The IHSA riders at the University of Montana Western get out of the classroom in more ways than one.
Emily Cornell can vividly recall one of her most memorable lessons in horsemanship. She was riding
a 4-year-old, out foxhunting.
“The hounds hit on a hare in a huge field of sage, and everyone was flying,” she said. “I was burying my face in my horse’s neck, galloping flat out. And all of a sudden, my rein snapped in half—at a dead run, on a green draft cross.
“I was trying to think of a way to fix this without falling off or getting run off with, or losing the hounds, which is a big deal. I just braced myself and held on like a little Indian and slipped my finger into the ring of the snaffle. I was eventually able to get the horse stopped.”
Cornell’s wild ride isn’t the norm for an Intercollegiate Horse Show Association rider, but Cornell isn’t on the typical IHSA team. She’s on coach John Xanthopoulos’ squad at the University of Montana Western. Xanthopoulos, a lifelong foxhunter, has shared his love of hounds and hunting with his students, and they’ve been bitten by the bug.
“They didn’t know what they were getting into, especially my western students. But it’s like a new religion, and it’s like I’m Jesus and they’re the apostles. They’re thrilled. They are hooked for life,” Xanthopoulos said.
Xanthopoulos, chairman and professor of the department of education at UMW, founded the UMW IHSA team in 2001. He also founded the Treasure State Hunt in 2009, a private pack out of his farm in Dillon, Mont. The Treasure State Hunt celebrated its first anniversary on March 4. IHSA team members whip-in for Xanthopoulos, who hunts the hounds, and help care for the hounds in the kennels.
“They love to walk the puppies, and they watch the hounds work. Part of the experience is cleaning the kennels and taking care of the hounds. They help me vaccinate the hounds and feed them,” Xanthopoulos said.
Getting out into the hunt field has enriched UMW’s riders— both western and English—in ways they never imagined.
“It’s those types of experiences that have made me able to react and think on my feet. I’ve learned to judge situations—if you’re cantering over slippery shale or through sagebrush, [you] need to be careful. You have to know what ditch you can take at a gallop and which ones you can’t,” Cornell said.
“We’re familiar with the terrain, but when the hounds hit a scent and are off you have to use your judgment and trust your horse,” she added. “I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of IHSA experiences. If you’re in the IHSA and competing at shows in a ring, you don’t have to worry about much. But when you’re out in the wide-open country, it’s a much deeper connection with the horse.”
Such A Rush
“When I first heard about [foxhunting], I thought it was pretty crazy—I’d never seen anything like it. I thought it was absolutely nuts running flat out across a field chasing a pack of dogs, but now I just love it. It’s an adrenaline rush,” said Tesla McDowell, a sophomore who competes in the novice western IHSA division. “I was raised in Montana, and I’d never even really heard of foxhunting, other than seeing it in the movies once in a while.”
But now McDowell has started to whip-in and become an integral part of the hunt.
“I like it a lot better than riding in the field. You’re up in the action and get to see the hounds work,” she said. “We get to do a little bit more than the usual IHSA program!”
Xanthopoulos arrived at UMW in 2001 and immediately founded the school’s IHSA team. There had been a rodeo team that competed in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association with much success. He’s been a big supporter of IHSA teams and activities and has founded six IHSA teams at schools where he’s taught.
“I’ve been with the IHSA since 1973, and I’ve been hunting since 1974,” Xanthopoulos said. “Hunting has always been part of my life.”
On Feb. 21, UMW riders earned the IHSA Zone 8, Region 2 championships in western and English.
“I’m not saying our successes in IHSA competition are solely because the riders go foxhunting—they put in a lot of work and practice in the arena too. But I can’t help but think that it helps and lets them develop a whole different perspective,” Xanthopoulos said.
Some of the UMW riders who follow Xanthopoulos and the Treasure State hounds hadn’t even ridden in an English saddle before hitting the hunt field. Some—including McDowell—still don’t, preferring to follow the hounds in western tack. Riders use a combination of UMW school horses and horses Xanthopoulos and his wife, Susan, own through their business, J&S Sporthorses. The UMW IHSA team is based out of Xanthopoulos’ farm.
“He has some horses that hunt, but almost all of our horses are school horses,” said McDowell. “The coaches will give lessons on them, and we’ll take them out hunting. They’re used for everything. We’ll go for trail rides too; they’re not just ridden in the arena. I think they really like getting out and seeing new things too.”
“John has worked hard to get good horses. It’s hard, out in Montana, to get horses that know how to jump, or have ever had English tack on at all,” huntsman Beth Blackwell said.
Making It Materialize
“It’s a new experience. I was born on a farm, and I’ve always done my own riding and training,” said McDowell. “I’ve herded cattle, and now we’re pretty much herding a pack of dogs. I’ve always done rodeo, and it’s a lot like that, fast and quick. When the hounds go, you’ve got to go.
“It’s neat to see the bond between horse, rider and hounds,” she added. “I love watching how the hounds respond to John. It’s amazing when they’re out in the open how well they do respond. It’s amazing that just three people can keep 15 hounds in control.”
During the 2007-08 season, before Xanthopoulos had formed his pack, Blackwell—now helping Grosvenor Merle Smith hunt the Tennessee Valley Hunt (Tenn.)—served as assistant coach for the UMW IHSA team and helped Xanthopoulos introduce the team’s riders to foxhunting by traveling to Lusk, Wyo., to hunt with the Knoxville Hunt.
“He said, ‘Let’s go and take some kids!’ So we loaded up five students and three adults and traveled 12 hours with our horses and hunted with the Knoxville Hunt,” Blackwell said. “They all had a blast. And one of the girls who went on that trip—who has since graduated—was a coach last year for John. She’s now helping me, whipping-in here for a year before she goes to graduate school.”
After that experience, Xanthopoulos was determined to start a pack of hounds. To build his pack, which now numbers 18 English hounds, including puppies, Xanthopoulos drafted hounds from the Knoxville Hunt.
“For now, it’s a private pack; I hunt the hounds,” he said. “We’re making mistakes, and the learning curve is high for all of us, but we’re doing it. I have some wonderful friends in other hunts who are great supporters, and if I have any questions they’re always there for me. Last summer we had four Eastern hunts come and hunt with us. In April, the Tennessee Valley Hunt is coming to hunt with us.”
Blackwell said Xanthopoulos has great enthusiasm, which he gives back to others.
“It’s true cowboy country out there. Everybody works cows on horses,” said Blackwell. “He’s battling a whole different mindset, and he’s making it happen. He does everything with so much energy. It really helps the team to do well. Out there, you really have to have a strong desire and someone with a lot of energy to make it materialize at all.”
Lessons That Can’t Be Taught In The Ring
There aren’t coops or stonewalls in the Treasure State Hunt territory—it’s acres of wide open spaces and sagebrush.
“We do jump over ditches and uneven terrain, but it’s such open land that we don’t really have jumps,” Xanthopoulos said. “Where I live, 70 percent of the land in Beaverhead County—which is the size of Delaware and Massachusetts combined—with 8,000 people, is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. We have thousands of acres we can hunt. It’s hilly to mountainous, with valleys.”
Such territory makes it easier for the western riders to join in the hunts, and even they see the benefits of traversing open land.
“Riding in the open on uneven terrain over thousands of acres that we have in Montana creates balance and security that can’t be taught going around and around in circles in a ring,” Xanthopoulos said.
One of the major challenges in western Montana is the weather. The Treasure State Hunts’ season is year-round; Xanthopoulos hunts the hounds whenever the weather cooperates. They usually go out between one and three times each week.
“It’s very hard out there because it would be 20 [degrees] below zero, and we couldn’t ride for weeks at a time. When the weather would get to 20 above, we were excited and riding outside. That made it really tough,” Blackwell said.
Despite the challenges, UMW students and Xanthopoulos are determined to get out hunting. “I’ve really noticed that the foxhunting, once you start it, it really gets in your blood and you get kind of addicted to it. It’s such a thrill,” said Cornell.
For Xanthopoulos, part of the thrill is the knowledge that he’s introducing a whole new generation of riders to the historic sport of foxhunting.
“My enjoyment is to see their faces and hear them say what a wonderful experience they’ve had. To see all that translate into a winning team in the ring is even better,” he said.
Cornell, a junior at age 21, hadn’t even imagined foxhunting when she first started at UMW.
“I came from northern Montana, pretty much the woods and sticks. I grew up riding bareback with a halter, running around everywhere. So when I first came here and got involved in the IHSA [and the Intercollegiate Dressage Association], it was really my first time in an arena; I was used to always riding outdoors,” she said.
She first got the idea to join Xanthopoulos in the hunt field when she saw photos of him jumping massive fences while hunting in Ireland. “They were remarkable, and I was intrigued,” she said.
And now Xanthopoulos has made her into a die-hard foxhunter. “I could even see myself working for a hunt later in life, if it worked out. It think it would be great in developing me further as a horseman,” said Cornell.
A Life Devoted To Horses And Teaching
John Xanthopoulos didn’t have a typical first mount for a young rider—he grew up riding donkeys in his native Greece.
When he moved to the United States in 1968, he traded up to riding horses and never looked back. He showed on the hunter/jumper circuit in the Westchester County and Long Island areas in New York and also started foxhunting.
In 1973, Xanthopoulos entered the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University (N.Y.) and, with a friend, re-established the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association equestrian team there. It was the first of many IHSA teams that Xanthopoulos would begin.
After graduation, Xanthopoulos taught high school social studies in New York. He also owned a hunter/
jumper show barn—Thorobrook Farm in Rye, N.Y.—from 1982 to 1992, where he trained and showed. In New York, he initiated IHSA teams at Sarah Lawrence College and Manhattanville College. He also earned his r-rated U.S. Equestrian Federation judge’s license in hunters and equitation in 1981.
In 1992, Xanthopoulos moved to Florida to teach at the University of Miami, where he also earned his master’s degree. While in Florida, he started IHSA programs at the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, Lynn University and Palm Beach Community College.
Xanthopoulos, who earned his Ph.D from Walden University (Minn.), moved to Montana in 2001, where he now serves as professor of education and the chairman of the department of education for the University of Montana Western. He also started the IHSA team and serves as their coach.
A life lived in the hunter/jumper world has also inspired Xanthopoulos to manage two USEF-rated horse shows a year in Dillon.
“He does it top-notch,” said Beth Blackwell, who served as Xanthopoulos’ assistant IHSA coach. “He made the rings look as nice as you could find back east. People in Montana have no idea about that—they wondered what on earth he was doing, putting flowers in the ring. It’s a foreign concept out there!”
Xanthopoulos, who has served on the IHSA Board of Directors since 1973, has worked hard to share his love of horses, showing and foxhunting with legions of young riders over the years.
“I’ve devoted myself to the hunter/jumper world and to the IHSA. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Xanthopoulos said.
“I think a lot of him, and it’s amazing to me all the things he can make happen in a place where it’s very difficult to introduce a new idea,” Blackwell continued. “That’s a unique ability of his. He’s always sharing with the community and with other people, and there aren’t a lot of people like that. He’s a special person.”
About The University Of Montana Western
Although the University of Montana Western in Dillon, Mont., is a part of the University of Montana system, it’s a smaller public college (with 1,041 full-time students enrolled in the fall of 2009) with an unusual curriculum.
“The University of Montana Western provides innovative interdisciplinary education through experiential learning that combines theory and practice,” according to the UMW website.
UMW is the only public higher education institution in the United States offering Experience One, which began in 2005. Experience One is a unique scheduling program designed to emphasize hands-on, experiential learning. UMW students take just one class at a time, three hours a day, for 18 days. During that time, they work closely with their professor and fellow students in intensive study of one subject. The average class size is 16 students. They then have a four-day break in between classes. Each semester usually includes four of these intensive single-class blocks.
The most popular fields of study by far at UMW are the educational fields, with liberal arts, business and environmental studies also showing strong enrollment. There’s also an extensive equestrian studies program, offering an associate of applied science degree in either equine studies or natural horsemanship, or a bachelor of arts degree in natural horsemanship. There’s also a BA degree in biomedical and biological sciences with a concentration in veterinary science and a bachelor of science degree in business with an equine option.
The rodeo team, which competes in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, is a well-established and respected program, while the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team began in 2000 and is developing rapidly.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “John Xanthopoulos Has Created A New Generation Of Foxhunters In Montana“ ran in the April 9, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.