When signs of autumn foliage touch the Skylands, fox hunting aficionados take to the fields and forests. The first rides of the season, called "cubbing," are to fox hunting what spring training is to baseball.
Summer is generally too hot, and foxes born in the previous spring are not yet mature. So equestrians use these early season rides to polish their skills. In the northernmost part of the Skylands, where Windy Hollow Hunt organizes and promotes fox hunting, the season begins in earnest on the first weekend in October. Spring Valley Hounds organizes events in territories in Sussex and Warren County, New Jersey. Amwell Valley Hounds is found in Hunterdon County's hilly terrain. The hunt and pace season ends sometime in December.
So what exactly is fox hunting? To regular folks it looks like an excuse to get dressed up in odd clothing and chase hounds about the countryside with a group of friends on horseback. And that description is not far from the truth. Much of the time might be spent looking for a fox, or it's scent. Then, when it is found, the hounds are off and riders follow.
The Masters of Foxhounds Assn of America's definition is somewhat more quixotic. "Foxhunting is the sport of mounted riders chasing wild quarry with a pack of hounds. It is a union of humans and animals in the beauty of nature's setting. Man is an observer mounted on a horse, the vehicle that allows him to follow and observe the hounds as they hunt the fox. The scenario unwinds before the foxhunters eyes and ears with the sound of the huntsman's hunting horn as hounds give chase. The fox or coyote maneuvers, circles and runs through the country cunningly evading the hounds."
We should mention that no one shoots at the foxes. Riders follow a pack of hounds, specially bred, which are under the direction of the huntsman. The hounds do what hounds do: they sniff for things. Ideally those things should be a fox, but sometimes it is a coyote (a happy second choice) or raccoons, skunks, rabbits and other critters. Some of these are nuisance animals, from which the hounds must be disengaged. Foxes and coyotes are suitable game, since they run fast enough to give chase.
Organized fox hunting has existed in North America since the mid 1700s and has evolved its own distinct character from the British predecessors, where fox are considered vermin. American foxhunting places emphasis on the chase, not the kill. Linda Scorzone President of the Windy Hollow Hunt emphasizes that the killing of foxes on a hunt is mostly a thing of the past. "In the seventeen years I've been riding with Windy Hollow Hunt, I've never seen or had a kill on a hunt. Perhaps one or two might have happened during that time, most likely with a sick or mangy fox." It is inevitable, however, that hounds will at times catch their game. In some instances, a pack of hounds will run their quarry to ground, tree it, or bringing it to bay in some fashion.
When territories are especially snug and may include specific concerns such as an abundance of roads that could be dangerous to hounds and riders in chase, "dragging" hunts are sometimes used. This involves dragging an object (sometimes road kills are used), which has been coated with fox urine or scent. This scent is obtained from farmed foxes.
The dragging scent tends to be substantially stronger than that of a live wild fox and can desensitize the hounds to the scent of a real fox. A hound pack accustomed to drag-hunting takes some time to readjust to the subtler "nose" needed to hunt live foxes. Although this switch can be made, hunt clubs must make a conscious choice between either drag-hunting or the real thing, preferably for the season.
The formal procedures of fox hunting border on pageantry. Fox hunting etiquette begins with proper dress and grooming of both rider and mount. It extends to a hierarchy in each hunt club that dictates the order in which riders pursue the hounds and fox. Despite the formality and rigorous challenges of the sport, most folks who are involved seem out to have fun. There are those that ride with friends, parents with who ride with children, business acquaintances with a leisure activity in common and even husbands and wives who ride together. Some of these pairings can be fascinating to watch.
If the hounds pick up a quarry's scent, the riders are off on an unknown path, over hill and dale, wherever the hounds or should I say fox lead. Riding through varied terrain on horseback requires skills: jumping obstacles is probably the most obvious. But there are also slippery slopes, creeks to ford and hills to climb and descend. All this horse and risk management takes on new levels of challenge when chasing a fox. Foxes are predators that understand the hunt and are as aware of scent as the hounds. Because foxes also hunt a territory, a circuit travelled in search of food, they are intimately familiar with the hunt terrain. During the chase, they are often seen running through streams for instance, to throw the hounds off the scent. Foxes are also adept at diving into woodchuck holes, and other burrows. In this instance, the huntsman will typically regroup the hounds to set off in search of another quarry.
Equestrians who prefer a set schedule of events without the vagaries of the fox, often attend an alternative event organized by hunt clubs: the pace. A pace involves a set course that includes varied terrain and a number of jumps. A pacesetter, or forerunner runs the course. That time is then used as the time against which the participating riders are measured. Essentially, it's a race. But that doesn't mean you must try to win. Participants ride in groups of two or more. Some are out for the competition aspect of the pace. Others do it to socialize. And it's not necessary to take every jump. Logs, rock walls, fences and coups are all of varying height, breadth and pitch. If a rider is uncomfortable with a jump, they may simply go around it. Each riding group or individual rider makes their own choice about what they want from the pace experience. That means that everyone can have fun.
With all this cavorting around open fields one might wonder how fox hunting is accomplished in one of the most densely populated corners of the country. Fox hunting is done on the hunt club's "territories" which range in a geographic area that the club claims, enough to give the riders a sense of variety. A territory is most often anchored on a property that hosts the event, usually with a barn or stables and an indoor space for the post event gathering. Hunting territory is increased by gaining permission from adjoining landowners, or by actual purchase of available land.
So how do riders get involved in hunt activities? Many come from a background of riding, having some childhood years exposed to the sport. Many clubs have active groups of children and teens within their ranks. Others begin riding later in life. Many start with dressage and the accompanying shows to master the skills of horsemanship. Hunt clubs often host dressage events in the summer months off-season for fox hunting as fundraisers and to gain exposure for their club.
While fox hunting meets are usually reserved for the hunt membership, dressage events and some paces are open to all. So there is room for a co-mingling of the different disciplines. Non-members can usually ride as guests of a member, to decide if they would like to join. There are often other events that allow for getting acquainted with a club and its membership. During the summer months, the Windy Hollow Hunt sponsors a Cubbing Camp and other fox hunting clinics or workshops that are open to all. Children and teens can get involved through Pony Clubs. Amwell Valley Hounds runs a separate pony club to promote the sport and equestrian education for children. You can find the hunt club nearest you at the Masters of Fox Hounds Association of America web site on the Member Hunts page.
Aside from hunt membership fees, owning a horse can require liberal funding. Horse ownership requires either suitable land and grounds or stabling the horse in rented space. The horses need constant tending, and exercise. This is not simply running loose in a field, but involves a rider, or professional trainer, who reinforces the mount's schooling. There are also the responsibilities of maintaining the horse's health with scheduled veterinary visits. Some of the sport's participants simplify things by leasing the horse. The care and stabling of the animal can be covered in a single lease fee. Much like a car lease, this allows the leaser to opt out should the animal prove unsuitable, or if the rider moves to another territory or takes a sabbatical from the hunt.
All sports have spectators and fox hunting is no exception, only it's hard to keep up on foot. On many occasions spectators who follow the hunt from the road get to see action in the making. A fox darts across the road, followed by the hounds and then the riders. It's called "road whipping" and is encouraged by many hunt clubs. Road whips serve as safety backups and can even be helpful to the huntsman by pointing out the direction of travel taken by the quarry.
Although I take to horseback frequently, thanks to the generous invitations of a friend who has multiple mounts, my experience with formal equestrian events is as a photographer and observer. (And I have been known to do a bit of groom duty now and then.) I have watched scores of riders take their horses over jumps at a pace events. To watch the interactions of the horse and rider as they tackle an obstacle is always exciting.
But then there are long moments of silence, when the wind rustles the dry grasses of autumn. A dog barks in the distance and the gray sky seems to go on forever. The whisper of snow to come is interrupted by the distant honk of geese. A few honks turn to dozens, then hundreds, perhaps a thousand; more geese than you've ever seen. They are flying over this open farmland, where pond and grasses that make a grand place for an autumn hunt are also hospitable resting places to migrating birds.
Then there are voices in the distance, the clatter of horseshoes on rocks and another group of riders sails over a jump, or perhaps curses roundly at the height of the jump and goes around. Sometimes a horse refuses an obstacle, or shies away because of the photographer crouched near the bushes on the other side. It is then that I make friends with another rider and mount, letting the horse sniff me before its rider wheels him around to turn and try again.
This time the horse is relaxed. The young lady on his back senses this. Still, she talks him into gallop. "Come on now! Don't you back off on me again." Then they're up, both their eyes intent on the trail ahead. Her hands rest lightly on his sweated chestnut neck as she strains her body forward with his. Her face is beatific, as if this moment is the only thing that matters in the universe –– the moment when she and her one thousand pound charge can fly.
Then they land. The sound of hooves meeting earth resonates like thrumming primal drums. She is still smiling as she thunders by.