You’ve been bitten by the foxhunting bug. Maybe you’ve been eventing for years or your horse is a complete packer in the show ring. So you think, “Why not?”
It’s the fault of those old engravings–all the gentlemen in their scarlet coats and the ladies riding sidesaddle, flying over fences and galloping through rivers, so wild and so elegant at the same time. Your mind starts to wander as you’re plodding around the same old ring, “What would it be like to go foxhunting?”
If you ask a foxhunter that question, you’ll get a variety of answers, but they’ll come down to one thing–exhilaration. Yes, you’ll hear about the fabulous runs, the beautiful country, the partnership with their horses, the adventure, the uncertainty, the camaraderie. But the thrill of overcoming the unexpected is really what it’s all about.
Soon, you’re dreaming about hunting. There you are, above the misty wetlands, listening to the cry of hounds and the notes of the huntsman’s horn. Then you and your horse are flying across the hills in pursuit, your heart singing.
OK, Sparky, hold up just a second. Before we can make these dreamy images into reality, we have to answer a few questions and review a few basics.
Are there special clothing requirements for horse and rider?
Yes, but if you’re used to hunter showing or eventing, you’re already familiar with most of them.
Formal days of hunting require formal show attire–black coat, stock tie, tan britches and boots. For cubbing, one can go casual, with ratcatcher attire–navy or green coat and ratcatcher shirt. Just don’t show up kitted out for cross-country, in your bright purple safety vest, lime-green saddle pad, and hot-pink bell boots. You’ll definitely raise some eyebrows, at least.
You’re also used to the inexplicable tradition of wearing many layers of buttoned-up heavy clothing from head to toe, in incredibly hot weather. This will serve you well in the hunting field during cubbing. Later on in the season, you’ll be freezing, no matter what combination of clothing you’ve chosen.
The one necessity is gloves. If you forget yours, you have to depend on the kindness of another rider to lend you half of their pair. Then, you’ll only be able to turn to the left and they’ll only be able to turn to the right.
Your horse, however, may need less gear than usual. While the average hunter rider puts a variety of wraps and boots on the horse, even for everyday work, foxhunters avoid them, unless they are absolutely necessary. A polo wrap will almost definitely come undone, and mud and grit can get under boots, causing painful rubs. Seeing as a happy horse will take better care of you than a miserable one, limit the possible problems.
Do I need to use a bigger bit on my event horse if I’m hunting him for the first time?
The answer there would be yes!
Let’s assume you always ride “Bucky” in a fat, loose-ring snaffle. Sometimes you just jump on him bareback, with only a halter and lead rope. But when you take him out in the hunting field for the first time, he’ll take one look at the group galloping along and thousands of years of herd instinct take over.
He’ll no longer feel like the horse you know. You’ll find yourself passing one rider after another. Somehow your half-halts will have no effect. Nor does hand-over-hand hauling on the reins. You’d circle except his head seems to be locked straight ahead. The fieldmaster is the only one left in front of you, and he says something you’re sure is not terribly complimentary as you sail past him.
Finally, after you’ve used a very large tree to help you slow down, a senior member of the hunt comes up to you and says, “I’d guess you need a little more iron in that horse’s mouth.”
What should I do when I get to the meet?
Smile and say “good morning” to everyone. This is an absolute requirement, even if you’re running late, your horse is being stupid, you can’t find your hairnet, and your left stirrup leather seems to be six holes too long. Smile and the world smiles back. This will be very helpful to you later in the day.
Foxhunters are a great group and will try their best to take care of a newbie, especially one who said “good morning” to them at the meet. Of course, if the run is fabulous, they’ll forget you’re there.
But if you survive until the first check, they’ll be sure to ask how you’re doing. They’ll also offer you a drink from their mystery flask. After enough of these, you’ll find yourself settling right in to the foxhunting thing.
Also at the meet, you need to give the hunt secretary your “cap” (capping fee) and your signed release form. Most people forget about the release until they’re asked for it. At that point, they awkwardly sign it while leaning against their horse’s withers or the next rider’s back. Actually, the release is just a warning: Foxhunting is great fun, very exciting, very dangerous. Don’t blame us if you get hurt. If you want “safe,” don’t get on a horse.
How much can I drink at the meet?
Foxhunters are probably the only athletes who regularly begin their sport with a glass of sherry. But it’s usually just a taste. Limit yourself to one. You might think this is so you’ll have your wits about you while you’re hunting, but many people manage to hunt fairly successfully without their wits anywhere near them.
No, it’s really so you won’t have to answer nature’s call later on. Terrible things have happened to people who have taken an unscheduled pit stop during hunting. One man dropped his horse’s reins momentarily, only to have the horse take off toward home. A woman who excused herself assumed that the field had moved off to the east. But what did she see when she looked up but a fox trotting toward her, followed in short order by the hounds and the field. She was kidded for some time about how the field had two views at once that day.
The other thing to remember about alcohol in the hunting field is that you’ll probably be offered a drink from someone’s flask at a check. This is a wonderful kind of sharing, but the mixtures in the flasks range from traditional (cream sherry or some kind of fruit schnapps) to odd (cran-grape juice or Diet Pepsi) to dangerous (vodka and three other kinds of liquor), and you never know which is which. We had one member who delighted in putting together lethal blends and then offering them to dehydrated riders at checks.
How do I know where I should ride?
Ah, well. There is an incredibly strict protocol concerning order of go in the hunting field. Everybody always rides in the same place, just like office workers always park in the same spot in the parking lot.
Or like season-tickets holders at a sports arena. It may take years for a member to get a front spot in the line-up. If someone invades that turf, there could be war.
Unfortunately, no one will explain this, so you need to ride in the back. In an hour, many of those people will go home, and you can move up without breaking any of the arcane social rules governing position in the hunting field.
Are there terms I need to know?
Yes, but most of them will become clear to you.
The first part of expressions like “‘Ware motor, hole, wire, killer chicken, miniature donkey, etc.” is residual from the old days when people actually used words like “beware.” The rest of the expression you’ll figure out quickly.
One problem expression is “low bridge.” We had a guest come back to the barn one day and say she hadn’t seen a bridge all day but people kept warning her about them. It actually refers to a low branch.
Speaking of branches, don’t hold branches for the next rider. You’ll just wind up swatting them, which may cause them to use a somewhat colorful expression known to most trail riders: “Don’t hold the &*%# branch!”
If you hear “Hold hard!” you need to stop–now. You can use whatever means necessary except bouncing off the horse in front of you.
The expression that causes the most dread in our country is “Ware bees,” usually said in a pleasant sing-song voice by the first rider in the group to stir up a nest of ground bees. That’s because it will take the bees a few seconds to get the revenge club together and head out.
The warning will get increasingly frantic as successive horses pass through the area, with dozens of angry bees sticking to their bellies and necks. The riders at the back of the group get to watch the horses in front turn into rodeo bucking stock.
And, just as you’ve cleared the area, you realize the fieldmaster is considering reversing because the hounds have changed direction.
Some hunting terms are just odd. The huntsman may “cast the hounds” or “lift the pack,” both of which would seem to be fairly daunting tasks, given the collective weight of the hounds. Or he may “let the hounds find their noses,” which would seem to be fairly easy.
The area where the huntsman sends the hounds to look for a fox or coyote trail is called a “covert,” although, for some reason, it loses its “t” in pronunciation. You’ll hear a lot about “drawing a covert,” (hounds working through the area) or the game “jumping the covert” (leaving the area in a hurry).
How will I know when the hounds have found a line?
No worries–you’ll know!
First, a few hounds will “speak.” Then the rest of the pack will “honor” or join in, with a piercing cry that old-timers call hound “music.” A chill will go up your spine. Your sleepy field hunter will wake up. And the whole thing will become clearer to you.
In this sport, the hounds are really doing the work. Your horse, your partner in this effort, is allowing you to follow the action.
Most rules of the hunting field are just common courtesy and consideration. Just remember that the hounds are the stars of the show. They always have the right of way. Even if they pop out of the bushes right in front of you as you’re galloping along. Even if one wanders right in front of that coop as you were about to jump it.
If you get the chance to see them work, watch which hound seems to be leading the group in sorting out the line. Then, later, at “breakfast,” which can happen any time of day after hunting, you can thank the MFH for the day of sport and ask about that hound. You’ll gain hundreds of fabulous points in an instant and learn more about hound work and bloodlines than you will be able to absorb, but you will be, in that moment, inducted into a very large and wonderful fraternity of crazy people who enjoy foxhunting.