Of Horses and Hounds
Fox hunting is still a popular sport among equestrians in France, England, Italy, and the US. In American fox hunting, the object is not to kill a fox, whose rare and idyllic presence is preserved rather than ended. Instead of a kill, it is the thrill of galloping cross-country, following hounds, and leaping fences that excites participants of the sport. It is also much more than that. I will try and explain…
One of my favorite memories is of fox hunting Thanksgiving Day. All in all, it was an unremarkable outing in terms of the hunt itself. The day was cold and a bit dreary, and though the scenting conditions were good, we saw no wildlife except a terrified opossum who fainted at the sight of our large horses crashing through the woods. The riders were careful to steer the horses hooves well-clear of her, and she escaped with her life but not her dignity. We ventured far afield that afternoon, and upon finally wending back towards our trailers, we trotted along public roads that included the occasional passerby. As we approached cautious motorists, I noticed more and more the look of shock and amusement on their faces. Some pulled over their vehicles and rolled down their windows to gain a better view as we passed by them on the shoulder of the road. Several smiled and pointed in enjoyment. Young children peaked above the sill of their car windows to see us as we approached. At that moment I became keenly aware of the spectacle that we presented to this surprised public—the slow clip-clopping prance of our horses, the controlled care of our ranked order procession, the muted black and flashy red of our formal and dated attire, the long leather thongs of the whips that dangled alongside our smartly groomed mounts. It was impossible not to smile and enjoy my role as I appeared at that moment–an historic anachronism, a character in an animated Victorian painting.
I did not begin my first season with the easy grace of that moment, of course. In fact, my experience with fox hunting began with fear and uncertainty. I was first introduced to the idea at a benefit event for a local equestrian facility. I spoke with an enthusiastic fox hunter who shared stories of recent outings that held my rapt attention. He talked about the beauty of the country, the joy of seeing the hounds do their work, the exhilaration of a three mile gallop. Why don’t I tag along, he asked, I will have the time of my life, he assured. I needed only to get myself into the field and experience it for myself. He was confident of all this. However, he must have misconceived my response as hesitation or reluctance, as he made the experience even more inviting by offering me one of his valuable horses to ride, as well as anything else I might require for the outing. It wasn’t reluctance that I felt. In fact, after hearing his stories, I wanted nothing more than to don the uniform and ride to hounds. But to be a real fox hunter meant downhill gallops, treacherous creek crossings, and worst of all, the leaping of fences. All of this seemed to require a certain fearless heroism that I did not have. Specifically, I did not know how to jump—the action that seemed to define the sport. I flinched when I thought of myself trapped within some farmer’s field, unable to jump out and follow the other riders who knew what they were doing and who belonged there. But this embarrassment seemed worth the risk, and I accepted his offer. I began fox hunting with the quiet anxiety with which I generally approach everything that is new to me.
Though I knew very little about fox hunting, I knew enough to understand two aspects of equal importance: costuming and equitation. The former was a matter of acquisition. The latter was a matter of lifelong practice and dedication to conditioning of mind and body. I hadn’t the time for conditioning and, instead, focused on costuming. I figured that by looking the part, I might bluff my way through my first hunt. I purchased a boiled wool sport coat that had appropriate coloring, cut, and button count–though it did not have the slanted waist pockets that I admired on the coats of others. My black dress boots, while technically correct, were a nightmare. They took ten minutes to put on and thirty to take off–maybe more, as the pain and delirium of extracting the boots from my feet seemed to distort time. While they were on, they pinched my feet terribly and broke down and wrinkled too much at the ankles. My vest, on the other hand, was the jewel of my uniform. Rather than the bright canary of most vests worn by others, mine was a somewhat duller mustard that gave it the patina of some antiquity that might have been pulled from the closet of George Washington. I did not look perfect, but passable—enough so that I might blend in with the others, I hoped.
I have found that when exploring a new avocation it is generally possible to bluff the sport’s elites by speaking the jargon and looking the part. Fake it ’til you make it, I’ve been told. And so I arrived at my first day’s hunt with an affect of calm and confidence that was to belie the tumult within. The members of the hunt saw through me as soon as I boarded the horse. The horse knew much sooner than that. Though I did not know it at the time, the hunt staff—specifically the Field Master (the person assigned to see to safety and order)—intended to keep an eye on me. I was entering an apprenticeship in which I would be the beneficiary of hundreds of years of tradition. I would learn when to speak, and when to be quiet; when to close a gate and when to leave it to someone else; when it is permissible to lark (go jumping fences for no good reason), and when to stay in order. These are the expectations that have been developed and tried through centuries of practice, and understanding them keeps one safe and out of trouble. But as we trotted off for my first morning’s hunt I knew too little to even know what to expect. I knew only to beware of how I looked in the saddle, and so I recited in my mind—hips forward, heels down, back straight, etc. If nothing else, I thought I might impress upon my hosts that I at least knew how to sit in the saddle. While concentrating deeply on the correctness of my equitation, the Field Master leaned over to share her first lesson me: “Relax son, we’ll be at this for a while.”
Next week I will share my adventures afield.