Ask anyone where fox hunting originated and odds are he will respond promptly, “Why, the British Isles, of course.” Indeed, the cry of “Tallyho!” conjures up visions of Lord or Lady Poddlesmere galloping across the English countryside, leaping mammoth hedges for hours on end, and sipping strong waters around the fireside at the end of the day. As it turns out, though, we Americans can lay just as much claim to pioneering the sport as our cousins across the Atlantic, and probably no one will ever know for sure who is entitled to the honors.
What we do know, however, is that fox hunting today still adheres to strict rules of protocol established two hundred years ago. It caters primarily to the wealthy because usually only they can afford the cost of a good hunter and the means of keeping him, not to mention the expense of properly outfitting themselves. Good hunters are customarily thoroughbreds, though not the smaller, rather slight thoroughbreds found at the racetrack. And unlike the quarter horses that are bred for speed in short stretches and are commonly seen out West, hunting thoroughbreds are often crossed with heavier breeds for endurance and solidity, are taller and more muscular, and are trained to run long distances (most hunts last all day) and jump a variety of fences and ditches.
The organized hunting club, whose season runs from September to March, has been fairly well standardized. Its hierarchy consists of the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), the huntsman, the whippers-in, the hunt secretary, and the members of the hunt, or field. Today there are about 140 such hunts throughout the United States and Canada registered with and thus recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. The association has jurisdiction over all hunting matters, and its constitution and bylaws set forth its function: “The Corporation is formed for the purposes of improving the breeds of Foxhounds … registering Packs of Foxhounds, Packs of Harriers [hounds used for chasing hares] and Hunts, keeping for reference maps of the Fox and Drag Hunting Countries of America, and settling disputes in regard to the same, with authority to hold real estate and other property in furtherance of such purposes, and with such other powers as may be naturally incident to such purposes.” A drag hunt, incidentally, usually takes place when there is a lack of foxes. Instead of chasing a live animal, the pursuers and hounds follow a scented trail laid out by touching the ground with a fox’s brush or litter from the fox’s den.
as if reviewing troops. The Squire of Mount Vernon should be leaning forward.
First Gentleman oj Virginia BY JOHN WARD DUNSMORE, 1909; CXHJRITSY
The Master of Foxhounds is in direct command of the field. He dedecides if weather conditions permit the hunt, and where it will take place; he arranges with farmers for access to hunt on their land and makes peace with and recompense (through the hunt secretary) to any angry landowner whose gate has been left open or fence knocked down. He may also maintain the pack and kennels and be responsible for controlling the hounds in the field, but usually he turns over these last duties to his huntsman.
The Master of Foxhounds generates a rather mystical aura and is held in great esteem. Said one British lord: “No one is too good to be a Master of Fox-hounds. If he be gifted with the average endowment of tact, administrative talent, power of penetrating character, and all other attributes that form the essential equipment of a successful public man, so much the better. … He should [be the] … possessor of a remarkably thick skin.” One former Master offers this advice: “As a general rule [the MFH] can enjoy your conversation and society more when not in the field, with the hounds, riders, foxes and damages on his mind. N.B., the proffer of a flask is not conversation, within the meaning of the above.”
The huntsman, who originally was an employee, is not only responsible for the hounds in the field. He is also the blower of the horn, his way of calling various signals to the dogs. This horn can produce only one note, but in several variations. The huntsman is assisted by the whippers-in, or whips, as they are more commonly known. The whips go to the covert (a thicket or section of woods where the fox is supposed to be) and watch for the fox to “go away,” and then they signal (“Holloa”) the fox’s escape from the covert.
The beginning of the hunt, once the field has been assembled in the location of the covert to be drawn, is the actual “draw,” or flushing of the fox out of the woods. The Master presumably has had word that a fox is there, or has a good idea that he is. The huntsman then blows a sharp, brief note to warn the fox of their approach, giving the fox a chance to escape and thereby preventing a chop. (A chop occurs when the hounds catch the fox immediately in the covert and kill him, thus defeating the purpose of the chase—an immensely undesirable event.) The hounds fan out in a line and advance into the covert as the fox, in theory anyway, emerges from the other side. If no fox is found, the hunt proceeds to another covert until one is produced or at least until the hounds pick up the scent of a fox recently in the area. Sometimes a fox may be spotted in the open, as foxes often choose to sun themselves in the fields if it is a particularly cold day