The Thrill of Foxhunting and the Controversy
My first hunt with The Royal Artillery in Salisbury England
Although I started riding at age 8 and have spent a considerable amount of my life around horses, I had never heard of foxhunting until 2017 while living in London. Like many riders I meet, I spent most of my equestrian life belonging to one stable that focused on a few disciplines; dressage and arena jumping with some minimal pleasure hacking. I never really thought to explore more aside from the occasional beach ride while on holiday somewhere.
Living in England really gave me a whole new perspective on riding. The sport has such a deep history and connection to the culture and has really inspired the vision for MRC. I made friends who invited me on adventures to try new things. Horse owners were so willing to leave their precious animals in my hands, for wild outdoor adventures, a far cry from the arenas I had been confined to. People were more relaxed around horses and it allowed me to relax and invite a sense of adventure and curiosity to try new things.
A friend of mine asked if I wanted to try foxhunting with her, having no idea what that meant I didn’t even think about horses being involved and politely declined. As a lifelong animal lover, I had no interest in being the catcher or killer of any creature. I thought it was odd that she would even invite me; she realized I had no idea what it was.
Silly me, how did I not know what foxhunting was? My friend smiled and said I must try it, it is the most incredible riding experience I will ever have, wow quite the upsell! I then learned it was what I had seen in some old period films of nobility riding with hounds, elegant and majestic, something I had no idea still existed. She also mentioned that the killing of foxes had been banned and the hunts were all “drag” where they trail a scent for hounds to follow rather than them seeking live fox.
As I began to do my research, googling about what to expect, many intimidating things arose. I read of strict etiquette, tradition, uniform and the risky encounters during the ride (large hedges, ditches) and felt ill prepared to handle what was ahead. Luckily, I was able to join an “Intro to Foxhunting weekend” with the Royal Artillery, it would include a luncheon with powerpoint presentation for do’s and don'ts, an informal uniform and approachable ride for newbies like myself, led by military style masters of the sport.
The weekend was fantastic, I learned so much! First off, my Barbour jacket was not anything close to a tweed informal coat, oops. Also don’t call them dogs, they are HOUNDS! Please don’t ever pass the masters (red coats) it’s very poor form. Horses with red ribbons in their tails kick, green ribbons are inexperienced, give space between jumps, be prepared for horses to be much stronger. When to be quiet, when to make noise, repeat what others say, close gates, don't be alarmed when you are passed a flask of booze (pre-pandemic). Most importantly, DON'T let your horse get in a position where they could possibly kick a hound, this is the cardinal sin! Always turn to face hounds, call to riders ahead of you when a hound is behind and always be on alert.
It was quite a lot to take in and my nerves were running high but once I settled in, the ride was truly a dream. This particular hunt had no jumps, which was a relief at the time. But we galloped in a wide spread herd and whipped around turns and through trails where we had to be in a single file line. The horses were magnificent, the iconic view of hounds and a beautifully decorated hunt master calling with his horn made me feel like I had joined an 18th century painting hanging in Buckingham Palace. This day was truly memorable and I could not wait to do it again.
The challenge was then how to get invited. It’s not something where you can just call them up and register, especially if you do not own your own horse or know an existing member. Luckily, we did finally find a way to join the North Cotswold Hunt for their closing meet, by way of a hireling yard. We chatted with the horse owner, he reserved us on 2 of his safest hunting horses and told us where to show up. In my mind this would be similar to what I had previously experienced however, it did require me purchasing a formal uniform, black wool coat (3 buttons, vented), white shirt and stock tie, tan breeches, black boots, black helmet.
We showed up on the day, with a quick introduction to our horses and rushed to mount and join the meet. The meet was at a stunning old manor house in the Cotswold countryside and upon arrival we joined what I would say was 100 impeccably dressed riders on their cleaned, plated and fit horses who were literally chomping at the bit. Hounds rustled around and the master made some announcements while supporters on foot passed around sherry and warm potatoes for us to scarf down and some candy to fill our pockets for what would be a 5 hour day of extreme riding.
Close up of the mud splatter from hunt #2 with North Cotswold Hunt
Things happened so fast we just fell in behind some other riders and set out on the most thrilling ride of my life. It was muddy and I quickly found my new coat and face covered with the splatter from galloping hooves ahead. It was no matter, my focus was on staying mounted and not making any vital mistakes. That first gallop seemed to last for 30 minutes and by the time we stopped in a field I was already feeling the beginnings of exhaustion. However, a kind gentleman came around with a flask in hand and offered a bit of liquid courage.
We set out on our next gallop, with what seemed like a never ending hedge ahead, I imagined it to be 5ft in height, much larger than anything I had jumped. With no way to avoid it and no way to stop my horse who was intent on staying with the pack, I closed my eyes and reminded myself of every skill I had as we swiftly landed and continued our chase.
The day went on like this and by the time that 5th hour approached I was proud of my ability to stay on and go with the flow even, if at moments, I was filled with anxiety and fatigue. My legs were shaking, my hands frozen and numb, toes? Everything hurt but oh was it worth it!
Cubbing with friends at the North Cotswold Hunt
At this point I knew I had a new addiction. As I hunted more I became aware of the sabs or antis, people who disagreed with the sport and would jump out of bushes or hold up signs and say nasty things to riders. It was always quite dangerous and scary as a rider to encounter these individuals. I was not quite sure what the problem was since this was drag hunting after all but I was made aware that there is a community of people who are quite upset about the sport. I rarely saw any real live quarry on any of the 10 or so hunts I joined during my time in England.
Did I just jump a gate face with the Surrey Union Hunt
After moving to Manhattan and starting MRC, I was introduced to New York’s foxhunting community and relieved to know my new passion could continue. Feeling somewhat seasoned in the sport at this point I didn’t think there was much difference in how things happened here versus England. I even naively assumed everyone drag hunted. However, I soon realized that foxhunting was perfectly legal in the US and most hunts followed the original traditions of the sport with hounds chasing live quarry.
As MRC grew and we introduced more riders into the mysterious world of foxhunting we began to receive more and more questions and even criticism about foxhunting. At times I struggled with the correct response. I am after all an animal lover and would prefer not to be involved in the killing of any living thing. However, I do accept that it happens and as I have expressed, I had become a huge fan of the sport of foxhunting. I began to ask more questions as it seemed to me that everyone involved really does it for the riding and the adventure rather than for actual ‘hunting.’
Our first MRC Intro to Foxhunting Group with the Windy Hollow Hunt
I am no expert but what I have found is quite a relief to me and has changed the way I respond to the questions about foxhunting. When the sport began in 16th century England, farmers struggled to produce enough crops and protect their livestock, many regions faced famine. Fox were quick to find chickens, sheep and crops making them vermin to farmers and landowners. Noble members of the community began to train hounds and follow on horses to chase the fox off the farmland. Hounds also being predatory animals have been known to actually catch and kill the fox but it is not always the intent. Fast forward 400 years, foxhunting continues but for the sake of equestrian sport, tradition and preservation of open space.
Although most US hunts chase live quarry, kills are actually rare and not the goal. Often hounds are trained to chase fox to their holes then called off before a kill could happen. In all of the hunts I have attended in my 2 years being in New York I have never seen a kill. The goal is to have a long and adventurous chase through beautiful protected terrain, to soar over old stone walls and fallen trees, to cross over rivers and follow the hounds into the forest land. We need fox alive and well to draw the hounds, who in turn lead us on the most thrilling of rides! In addition to needing the fox, we need the land, the fox need the land.
Me and JJ on our first Golden's Bridge Hunt
In the US we see rapid development all around us, populations multiply and humans take over more land. As equestrians this poses an issue, horses need space to live, to graze, to be horses and run free and we need space to ride. Foxhunting clubs work with landowners to create protections and easements that prohibit land from being developed. The clubs work hard to preserve open space for the sport which in turn protects the space for wild animals to live. Additionally, they help groom and keep these open spaces healthy and vibrant. Land owners receive tax breaks and other benefits from working with hunt clubs.
I hear hunt members refer to foxes as beautiful and they are excited to see them scurry across a field, not to kill them but to know they are there, that we will all be able to ride another day. I can’t think of many things that match the energy and excitement of 30-100 fit and excited horses, a pack of well trained hounds, riders dressed in the traditions of old England, the sound of the horn against the brisk morning air alongside the chirping birds and wild animals rusting in the bushes, the wide open space that makes you feel one with nature and appreciate the little things we often take for granted.
My suggestion to every equestrian who seeks a bit of adventure, who is curious about this seemingly private and hidden sport, is to join us on a ride! We are a group of city equestrians who wish to respect the sport, the animals and learn about the tradition and groups that have made our hobby and passion such the thrill that it is. Ask questions and meet the masters of the sport, be a first-timer along with other first-timers, experience what I have and I hope you will love it as I have.
Melissa, MRC Founder