Of Horses and Hounds Part II
Countless times I have encountered a fellow equestrian who asks, “People still do that?” This question often precedes such comments as, “How exciting! How I would like to try that for myself!” There are many equestrians who, I think, would enjoy the opportunity to ride to hounds. But many do not because of misconceptions about the sport and culture. Many assume that the hunt field resembles something like Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, with participants clutching the reigns of some out-of-control beast as it barrels and bounds half a league onward. Others assume that participation is a matter of inherited Britannic nobility, replete only with family title and secret handshake. These misconceptions are diametrically opposed to the reality of the sport, actually. In no other sport is the matter of safety and order so fastidiously preserved. Furthermore, the hunt field has an important legacy of egalitarianism–a place in which nobleman and farmer, tycoon and clerk, politician and priest could ride together in equal measure and position and leave behind the social convention of caste.
Fox hunting’s rich history belongs to the farmers, yeomanry, and nobleman who—together—established the sport by creating the culture and traditions to which we still abide. To preserve a future, fox hunters must maintain the old traditions, and above all, cultivate a culture of enthusiastic members and participants. My club did this in large measure by showing me patience, warning me of mistakes I might make, and quietly looking the other way when I made those mistakes anyway.
As the season continued, I was fortunate to learn many more lessons from superb equestrians. I spent an instructive season with the Hilltoppers (a “B” group of foxhunters who do not jump) being looked after and encouraged. I could not imagine myself having more fun, though I watched somewhat enviously the First Flight (an “A” group of the most skilled riders) who stayed closer to the hounds and jumped obstacles simply because they were there. But never once did I ever feel there was a matter of rank in the sense of privilege. First Flight and Hilltoppers participated equally in the experiences. Veteran members shared enthusiastically with those who were newer. The most conspicuous in the field—the Hunt Staff (the red-coated riders in charge)—never showed the slightest air of entitlement or privilege, but instead bore the burden of extra responsibilities that can be sustained only by people who care deeply about their sport. One of those responsibilities was to keep the large pack of hounds from scattering in all four directions. To keep them en masse, hunt staff used long leather whips to crack in the air—a sound that signaled to the hounds get back together. For all that I witnessed in the field, I was quite happy to be with the Hilltoppers and happier yet to experience all this without having to jump one fence. As the season wore on toward spring, I was sorry to hear the announcement of the season’s final meet.
Our final meet began on a cold, misty morning with the strong turn out one would expect. To say farewell to our hunt season, members looked forward to big day. We expected an extended outing with plenty of opportunities for adventure, which would be necessary for the telling of stories that would sustain us through the summer until the next season.
The larger than usual First Flight pushed off with thunderous pounding of hooves, and I, with the Hilltoppers, followed immediately behind. It is especially exhilarating to hunt in a large field of riders. At pauses, the regular attendees whispered stories and quips about the season’s adventures, and more than usual amounts of port and whiskey passed between riders. While riding at a canter and gallop, we rode four or more abreast, which gave us the feeling of a cavalry charge. At coops and fences an enormous group would gather as the riders of the First Flight took turns jumping one or two at a time. Occasionally a horse would halt at the last moment and shouts of encouragement were broadcast from the gallery behind. As the final rider cleared the coop, Hilltoppers moved gingerly through the nearby gate.
By mid-afternoon First Flight and Hilltoppers found ourselves standing on the crest of a bare field as our huntswoman and hounds worked a thicket at the far end. The horses huffed clouds of breath and people started to turn up their jacket collars and button their throat latches to block the cold. Yips and yaps signaled an interest within the hounds and the huntswoman moved into the tree line quickly. The First Flight master gave a subtle signal to move on, and they did with a quick canter.
Some of those from First Flight and the balance of Hilltoppers collectively had enough for the day and decided to head back home. I looked out enviously across the field as the last few members of the departing First Flight disappeared into a distant tree line. I knew that I would regret not following. I am certain that I appeared visibly anxious and unprepared to retire for the day. The Fieldmaster of the Hilltoppers nodded to me before I could say a word, and I prodded my horse and began to chase after. I cleared the open field at a full gallop and did not slow as I entered a path among the trees. For a few moments that are so rare in fox hunting I was riding alone. I followed a leafy grass path with overhanging branches that gave the feel of a tunnel. It bent only occasionally and gently, which allowed me to maintain speed. I approached the rear members of First Flight along the path at a controlled gallop and received smiles and greetings but no surprise from those who had never seen me in that position. Though I could not see the hounds or huntswoman, I imagined they were on to something interesting as the First Flight continued onward and into an open pasture that sloped downward towards a fence line in a valley. I could see the leading members of the First Flight hopping a small coop at the bottom of the slope and I, as we continued our gallop, began to panic. My eyes searched the entire fence line and then the coop, and the fence line once more. Over the pounding of hooves and my terrified heart I shouted to a fellow rider “I don’t see the gate.”
“There isn’t one. You’ll have to get your ass over the fence.”
And I did. Landing safely on the far side of that fence was an initiation for me. To land astride or beneath my horse was not the issue of belonging within First Field, but instead the willingness to push myself when the time was appropriate. And to make the attempt, sometimes someone really must say get your ass over the fence. Two more jumps that afternoon and I felt I had earned a self-congratulatory grin that lasted the entirety of our eventual homeward ride.
By the time the clubhouse was in sight the riders were broken from our normal rank order and into social circles. The outsides of our clothing were damp with mist, the insides damp with sweat. Most rode silently, savoring the exquisite exhaustion earned in our final day’s hunt. The rider beside me rose to stand in her stirrups. She pointed her helmet towards a distant red flash that was scampering along a path in the opposite direction of the club house. Her tally-ho shook the entire field of riders from their meditation. A nearby staff member confirmed the bolting fox, and suddenly, with a few pips of her horn, the hunstwoman reinvigorated the hounds, and the entire mass began to bend their direction towards that path. By this time my faithful mount Isabelle had invested a front shoe and every bit of her energy into the day’s adventures. My friend’s horse too had nothing left, and so we watched enviously as the staff gathered themselves once more to move off to reconnoiter the thicket in which our fox had disappeared. Though most were, by then, ready for the hot meal and libations that waited in the club house, a few of us walked our horses to the crest of a windy, misty, nearby hill to listen one more time to the horn, the hounds, and the occasional crack of the whip.