The spirit of a too-late Friday night is still coursing through my veins early on the first Saturday of November as I drive east into the Virginia countryside for my very first foxhunt. I’m late, and it doesn’t help that directions to the hunt’s meeting point (one imagines this is the case with most of them) involve such distinct landmarks as “a country road” and “two hills.”
I miss the consumption of the traditional “stirrup cup,” but reach the Blue Ridge Hunt (BRH) 10 minutes before the huntsman’s horn signals the “leaving the meet” call to alert his field of riders that the hunt has begun promptly at 9 a.m. I meet Linda Armbrust, one of the masters of the hunt (the BRH has three), whose straightforward welcome gives me the courage to jump right into the thick of things. She introduces me around before mounting her own horse, and a social member of the club—one who doesn’t actually hunt—takes me to see the dozens of foxhounds in the trailer, anxious and ready to be set free. I arrive just in time to act as a calm island in a sea of friendly, whining beasts as they are released to relieve themselves and stretch a bit before beginning the chase. They hardly seem like vicious predators, and offer, with their long, goofy tongues, floppy ears, and wagging tails, an amusing contrast to the sophistication of the riders and their well-put-together horses.
A pile of mini plastic cups coated in mahogany liquid, and nothing but dregs in the bottom of a bottle of port, also indicate that it is time to get this show on the road. I have hardly steadied myself on a cinderblock seat in the back of the pickup truck before we’re roaring off to keep the first field in view. We crest a hill and stop to watch the first field of riders disappear into a cornfield to “cast” the pack of hounds, allowing them to pick up the scent of the fox. The first field is composed of the huntsman, the “extension of the huntsman,” the whipper-in, the masters, and, in the words of foxhunting advocate Dennis Foster, “the ones who are hell-bent for leather and following the huntsman and the master as close as they can.”
The second field follows more casually behind the first, does no jumping, but trots and canters. The third field, comprised of “hilltoppers,” is for young children on pony lead lines, the elderly, or riders with green horses being trained to hunt. “You can be a very marginal rider and still enjoy the hunt,” Foster had told me. I find you can be a very marginal rider-of-a-truck and still enjoy the hunt as well.
The truck follows as back-up in case of mishap, and to act as a sort of mobile headquarters to keep the riders apprised of the huntsman’s whereabouts. Riders get separated and redirected, and the driver of the truck keeps in touch with a handful of hunt leaders using walkie-talkies.
The cool morning air is refreshing as we whip through bumpy, dewy fields. I’m more than wide awake by now, and glad of it. Sometimes we take winding country roads or private lanes as we reposition ourselves. The driver of the truck (dressed, by the way, ideally: in suspenders, tweed jacket, and wool driving cap) shuts off the truck’s engine, and we sit in silence and listen for the hounds to begin “speaking,” or for the huntsman’s horn to sing across the hills and Shenandoah Valley. A slow moment allows for a nip into the cream sherry that is brought out in lieu of port. No one talks about the news, Obamacare, or—thank goodness—Miley Cyrus.
There’s a lot of “hurry up and wait,” plenty of backtracking and repetition of scenery. It’s the kind of scenery, especially with the blazing fall foliage, so often captured in paintings. Artists evidently think it’s the kind of display worth repeating perpetually. I agree. Drab earth tones mix with flashes of flame-colored trees and dots of scarlet hunting jackets. One even learns to appreciate how a fence can improve a landscape, as a frame does a picture.
My recent discovery that foxhunting flourishes in the Virginia countryside near where I now live developed into a very sudden obsession and resulted in an extremely generous invitation to experience a hunt first-hand as a writer from the city. Despite my spur-of-the moment interest, I’m not totally naïve going into it: My grandfather had been Master of Hounds in the Philadelphia Main Line area, I was raised on BBC period dramas, and I had a happy chat with Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Foster prior to my grand adventure. Foster is executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) and a foxhunting expert who has been on 404 different hunts in 11 different countries. He confides to your correspondent that this accomplishment is “considered to be something of a record.”
Foxhunts used to be written up in newspapers on the same pages as baseball and football game recaps, and though they’re less known now, Col. Foster says he hasn’t witnessed much decline in interest. “The biggest problem with foxhunts through the years has been urban sprawl,” he says, “and we have been very big on preserving land for all country field sports. Our hunts alone have preserved over a million acres of land.”
Animal rights groups might balk, but he also says foxhunting is not a true blood sport in the sense that deer hunting, for instance, is. “It is true, most of our hunts involve chasing,” Foster says. “But we’ve had hunts that haven’t killed a fox or a coyote in 30 years, and I would say the majority of our hunts don’t. They’ll probably run the same fox three or four times a year and each time he gets smarter. In England the fox is vermin, especially to sheep farmers. Here in America we don’t have that problem, so there’s no necessity to kill them.”
Col. Foster calls foxhunting “the grand opera of hunting.” Mother nature, he says, is the stage manager; baying hounds and hunting horns, the orchestra; pack and prey, the actors; huntsmen and horses, the audience in front row seats. To me, it reflects the orderliness of an ancient military regiment, where hierarchy is established through experience, every member knows his place, and convention is never questioned. The intricacies of hunting etiquette obeyed and respected intensely by all riders are not immediately apparent to the casual observer. But even a poseur such as myself, who adores everything about horse culture except horses themselves (they are beautiful from a distance, but really frightening up close and alarmingly skittish) can sense the existence of a code behavior that is well understood, a definite way of doing things.
Perusal of the MFHA’s Introduction to Foxhunting confirmed my impression in droves. An entire section is dedicated to the proper outfitting of riders and code of conduct, depending on one’s rank in the club, for both the formal and informal season. “Appearance is important because it reflects on the hunt and its members.” These people are preppy in the original sense—actually prepared for something other than walking across the quad of an Ivy League school.
Some delightful gems regarding behavior:
It’s traditional to greet the Master with a “good morning, Master,” no matter the time of day. At a minimum a “good day, Master” is appreciated.
Jumping obstacles enhances the pleasure many people have when hunting. But jumping anything more than what’s necessary is called “larking” and is frowned upon.
Should you by mistake pass the Field Master or come off your horse, donating a beverage to the club is traditional in many hunts.
Square-cornered, single-breasted frock coat, cut to suit the wishes of the owner, with no flaps on the waistline and no pockets on the outside of the coat except an optional whistle pocket.
A Master who does not hunt hounds should have four front hunt buttons. A Master who does hunt hounds should have five buttons. There should also be two hunt buttons on the back of the coat if it is a frock coat and two or three small buttons on the cuff of each sleeve. The material should be twill or Melton cloth.
Gentlemen may carry either a flask or sandwich case (or both). Ladies may carry either a sandwich case or a combination flask and sandwich case.
Hair nets for women are advisable and correct.
Some of the rules sound tedious and stuffy, though the foxhunters I meet are anything but. I am struck most by the air of assumed self-sufficiency. It’s very much an “all for one and one for all” sort of independent, jaunty spirit that unites the hunters. Everyone’s on his own to keep up, or not. These are hardy people, an elegantly dressed sporting set that grants no one special treatment or exception.
One must be able to ride well and also have an intimate knowledge of land and neighbor. “They’re not going through bloody Millwood, are they?” the driver grumbles early on. They don’t go through the town, but “under Danny Eyles,” then toward “Guarriello’s orchard, below.”
Col. Foster summarizes the splendor of foxhunting as “Mother Nature’s theater, with never the same act twice.” It’s an aesthetic sport, I observe, one in which man interacts with nature without interfering, and one with links to the past: members of the Blue Ridge Hunt ride over the same hills and fields as George Washington, who foxhunted with his friend Lord Fairfax.
“Foxhunters,” Foster told me the week before I joined the BRH, “are very, neat people. They invite you to their house, they give you dinner, sometimes you stay at their house, they’ll provide you a horse, and they tell you ‘thank you’ the next day. Even in these economic times, the last thing they give up is foxhunting. If you go into their houses, a lot of them have the same pictures on the wall, and everything is oriented towards foxhunting. It’s a lifestyle for people. It’s not just a sport.”
So I learn. The hounds eventually lose the scent, the wily fox escapes, and the huntsman calls it day. I am invited into the landowner’s gracious home after three hours of chase for a sociable breakfast. I see the pictures on the walls, the foxhunting antiques, ornaments, and heirlooms.
Someone offers me a beer, and my impression is confirmed: Foxhunters are the best sort.