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January 22, 2010

La Chasse À Courre Is A Hunt Of Different Color

After four hours of hard hunting, the horses enjoy their final check. Photo by Melissa Volpi.

A day spent following the hounds and wild stag—at a trot—with one of France’s most historic hunts turns into the experience of a lifetime.

He is tall, elegant and French. His hair is the color of dark chocolate, and his large eyes are framed with a thick set of luscious lashes. He’s well groomed and wears the finest leather accessories that money can buy. He’s standing with his friends by the side of a white horse lorry, and I detect a hint of restlessness in his charming demeanor as I walk toward him.

His name is Gigolo. He’s a French Trotting Horse of 15.3 hands, and he’s to be my trusted steed for the day’s excursion, the fabled French stag hunt known as La Chasse à Courre.

My host for this expedition is Nick de Toldi of Gourmetfly.com. Nick has arranged for me to join the equipage named Rallye de la Brie in the National forest of Orléans, which is the largest forest in France, to take part in my first ever red stag hunt on horseback.

This style of hunting is carried out between the months of September and March each year, and it revolves around a pack of about 70 hounds. They’re worked and controlled by a hunt master (maitre d’ equipage) and his three hunt staff (piqueux). Each carries a large horn, known as la trompe, and a dagger with a blade that reaches 15" to 20" in length.

On the morning of the hunt, a group of huntsmen (valets de limiers) patrol the forest on foot with sleuths on the leash in search of suitable stags to stalk. Their sightings are then reported to the master, who decides which stag to let the hounds chase. Once this pack of hounds scent the chosen stag, they relentlessly pursue the deer until its capture. Then the stag is quickly dispatched with either a dagger or a firearm.

Throughout the day, a variety of musical notes are played on the horns. This allows the other hunt members to know where the stag is and what the hounds are doing—only the hunt master and his staff come into direct contact with the stag in the forest.

Around 20 liveried hunters ride out with the hunt for pleasure and carry a mini horn called la pibole. Their aim is to anticipate what direction the stag and hounds are taking and try to keep up with the proceedings. If they spot the stag or witness any lost hounds, they will blow on their horns to keep everyone informed.

When the riders stop to await the hunt master’s call, their horses’ heads are always facing the direction of the woodland where the stag and hounds were last heard.

This is hunting etiquette and something that I will have to remember today when I become part of this ancient, royal tradition.

Getting A Taste

My day starts at 5:00 a.m., when my alarm clock begins its relentless ring.

Nick and I drive the 80 miles from his house in Paris to a village near Orléans, in central France, where we are to meet the hunt members.

It’s 8:30 as we arrive at the town’s quiet square, with its beautiful Notre Dame church rising high into the sky ahead of us. The shops are shut, and the streets are empty. The only light visible is from the cafe where we are to have breakfast.

I open the door and am greeted by the smell of strong black coffee, fresh pastries and cigarette smoke. Hunt Master Frederic Poisson and his wife Catherine sit at a table with their extended family and friends.

Nick introduces me to the group. I sit down next to Catherine to listen and observe, as my non-existent French makes it hard for me to participate in the conversation. I down un petit café before heading back to Nick’s car for the short drive to the meet the hounds.

Jean Poisson, the hunt master’s son, gives me a tour of the kennels. There’s the nursery, where all this year’s puppies live, and the “golden oldies” quarters, where around 20 retired hounds lie sleeping on raised concrete platforms. There’s a hospital ward that houses the convalescents, and then there’s the kitchen, with its pungent aroma of raw meat.

Large white tubs filled with red fusilli pasta and risotto rice are stored near blue containers filled with raw chicken. Behind them, a stag’s carcass is lying on the floor, and a couple of pheasants are stuffed into cardboard boxes. I also notice two large silver troughs containing a stew-like mixture.

“We simmer the chicken, rice and pasta for over four hours and then feed it to the hounds twice a day,” Jean tells me, pointing to the troughs. “If we have surplus game, we use that too. So sometimes the hounds eat pheasant and venison stew as well.”

This enticing concoction of meats and dried goods is boiled, simmered and left to distribute by one person—the kennelman. His job is to feed the hounds twice a day, groom them, exercise them and make sure that they live in a scrupulously clean environment. There are more than 130 working hounds in the kennels, so this is no easy feat for one man.

On our way back toward the cars, Jean shows me on the map the area of forestry that we are to ride across today. The forest of Orléans is split into three large clusters of trees, which are predominately oak, and is dissected by areas of highway. The terrain is flat and consists of long stretches of forest tracks interspersed with a few deep ponds. In total, the forest spans over 85,000 acres, of which Rallye de la Brie lease around 17,000. It’s big enough to accommodate three or four different hunts in one day.

As we drive to the meeting place, I spot an orange sign on the roadside. It reads: “Jour de Chasse, Traversee D’Animaux, Prudence,” and is here to warn the public that a hunt is taking place today and that they must be vigilant.

Away We Go

The hunt is almost ready to begin. Riders rush toward their horses and make last minute preparations before jumping on.

Most of the horses are rented for the day from a local stable at a cost of 150 Euros, or about $225. Only a handful of the hunt members own their own horses. The rest arrive fully groomed and equipped about 30 minutes before the hunt is due to commence. They’re all French Trotters, originally bred for racing. They have docile temperaments, can trot a mile in under two minutes and have exceptional powers of endurance.

As I walk towards Gigolo and mount up, I start to feel a little apprehensive. I have two horses of my own, but I haven’t ridden a different horse in 11 years, and I worry that I might fall off or not manage to keep up. I’ve also never ridden a French Trotter before, so I have no idea what this fast-paced gait will be like.

The hunt master blows his horn, and the melody of musical notes and howls reverberate through the trees. He then cracks his whip, and the hounds start running down a forest track. Everyone follows suit. There are people on horseback and hunt followers in cars and on bicycles.

I follow on with Gigolo and keep him at a steady walk until I get used to his short, sharp strides. The track stretches for about a mile in front of me and is sheltered by tall pines on either side. Copper-colored ferns bridge the gap between the trees and ditch that runs parallel to the track.

Gigolo and I speed up to catch Catherine, negotiating our way through small stones and fallen branches. His trot is fast and covers lots of ground—it’s more like the speed of a gallop—and the movement is strange. I find myself thrown forward and rising high in the saddle.

We reach Catherine. Her horse’s nose is pointing to the left hand section of forestry, and I turn Gigolo so his head is facing in the same direction. Vans and 4x4s pull up alongside us, and people carrying binoculars get out. We all await the sound of the horn.

And we wait. And we wait. Gigolo gets restless, and I have to keep turning him in circles to keep him calm. Catherine gets her binoculars out and looks into the forest.

Suddenly a stag leaps out! It jumps across the ditch to the left of us and glides into a second cluster of trees.

It’s the wrong stag, apparently.

The car followers speed up the track hoping to spot more action from there, and the other two riders in our group follow. I wait with Catherine for what feels like an hour.

Suddenly an echo reaches us—the hunt master’s call. We hear three deep bellows from the horn and then spot a stag jumping out of the forest. It’s the right stag this time, so it’s now time for us to follow and anticipate the direction it will take.

“Allons y!” shouts Catherine. Let’s go!

We trot for miles around the edges of the forest and enter an area of wet ground. Mud flies into my face from Catherine’s horse in front. It makes my eyes water, and I can feel the thick, wet blobs sticking to my cheeks.

We turn right. We turn left. We stop and converse with other riders and people on foot. We start again.

Gigolo is getting excited now and overtakes Catherine’s horse. We catch up with the other hunt members, and Gigolo speeds past them too. I feel like we’re flying through the air, and the adrenaline surges through my body. I have never trotted this fast in my life.

I spot the hounds and see the stag running toward water. It leaps into the murky mass leaving a trail of ripples in its wake. We enter the forest, ducking under low branches crowding our path, and reach the water’s edge. Gigolo starts pawing the ground as he spies the stag’s head and antlers—it’s a six-pointer. It’s swimming toward the center of the pond.

The horn blows, and the other hunt members slowly make an appearance around the pond, which is about a half-mile square. Everybody watches and waits. We can hear bicycles being dragged through the boggy terrain behind us, and car doors slam in the distance. Wellington boots crunch through the underbrush.

All eyes are on the water when a boat appears, carrying two people, rowing toward the stag. It’s the hunt master and one of his staff.

What happens next is a blur as the figures are too far away. Everyone is silent. Minutes pass by. The horn is blown to signify the end. The stag is dead. Its carcass is attached to the boat. The hunt is over.

The hounds, who are frantic, are restrained as the stag’s body is carried toward a trailer. We all walk our horses back toward the start.

Ceremony And Celebration

It’s been a long day. After four hours of riding, my joints ache as I dismount and walk Gigolo back to the white horse lorry. I know I’m going to find it hard to walk tomorrow.

Everyone packs up quickly and heads back to the cars for the short drive to a farmhouse where we are to have a picnic and carry out the stag’s death ceremony.

I enter a room with a fire in one corner. The embers are glistening and exude a comfortable warmth. Pine tables fill the rest of the space, and corks pop all around me. Red wine is poured into plastic cups, and everyone toasts the day’s success.

It’s now time for the ceremony. Once more the hounds rush out of the horse box, and the hunt master and his staff congregate around them. The stag’s body is dragged toward a manicured lawn. The leg meat has been saved and will be divided between the hunt members, but the rest of the body is for the hounds.

I stand in a line with the other hunt members. We watch the hounds tearing the stag’s body apart as the hunt master and his staff play a melody on the horns.

Once the hounds have had their reward it’s time for us to enjoy ours, and enjoy it we certainly do. Back at the farmhouse, we devour a feast worthy of a king. There’s cheese, ham, pâté, bread, a basket full of homemade cakes and, of course, lots and lots of full-bodied red wine.

It can be said that French hunts are full of pomp and pageantry and that the chosen method of pursuing a stag and the attempts to dispatch it verge on the barbaric. But I don’t think this is an accurate assessment.

Having actively taken part, I can attest that the hunters do dress up, adhere to ancient traditions, and hope to end the day with a kill. But it’s about much more than that. First and foremost, it’s about the hounds and their relationship with the hunt master and their quarry. Secondly, it’s about the people and their relationship with the horses. And to top it all off, it’s about good food, good wine and good conversation.

Yes, your bottom will be sore after riding at speed for over four hours on France’s answer to the Thoroughbred, but the thrill of the chase is worth it!

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "La Chasse À Courre  Is A Hunt Of Different Color" ran in the January 22, 2010  issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

 
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