farther out, plus there are classes for non-hunt members.
Complete information for all of Virginia's hunter paces can be found online at http://www.CentralEntryOffice.com