So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Equestrian Sports and Activities: Fox Hunting

Huntsman and Hound
(Photo by Karen Kandra Wenzel)
Huntsman and Hound

The Hound
(Photo by Nina Gibson)

The Hound
It’s an ancient drama: the fox and hounds. On the one hand we have the fox. Clever, sleek, and beautiful; she is nature’s agent in this drama. Then we have the hounds running in a pack all noisy and excited as they chase the fox who is the more capable player. The hounds are the agent of man and man’s effort to exert his dominion over the natural world. The rider is only an observer but the entire drama can make for some of the most thrilling riding you would ever wish to have.

Our chestnut Thoroughbred mare was not the best hunter for all her ribbons in hunt classes at horse shows. Theory is one thing and practice another. The horse knew the difference. Even hearing the hunt in the distance on a quiet Sunday morning would wind her up and leave her cantering around the paddock filled with excitement. She could be on a hunt all day and never calm down. One day my wife was mounted on her and standing next to a friend during a hunt. One of the hounds had strayed from the pack and was sniffing around the chestnut’s feet. The mare put her ears back down flat on her head and administered a well placed kick. The hound yelped and scurried back in the direction of the pack. No one else on the hunt had noticed this infraction. The other rider bent over and whispered to my wife with a bit of an English accent, “It's poor form to kill the hounds.” After all it was the poet R. E. Egerton-Warburton who said of fox hunting that “Good hounds are not rear’d to be knocked on the head.” A lot of hunting is very much about good form and for good reasons. It is necessary to have some element of control in a drama with so many players and to be able to assure the safety of the various parties and respect the interests of land owners.

It is thought that prehistoric man hunted from horseback only shortly after the domestication of the species, but the evidence for that is limited at best by the lack of any physical remains of the activity. After horses were introduced to the ancient civilizations of the Near East hunting using hounds and horses became well documented. Like it or not, man is the ultimate predator. In medieval Europe the nobility hunted all kinds of wild animals from horseback, even deer and boar using lances. Today, the last major vestige of these ancient mounted hunting traditions is fox hunting. The advent of firearms, the enclosure of rural land for sheep grazing, and the general deforestation of the European countryside all contributed to the decline of those older forms of mounted hunting.

The View: The rider facing one way and the fox going the other.
Fox hunters have a deep admiration even affection for their quarry.
(Photo by Karen Kandra Wenzel)

The Fox
However, many of these same forces created additional habitat for another of nature’s predators: the fox. In former times it was common for domestic fowl to be free-ranging, and the fox, a very capable predator, frequently took them. The earliest hunts were organized in England during the 16th Century for the purpose of pest control, and the object of the hunt was to kill foxes. However, in the United States modern hunts follow no-kill practices and the hounds are trained to track the fox only and not to attack it. To emphasize this point the term "fox chasing" is increasingly being applied to the sport that was traditionally called fox hunting. Masters of Foxhounds Association of America has developed a Code of Hunting Practices in an effort to enunciate acceptable standards of conduct for hunts.

The hunt evolved into a rural society institution with ever more elaborate rules and etiquette. By the Victorian era, belonging to a hunt was a badge of social status and even today there is an association with elitism. However, if you know people who hunt they are for the most part ordinary horsemen who simply love the sport. It is too bad that in the United Kingdom political forces have conspired to totally ban fox hunting as a cruel “blood sport.” It is possible to simulate a fox hunt by laying an artificial scent trail (drag hunting) and not even involve a fox. However, most hunters enjoy the real deal. What has gone on in the U.K. seems to be as much about class warfare as about the sport of fox hunting. Many people seem to enjoy trying to punish these “posh” upper class hunt clubs and have focused upon them the pent-up energies of animal rights activists. In truth I see many more foxes killed by motor cars than ever harmed by fox chasers and yet no one seriously suggests we ban cars from rural roads. It’s sad to see such an ancient institution on its knees as part of a human political drama that really seems to have little to do with the rights of foxes to humane treatment.

Societies must decide just where the boundary is to be with respect to humane treatment of animals. For example, are we to outlaw bear baiting, dog fighting, cock fighting, bull fighting, all forms of hunting, all fishing or go all the way and outlaw any human consumption of any animal product that results in the death of the animal? I view this as a matter of individual conscience, and I have no issue with fox chasing. Just when is the heavy hand of government needed? Despite my personal concern for humane treatment of animals, I find the behavior of the animal rights advocates in this regard to be that of a group of fanatics with a lot of misplaced anger. Worse yet are the self-serving politicians who seem to enjoy the political ball game and are happy to infringe on the pleasures of someone else's small constituency regardless of any merit. Wait for the politicians to solve a truly important problem and see them do absolutely nothing.

The Potomac Hounds over a Coop
(Photos by Karen Kandra Wenzel)

Hounds Huntsman

Fox hunting in North America began here in Maryland in 1650 when Robert Brooke imported the first pack of fox hounds. Hunts were very popular in Colonial times, and George Washington was an avid fox hunter. His favorite warhorse Nelson was his former hunt mount. Washington was also a breeder of fox hounds and received a gift of French fox hounds from the Marquis de Lafayette. Washington is credited with crossbreeding the English and French hounds to produce the modern American Foxhound breed. Currently there are a little over 170 recognized hunt clubs in the United States and Canada with the state of Virginia having the most clubs. Maintaining a pack of fox hounds and the hunt staff is an expensive undertaking and members or their guests pay fees to participate. The human participants in the hunt include the hunt staff, who wear scarlet coats (called pinks), and the field who are the other participants observing the hunt and are usually dressed in black coats. The leader of the hunt is the Master of Foxhounds and there may be more than one master. Working with him are the huntsman and the whippers-in who control the hounds. There may also be an official known as the Field Master who supervises the field of riders in place of the master. Many of these men and women have been doing this for a lifetime and come from families that have been doing it for many generations. They are true professionals and consummate horsemen.

Hound Jogging in New York's Beautiful Genesee Valley
(Photo by Karen Kandra Wenzel)
riders and hounds

I am encouraged to see many young riders participating with hunts. I would hate to think that ours might be the last generation to know the thrill of the chase. Foxes are flexible creatures that are able to adapt even to suburban environments. Alas, fox hunters are no such animals. They need the freedom of that ever shrinking rural landscape.

The Accidental Horseman.

The Equiery's Article: The Challenges of Hunting in Maryland Today
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