The sport of foxhunting is a competition between fox and hound steeped in tradition and history. For horse and rider, thundering across the terrain and soaring over obstacles while following the chase lightens both the mind and heart.
Riders share camaraderie, stories, and excitement in one of the most challenging of all pursuits. While there are very obvious similarities to hunting fox in Britain, such as the traditional dress code, there are many differences that may not be as obvious to the casual observer. The biggest difference between the two is in the focus of the sport, or the pursuit of wild fox, either red or gray, and in some parts of the country coyote, with hounds. In Europe and England the goal of a hunt is generally to kill the quarry. Because there are no rabies in the British Isles, populations of fox are extremely high and fox are considered vermin. Whereas in North America, the goal is to "account for" the quarry and is more accurately described as “Foxchasing.” Rarely is the quarry killed. Quarry in the Mid-Atlantic region is both the red and gray fox, however only the gray fox is a native to Maryland. Originally, the red fox lived primarily in Canada and the upper states, such as Pennsylvania and New York. Some red foxes eventually migrated south, but many were imported from England, as was the sport of Foxhunting.
Foxhunting is a competition between fox and hound, with the advantage clearly in favor of the fox. The fox and hound have enjoyed a close relationship throughout time. Over the years the foxhound has been bred to improve his ability to pursue fox. With a keen sense of smell, the diligent hound follows the trail of scent left by the fox as he travels the countryside. The fox, a hunter himself, seems to enjoy outwitting the persistent hounds and will lead them on a merry chase before seeking refuge in a ground hog hole or other safe haven. It is important to keep in mind that the fox is in command of the hunt, as he may elect to run, or he may choose to simply go in a hole, or even up a tree, at any time. When the fox goes in a hole it is said that he has “gone to ground” and that ends the chase. The competition continues in the off-season with spring and fall hunter pace circuits which are competitions for teams of 2-5 riders where the team that comes the closest to the secret optimum time for hunting (hence the name hunter pace) wins.
The Hunt Staff
The Hunt Staff is made up of the Masters, the Huntsman and the Whippers-In. Masters serve for designated periods and are responsible to the members and the Hunt Committee. It is the Master who is responsible for the days sport through managing the hunt, leading the Field and striving to provide good sport for the subscribers of the hunt. The Master also makes every effort to maintain a cordial relationship with the owners over whose lands the hunt rides. He or she helps supervise the hound breeding program, schedules the fixtures, or meet locations, and appoints the Hunt Staff who work for the club. If the Master does not hunt the hounds himself, he appoints a Huntsman who is frequently a professional. Most hunts have more than one Master. The Joint-Masters share responsibilities during the day of sport, while the Huntsman hunts the hounds. He is the central figure on the hunting day. His knowledge and skill is essential in the successful partnership with the hounds.
As noted above, Foxhunting is a demonstration of the skill and art of the Huntsman, as he works for and with the hounds, and they with him. The Huntsman’s teamwork with the Masters and Whippers-In also contributes to the success of the hunting day. The Huntsman’s preparation for a day of hunting includes looking over the fixture the day before, selecting the right hounds for that meet, deciding how he will draw the country, to collecting and putting away hounds at the end of the day, and ensuring that any injuries are doctored and all hounds are safe and sound. Another key skill is horn blowing and voice command, in order to best communicate and work with the hounds. Breeding, kennel management and upkeep are also important parts of the Huntsman’s role.
The Whipper-In is the Huntsman’s assistant and provides him with an extra set of eyes and ears. They are an extension of the Huntsman, usually far out on the flanks, and are used to help assure that the hounds do the Huntsman's bidding. They act as safety valves to prevent hounds from running onto roads or land not open to hunting, along with assisting the Huntsman with a myriad of tasks related to the hunt. Whipper-Ins are most often seen standing and flanking the coverts where hounds are cast in order to see which way the fox exits. This is important so that they can alert the Hunstman if they view a fox with the call of “Tally Ho.” The Whipper-In often uses the whip or their voices as a noise making device to attract the attention of the hounds and keep them on the correct path of the scent. They are integral in keeping the hounds from chasing incorrect quarry and together on the line of a fox. The riders who follow the hunt are referred to as the Field.
The Field that goes the fastest is known as the first flight, which jumps and stays up with the Huntsman. There is also a second flight, which goes through gates. In the second flight, jumping is optional with permission of the Field Master, so that members can build their confidence and their horses’ experience. Occasional third flights, also known as Hilltoppers, will go at a slower pace, most often a walk, enjoying the beautiful scenery and sounds of the hunt ahead. Some, Hilltoppers will follow by car or truck at a safe distance, able to assist while still seeing some of the action. So in summary, the Huntsman hunts the hounds with the assistance of the Whippers-In. The Masters lead the Field, jumping panels and galloping as fast as necessary in an effort to keep the Field in a position, so as not to interfere with the line of the fox, the hounds or the Huntsman, but where they are still able to watch and listen to the hounds at work.
Early in the fall, before the formal hunt season begins, Cub Hunting, or “cubbing” starts. Cub Hunting is the period when horses and hounds are conditioned and trained. Important in building the endurance of horses, riders and hounds for the longer hours in the saddle they will encounter later in the season. It is a necessary part of the year, especially from a summer of lighter work, as well as to train the new, hopeful young hounds. At the same time, as the season progresses, the foxes and their young learn to evade hounds and also become better conditioned and smarter by being chased for longer periods of time. During Cub Hunting, hounds are not kept out for long; they are hunted only long enough to assure they are hunting the proper quarry and to build their confidence and endurance.
In conclusion, Foxhunting knows no age barrier. Adults and children alike come together to share the joys of an autumn countryside as it is brought to life with the cheerful hunting song of the hounds. There is no better thrill than to view your first fox and being able to “Tally Ho,” tip your cap or point in the direction it went, and alert the Hunstman, Master and Field of a new direction the fox has taken. Thundering across the terrain, soaring over logs, fences and other obstacles, lightens both the mind and heart and brings a glow to your day. The camaraderie and stories, of one of the most exciting and challenging of all pursuits, will last one a lifetime.