I'VE never been hunting, despite having had offers over the years.

As a young horse owner down South, the Garth and South Berks Hunt regularly swept through the village where I lived, and the sight of a loose horse, or stray foxhound, was a common one during the hunting season.

One of my friends had a hound join the family in their sitting room, having got in through an open back door, and my mother fed another one with biscuits after it followed her home.

The huntsmen would urge me to join them, but I never did. I didn't have all the kit for one - I rode in jeans and a sweatshirt - and it all looked a bit too fast and furious. I also didn't like the idea of killing foxes - a neighbour kept one as a pet, albeit a somewhat unpredictable pet, and I had the notion they were rather cute and cuddly.

Moving on a few decades and I find myself riding a horse who not only loves going out on a hunt with lots of other horses, but has vast experience of it.

Hunting has also changed. The Hunting Act of 2004 made it illegal to hunt wild mammals with dogs and hunts now follow a laid artificial trail, instead of picking up the scent of an animal. Hunting - or to be more technically precise, trailing - has changed beyond all recognition and is far more accessible to all types of riders.

Here, the Pendle Forest and Craven Hunt is about to hold its first meet of the year at Broughton Hall, while its Boxing Day meet in Gargrave is always watched by hundreds of people.

During the season, which runs until about April, it will meet twice a week. It also stages numerous fundraisers - the recent Coniston Hunter Trials, the Skipton Point to Point at Heslaker Farm, Carleton, social events and pre season, pleasure rides.

Offered the chance to go on such a pleasure ride recently, I jumped at it. Around 50 riders on an assortment of horses and ponies set off from Bell Busk on a mapped-out ride which took more than two hours and took in vast sections of the beautiful Coniston Estate.

We swept down across fields from the Pennine Way and along Mark House Lane and through Coniston Cold to the lake in front of Coniston Hall before finishing up again at Bell Busk - it was a fantastic ride mainly off-road on parts of the Craven countryside not normally open to riders or even walkers.

My riding partner on her veteran horse had been out with the hunt on many occasions and was wary that he, despite his age, would throw his head in the air and tear off at the first sight of someone galloping off in front of him.

I was also a tad concerned that the 18.2hh ex-eventer I ride would do something similar and head for the dry stone walls and five bar gates, leaping over them with gay abandon and dumping me on the ground, but it was not to be, and we had a very sedate ride enjoying paths and scenery only usually experienced by members of the hunt.

Jane Pighills, a master of the hunt for 25 yeas and owner of Kilnsey Trekking Centre, says hunting has changed enormously. People don't join for the entire year, like they used to, and are more inclined to come along on an ad hoc basis. She also points out that is entirely possible to go along and not do any jumping at all, there are, she says, always lots of people making their way through gates, and not over them, which suits me fine.

"People have got the idea that they have to jump, but that's not the case at all," she says "I don't jump, I tend to keep out of the way and do my own bit; for me, it's more about having a lovely ride across land you don't normally get on."

And that indeed is true; if you love the countryside and appreciate the wildlife, there is nothing quite like experiencing the hidden parts you don't normally get to see.

The hunt has more than one master in addition to its hunt staff and riders tend to follow the one who is most suited to their style of riding - rather like finding the right level of teacher.

The riders follows a trail of artificial scent that is laid in the morning of the meet and photographed, to make sure everything is as it should be. The scent is laid at points along a route, which is then followed by the hounds and the riders.

Pendle Forest and Craven has a harrier pack of hounds, which are smaller than fox hounds and would originally been used to hunt hare. They are counted in couples, but have different talents and work as individuals - which are used by the professional huntsman to best follow the scent.

"I just love watching the hounds, there are some who don't like it being so wet, and others who do, they each have a different quality and it really is fascinating to watch," says Jane.

There are 30 hounds in the pack, and all are controlled by the sound of a voice or horn - and they never put a foot out of place, which to anyone who owns a scent hound and knows what they are like, is pretty impressive.

Because the pack is following a laid scent, the route can actually be more interesting and varied - unlike in the old days when there would be lots of waiting around, interspersed with brief bursts of activity. There is still, of course, etiquette to be observed, although much of it is has more to do with being safe in what could be a potentially dangerous situation, and more about people looking smart. I have been out riding with enough largish groups of people to know a rider just can't go off at speed on his or her own without upsetting everyone else.

Jane tells me there are niceties to observe, such as greeting the master when joining the meet, and the correct way to go through a gate, so as not to leave it open, these are farmers' fields, of course, with stock. There is also the question of the kit, down to the tying of the 'stock', but even that is far more relaxed than it once was.

Most of the equipment needed to join a hunt will already be owned by your average horse rider, although perhaps not the stock, and I was pleased to hear it's no longer necessary to invest in a pair of high leather boots, a pair of smart chaps will do just as well. So, a pair of cream jodhpurs, a tweed or black jacket and a hat, which can be a skull cap, as long as it has a black cover on it, is all acceptable. There are plans to have a beginners day, a sort of taster day for people just like me, which I hope to join. All I need know is my friend and her waggon to get me there. To find out more about the Pendle Forest and Craven Hunt, visit its website.