Many people ask me about foxhunting, so I thought I’d talk a bit about it here for those who would like to learn more about what we do.
Firstly, and most importantly, contrary to what some might think, the point of the thing is not killing the fox! In the old days, that was the case, but not any longer. In the olden days, foxes were considered vermin by the farmers in rural england (and other countries) becasue they ate the farmer’s livestock and caused them trouble and financial hardship. Foxhunting was started as a way of controlling the fox population. Nowadays, that is not the case. We don’t actually “hunt” the fox so much as chase them around for a while. None of us out hunting actually wants the hounds to catch the fox, and in fact it is quite rare that this happens.
Many people have hunted for years and not been present for a kill. I have been hunting on and off for over 30 years and have been present for ONE kill (the fox was sickly). Normally, unless they are sick or injured, foxes are much faster and MUCH smarter than hounds. Although it is the instinct of the hounds to hunt the fox, we aim to chase the fox around for a while, then leave him to be chased around another day. And also, contrary to popular belief, the foxes are not tortured by all this chasing around; in fact, many really enjoy it. It’s true! Many times I have seen the fox run for a bit, and then slow down to give the hounds a chance to catch up. When a fox really doesn’t feel like playing, he will simply go down his hole and that ‘s the end of it… we leave them alone once they have “gone to ground.” They are well aware that they can go to ground at any time and end the chase. The fox is aware of the hounds and the riders from a long ways off, so it is up to him if he wants to play with us, or simply pop down his hole and wait till we are gone.
We are able to recognize many of the foxes since we chase the same ones over and over again…. they have their usual routes that they like to take, and occassionally they will change a normal route to throw the hounds off. I have seen foxes run up a hill, and then sit down and watch the hounds trying to locate the scent. When the hounds start to get close, the fox runs a bit further, and then turns around again to watch the action. Some people have reported foxes who, if the hounds get off track, will double back to let the hounds have another chance to pick up the scent. If ever the hounds are getting too close, the fox practices evasive maneuvres, such as running along the top of a fence line, or running into a creek, and then running straight up the creek so as to leave no scent behind. Some of them can even climb trees.
I have seen hounds that were within yards of a fox, but because the scenting wasn’t good that day, lose the line. Hounds hunt by scent, not by sight, so even if a hound sees a fox, he is not likely to chase it… he will follow his nose. Most days we chase two or three or four different foxes, and then leave them alone to chase them another day. It is so uncommon that a fox is killed, that many hounds will live their entire lives without ever catching one. The hounds are trained to hunt them, but they are also trained to leave them alone once they go down into their holes.
If you talk to most people who foxhunt, we are all animal lovers, and especially dedicated to preserving open land. Without land, there is no hunting, and we all love our sport. We enjoy watching the hounds trying to work out the puzzle, and we love our horses and love to gallop around in the beautiful countryside and take in the fresh air. A day’s hunting can encompass liesurely walks, fast gallops, jumping coops and other obstacles, riding through streams, across open land, and through woods. Many of us endeavor to keep open land open, and are dedicated to slowing the urbanization of our countryside.
Gone are the days when only the rich could afford to hunt; now anyone can, provided they have a suitable horse. A foxhunter is a special horse; not all horses can hunt. Many people think that because we dress up in fancy breeches and coats that it’s a rich-person’s sport, and unfortunately that was the downfall of hunting in England; it became a class issue, and was banned by city people who do not understand what it is like to live in the country. There are several reasons why most hunts adhere to the traditional dress. 1) it is practical in many ways, 2) it lends an air of tradition to our sport, and 3) it increases the ‘pageantry’ and spectacle for those who see us or like to follow along on foot. Yes, there are rules of etiquette and behavior, but many of those are based on safety and ensuring a good day’s sport.
The typical hunting day might go as follows: you get up early and check that all of your eqiupment (tack, dress, etc.) is in order. Feed and groom horse, and check that he is sound and healthy and ready for the day’s sport. Load the horse in the trailer (or hack to the meet), arriving with enough time to pay your capping fee (if you are not a member), tack up, and get your horse warmed up before setting off. The huntsman (the guy in charge of controlling the hounds, and in a large part, responsible for the day’s sport) or the Master may make an announcement and greet the guests. Then the huntsman will sound the horn and you are off. At a spot where the huntsman deems it promising, he will give the signal, by voice or by horn, to let the hounds know it is time to work. They will spread out and sniff the ground and the air in hopes of a nearby fox. If they catch scent of one, the hounds will ‘speak,’ and start to run in the direction of the fox’s path. If one hound strikes (hits the scent trail), the rest of the hounds are supposed to ‘honor” (join with the lead hound who first hit the scent). If the scent is strong, they will run fast together as a pack, speaking the whole way. Now it is up to the field masters (the person or people in charge of the ‘field,’ or riders) to lead the people after the staff to follow the action. This is when it can get a bit exciting, as the horses might have to gallop to keep up with the hounds, and jump coops if they need to cross fence lines. The first field is the group who follows right after the staff and jump all the jumps. The second field is the group who follows behind the first field, and only jumps small jumps, or goes through the gates. The advantage of the first field is that they have a better chance of staying up with the action since they don’t have to wait to open and close gates, etc.
A rider following in either field should be able to walk, trot, canter and gallop with some confidence, be able to stop the horse as needed, and stay in control at all times. A good field hunter will be rate-able (his speed controlled by the rider) and be able to stand still at checks (stops) without dancing and prancing around. A field hunter must never kick, especially a hound, as you will not be invited back.
A good day might be anywhere from two to four hours, hopefully having had several good, exciting runs, and time to rest in between. At the end of the day, we walk back to the trailers, make sure are horses have survived, and talk about what fun we all had.
If you have never tried foxhunting, I would highly recommend it, especially if you are an adrenalin junkie like me! All you need is a good horse and basic intermediate riding skills, and you can join in on the fun. The best way to try it out is to rent or borrow a seasoned horse, one who knows what hunting is and will take care of you. You will have to be invited by someone who hunts, or get permission directly from the Master(s). The capping fee for the day can be anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on which hunt you go out with. But I will warn you, you might get addicted!!
Here is another blogger with a good article about hunting in England today.