One of the most exciting and colorful scenes in the horse world is that of the fox hunt — with its scarlet-clad hunt staff and gentlemen and lady members with colors mounted on impeccably groomed horses as they follow the hounds, led by the huntsman’s horn; their white-tipped tails held high, as they pursue their quarry. Unlike other forms of hunting in this country which involves a man or woman armed with a bow, rifle or shotgun in pursuit of game, (referred to as “shooting” in the UK) fox hunting is a more passive sport for the fox hunter, who follows and observes the hounds that have been carefully bred for generations specifically to give chase to the fox. The excitement builds as they follow its scent in full cry, with the quarry running ahead, twisting and turning and skillfully maneuvering its way through the countryside. And while some may think of fox hunting as an antiquated sport of the UK, mounted fox hunting is still popular here in the United States.
Imported from Europe as far back as the Colonial days, the earliest record of hounds brought to this country was in 1650 when Robert Brooke arrived in Maryland, according to the Masters of Foxhounds Association & Foundation. By the early 1700s, the breeding of foxhounds had extended from Maryland into Virginia and other colonies. Various types of hounds were imported from Europe by early settlers, especially from England, Ireland and France. The American Foxhound breed was officially recognized by the AKC in 1886.
During these colonial times, the gray fox was the primary quarry, as red foxes were only found in the north, from Canada to Pennsylvania. And while some red foxes migrated south, many were imported from England beginning in 1730 to populate the southern states. In 1840, the Piedmont Foxhounds were established in Virginia, becoming the oldest continuing hunt in the United States, and is still operating today.
As with other customs and sports shared with those ‘across the pond’, fox hunting in America differs from that which was practiced in Great Britain. There, the goal of the hunt was to kill the fox, as they are extremely prolific and are considered vermin — a threat to livestock, especially sheep, which are farmed in great numbers. Here in America, though, fox hunts are run not to kill, but rather to chase the fox or quarry. In fact, the hunt ends successfully when the fox is gone to ground — or enters a hole in the ground, which is called an “earth.” The huntsman then praises the hounds for a job well done, and the fox is allowed to escape for perhaps another chase on another day.
If the hounds lose the scent or do not chase the fox into an earth, the hunt is ended. On some days there is not enough scent for a successful hunt; however the hounds and the hunters can still enjoy the day and the anticipation of a successful hunt.
Another difference here in North America is that, depending on the location, other species are used as quarry — in addition to red and gray foxes, coyotes are often hunted. While coyotes are larger and faster than foxes, their numbers have increased greatly, as they have flourished and have migrated across the U.S. and Canada.
Although fox hunting is no longer legally practiced in England and Wales (with the passage of Hunting Act 2004 which outlawed any hunting with dogs) the sport in this country is very popular, with more than 150 organized clubs in North America: in 37 American states and in four Canadian provinces.
As the hunt requires many square miles of countryside, the lands are usually owned by a number of landowners. Fox hunters greatly appreciate having the privilege to ride over both public and private lands, and work diligently to maintain an excellent relationship with these landowners. They protect their quarry as well as their environment.
The sport can be enjoyed by people of all ages; and in modern times there are a number of hilltoppers (those who follow along in the rear more slowly) who follow the hounds by car!
Here in America, the majority of the hunts are membership packs, similar to other clubs where the interested party pays a fee to become a member and hunt. The fees are used to feed and care for the hounds and other hunt-related expenses.
The members elect a Master who serves for a designated period. The master is responsible to the members; schedules the hunts and appoints the hunt staff who work for him/her. In addition, there are often Joint Masters of a hunt. Each joint master has a responsibility for a portion of the hunt and an area of the country, which is the location of the hunt. He/she will coordinate with the landowners in that area.
If a Master doesn’t lead the field, a Field Master is appointed. He/she is responsible for keeping the field of riders close enough to enjoy watching the hounds work and hunt, yet maintaining a safe distance so as not to interfere with the huntsman hunting his/her hounds. The Huntsman supervises the breeding program of the hounds, cares for and handles the hounds. He or she is responsible for the day’s hunting; schedules working parties to build jumps and keeps the rides and tracks clear so the Hunt can cross the country that hounds hunt over.
The Whippers-in act as an extension of the huntsman, farther out on the flanks, to help keep the hounds close enough to obey the huntsman, and to prevent them from running off the course onto roads or lands not included in the hunt. There are also helpers; one who is responsible for closing gates; another for supervising juniors and hilltoppers. Last of all is the Hunt Secretary, who administers the requirements of the hunt, from collecting the fees from guests to seeing that all paperwork is correct and up to date for the reports to the Committee members.
The most important component of the hunt is the hounds, as fox hunting can be defined as the pursuit of the quarry by hounds. Foxhounds are always referred to as “hounds”, not “dogs”. They are counted in “couples” — two hounds of any sex. When hounds are in covert (pronounced “cover”, the heavy brush, woods, or thick grass where they search for their quarry) the Huntsman situates himself in the best position to influence their efforts to draw the fox. When a hound finds a fox, he will ‘speak’. The other hounds will quickly gather and it is then up to the Huntsman to decide whether or not to cheer them on. He gives a series of short blasts on his horn to call the hounds together. The hounds are trained to react to the horn as well as to the movements of the huntsman’s horse. Once the first burst (the first part of a run out of covert), horn blast or cry of Tally Ho! is heard, the excitement is high — the thrill of the chase is on!