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Riding to Hounds

Limestone Creek Memorial Hunt

  • Author: canpubco
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Riding to Hounds

 

Ask anyone where fox hunting originated and odds are he will respond promptly, “Why, the British Isles, of course.” Indeed, the cry of “Tallyho!” conjures up visions of Lord or Lady Poddlesmere galloping across the English countryside, leaping mammoth hedges for hours on end, and sipping strong waters around the fireside at the end of the day. As it turns out, though, we Americans can lay just as much claim to pioneering the sport as our cousins across the Atlantic, and probably no one will ever know for sure who is entitled to the honors. What we do know, however, is that fox hunting today still adheres to strict rules of protocol established two hundred years ago. It caters primarily to the wealthy because usually only they can afford the cost of a good hunter and the means of keeping him, not to mention the expense of properly outfitting themselves. Good hunters are customarily thoroughbreds, though not the smaller, rather slight thoroughbreds found at the racetrack. And unlike the quarter horses that are bred for speed in short stretches and are commonly seen out West, hunting thoroughbreds are often crossed with heavier breeds for endurance and solidity, are taller and more muscular, and are trained to run long distances (most hunts last all day) and jump a variety of fences and ditches.

 
The organized hunting club, whose season runs from September to March, has been fairly well standardized. Its hierarchy consists of the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), the huntsman, the whippers-in, the hunt secretary, and the members of the hunt, or field. Today there are about 140 such hunts throughout the United States and Canada registered with and thus recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. The association has jurisdiction over all hunting matters, and its constitution and bylaws set forth its function: “The Corporation is formed for the purposes of improving the breeds of Foxhounds … registering Packs of Foxhounds, Packs of Harriers [hounds used for chasing hares] and Hunts, keeping for reference maps of the Fox and Drag Hunting Countries of America, and settling disputes in regard to the same, with authority to hold real estate and other property in furtherance of such purposes, and with such other powers as may be naturally incident to such purposes.” A drag hunt, incidentally, usually takes place when there is a lack of foxes. Instead of chasing a live animal, the pursuers and hounds follow a scented trail laid out by touching the ground with a fox’s brush or litter from the fox’s den.

 

The Master of Foxhounds is in direct command of the field. He dedecides if weather conditions permit the hunt, and where it will take place; he arranges with farmers for access to hunt on their land and makes peace with and recompense (through the hunt secretary) to any angry landowner whose gate has been left open or fence knocked down. He may also maintain the pack and kennels and be responsible for controlling the hounds in the field, but usually he turns over these last duties to his huntsman.

The Master of Foxhounds generates a rather mystical aura and is held in great esteem. Said one British lord: “No one is too good to be a Master of Fox-hounds. If he be gifted with the average endowment of tact, administrative talent, power of penetrating character, and all other attributes that form the essential equipment of a successful public man, so much the better. … He should [be the] … possessor of a remarkably thick skin.” One former Master offers this advice: “As a general rule [the MFH] can enjoy your conversation and society more when not in the field, with the hounds, riders, foxes and damages on his mind. N.B., the proffer of a flask is not conversation, within the meaning of the above.”
The huntsman, who originally was an employee, is not only responsible for the hounds in the field. He is also the blower of the horn, his way of calling various signals to the dogs. This horn can produce only one note, but in several variations. The huntsman is assisted by the whippers-in, or whips, as they are more commonly known. The whips go to the covert (a thicket or section of woods where the fox is supposed to be) and watch for the fox to “go away,” and then they signal (“Holloa”) the fox’s escape from the covert.

 

The beginning of the hunt, once the field has been assembled in the location of the covert to be drawn, is the actual “draw,” or flushing of the fox out of the woods. The Master presumably has had word that a fox is there, or has a good idea that he is. The huntsman then blows a sharp, brief note to warn the fox of their approach, giving the fox a chance to escape and thereby preventing a chop. (A chop occurs when the hounds catch the fox immediately in the covert and kill him, thus defeating the purpose of the chase—an immensely undesirable event.) The hounds fan out in a line and advance into the covert as the fox, in theory anyway, emerges from the other side. If no fox is found, the hunt proceeds to another covert until one is produced or at least until the hounds pick up the scent of a fox recently in the area. Sometimes a fox may be spotted in the open, as foxes often choose to sun themselves in the fields if it is a particularly cold day.

Once the chase begins, the hounds are in front, baying loudly if they have a scent, and the Master and held follow at a respectable distance. When a fox has been viewed up ahead, a view halloo (such as “Tallyho”) is called by the rider who spots the animal, and this person is supposed to point his horse in the direction of the fox and hold out his hat. The huntsman sounds “gone away,” a series of long and short notes in rapid sequence. Most times the fox will temporarily be able to lose the hounds, in which case the hunt must stop. The huntsman then blows a few long mournful notes to tell the field of the missing quarry, and everyone waits till the hounds have picked up the scent once more, or “made a hit.”

 

After this has gone on for anywhere from a half-hour to an entire dav, the hunt sometimes losing one fox entirely and having to start all over again, the chase ends when the hounds either catch the fox or, more commonly, the fox “goes to earth,” disappearing down his hole where he cannot be reached. The hounds then “mark to ground,” or stand and bay in frustration. The huntsman dismounts and calls off the dogs.

 

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the hunt is not necessarily to kill the fox, although in colonial days this was often the case. It is now the exception rather than the rule. If the fox is caught, the dogs soon make short work of the hapless creature, and the huntsman sounds the “whoohoop” to announce the death of the fox—a series of long and short notes with a tremolo at the end. Those members of the hunt who have never seen a fox killed will then be blooded, that is, their foreheads will be marked with the blood of the dead quarry. But foxes are so scarce in the United States today that it is more desirable not to kill one if at all possible; besides, the chase is much more enjoyable if the quarry is a veteran of two or three seasons and is thus able to make more of a sport of it.

 
Another misconception is that the fox is a terrified and confused creature—somewhat like a deer—frantically trying to escape from the pack of baying hounds. Not so. He is an extremely clever, calculating animal who knows exactly how good or bad the scenting conditions are and who frequently controls the entire chase by various ruses and deceptions. He seemingly enjoys the sport of it, then goes home when finally tired. An exMaster reports that on one hunting day in 1926, during a four-and-a-half hour period, a fox deliberately led the pack over “every bad scenting spot he could pick out; he walked on rocks for a half mile; he traversed over three miles of stone walls, and in one place walked a rail fence for three hundred yards, retracing his own steps to add to the fun.”
In colonial days there was no problem as far as fences were concerned, as the use of wire was unknown. Now, however, it is often necessary to obtain a farmer’s permission to employ “panelling,” since it is unwise to attempt to jump a horse over a wire fence, which he cannot see. Panelling entails the erection of jumpable posts or boards over the wire; one such structure is the chicken-coop jump, which forms a sort of pyramid of boards over the wire fence.
What about the hounds? The pack, of course, is an integral part of a successful chase, and many hunting clubs hold an annual ceremony at which the hounds are blessed by a clergyman. If the hounds are unable to scent the fox or if they pick up the scent and then lose it, there will be no run. A good pack of hounds has always been an asset and a valuable piece of property to any man, and hounds are carefully bred to incorporate certain qualities. Two of the most important are the cry and the nose. The cry must be loud and clear in order to be heard over and across the rolling woodlands. The nose must be very keen indeed, for the fox is tracked solely by the scent he leaves behind, and scenting conditions can vary greatly. The fox’s scent comes from a gland just under his brush and from others in the pads of his feet; a fine, oily substance is left behind on anything he touches.

 

Costume has also assumed importance for a proper hunt. A “rat- catcher”—someone who is informally dressed—would be frowned upon in most good hunting circles. The fox-hunting costume is designed to be practical as well as handsome. The leaders of the hunt, that is, the MFH and the huntsman, wear scarlet coats so that they will be easily visible at all times, even in the midst of a deep forest. These scarlet coats are called pinks, not because of their hue, but because the original hunting coat was designed long ago by an English tailor named Pink. Sometimes an exceptionally good rider who has demonstrated skill, loyalty, and experience will be allowed to wear the scarlet coat, thus making it an object of prestige. Women (although this may soon change) are not allowed to wear scarlet coats unless they happen to be Masters of Foxhounds. They, as well as the rest of the field, customarily wear black, gray, or tweed jackets and tan breeches flared at the thigh and very tight at the calf, so as to be easily tucked into the high black or brown boots. The outfit is set off by a white stock, a sort of ascot that can be pressed into service as a bandage or sling in case of emergency; it is held in place by a simple gold stock pin placed horizontally, never vertically, to avoid injury to the chin. Hard headgear, either a derby or a black velvet hat, is always worn and is constructed to protect the wearer from low tree branches or a nasty tumble on the head; the crown is lined with cork or some other durable material. Finally, leather gloves are worn to save the hands from chafing reins, or string gloves in rainy weather.

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