Galloping across country in your best show clothes with hounds in full cry — who wouldn’t want to try foxhunting? Turns out, it’s not as inaccessible as you might think.
[top photo used with permission]
Growing up in a sprawling suburb, where most riding opportunities took place in an arena, to me foxhunting seemed far and away the most awesome thing you could possibly do on horseback. I lived vicariously through Rita Mae Brown’s foxhunting murder mystery books. The combination of tradition and sheer seat-of-your-pants badassery captured my imagination, and I memorized all of the terms — fixtures, sandwich cases, and of course, ‘hounds,’ never ‘dogs.’ I even ‘hunted’ deer in the small copses of woods in the pastures of the 16-acre farm where I learned to ride, stalking them with my very patient babysitter of a Thoroughbred.
To my parents’ chagrin, I never grew out of the whole horse thing, but as a cash-strapped student without a car for most of my college career, my riding was restricted mostly to breaks from school.The dream was dormant for a while. But when I started living out on my own, I thought — what the heck. I live an hour away from Middleburg. Foxhunting is around — the challenge is just finding a horse and getting an invite. I decided to take the plunge.
With a flurry of emails and calls to Betsy Burke Parker, the owner of Hunter’s Rest (a farm which I had seen mentioned on the Chronicle of the Horse forums for their annual foxhunting clinics) I was one step closer to my goal. We arranged to meet and have a trail ride/intro to hunting lesson.
I took a personal day from my office job, and after over an hour of Beltway traffic and navigating Betsy’s very long gravel driveway (with not one, but three forks to figure out), I finally made it to Hunter’s Rest. I watched part of a beginner lesson, but given the large tree growing in the middle of the far end of the arena, I concluded that Hunter’s Rest riders were not much for painstaking 20 meter circles and spiraling in and out — once Betsy’s students master the basics, it’s on to the trails.
Betsy introduced me to her horse Unexplainable (X for short), handed me a fly whisk (to my delight — so swishy!), and off we went. She explained how to adjust my position to avoid fatiguing myself and my horse over long distances as we cantered along country lanes. I didn’t know roads like this existed in 2013. Coming from a background where trail riding meant making specific plans to trailer out to a state park, the concept of riding on the road was completely foreign.
But we managed and I even jumped my first coop! Betsy gave me a lead, and being a former hunter-jumper rider, I waited quietly for instruction…thus defeating the purpose. “Come on! This isn’t the riding school!” Betsy yelled from the road. Welp — I guess there’s no need to count strides out here!
So with that success under my belt, plus another lesson a few days later, we started to plan for my first hunt with Old Dominion Hounds, where Betsy leads the third flight. I was fearful of the price tag, but I was pleased to find out that during weekdays and cubbing season, the capping fee is reduced — and that as a newcomer, I could wear the show clothes I already owned.
About a month after my first foxhunting lesson, the day arrived. I got dressed in my show clothes, nearly stabbed myself with my stock pin (as is customary), threw a hoodie and sweatpants over the whole ensemble, and made the trek to hunt country before dawn.
“Truly you’re not dressed?” Betsy asked when I pulled in. I heard the slight note of alarm in her Virginia lilt, but I assured her — the tried-and-true “pajamas over show clothes” trick has never led me wrong when it comes to scraping the mud off horses in the morning. Then it was down to business — getting three gray horses presentable enough to go out in public.
We tacked up the horses, loaded them up and met about 60 other riders for the hunt about five minutes down the road at the Hunter Trial Field fixture near Orlean, VA. I had a mild moment of panic when I met the secretary and thought I left my checkbook behind, but I didn’t — phew — so I paid my cap fee, handed over my release form and mounted up on X. Here goes!
Just as the nerves were starting to set in — Ohmygod, what am I doing, everyone else is dressed in awesome tweed and I look like I stepped out of the Hopeful Hunters! — Betsy passed around a bottle of port wine “to make our horses quieter.” Suddenly, I was grinning like a fool.
Betsy and the rest of the Hunter’s Rest crew introduced me to just about everyone, but there was no chance I would remember any of their names. Huntsman Ross Salter, along with professional whip Jillian Kimball and amateur whips Connor Poe, Randi Blanchard, Denya Dee Leake were leading 20 couple American foxhounds toward us. I was transfixed. I had never seen so many hounds in a pack before, much less all of them behaving! I was really doing this.
The huntsman and staff gathered everyone around to introduce the field masters and make a few announcements. Then it was time. The huntsman, whips and hounds went off ahead to a covert (a wooded area) to try and rustle up a fox. First field followed at a distance, then the second field…and then us. Hurry up and wait. The huntsman blew his horn in short little bursts to encourage the hounds, but from our vantage point, we couldn’t see much more than the occasional red-and-white hound, or one of the whips circling around as we listened to them all rustle in the brush.
Then the first field took off. I guess the hounds were on to something! We third-fielders followed at a leisurely pace, taking our time to file through a gate and close it. After we warmed up at the walk a bit, we picked up a trot to catch up. I’ve trotted in woods and fields a thousand times — but when you have twenty to thirty other horses around you, the sound is THUNDEROUS. My heart was in my throat, but thankfully X was on autopilot. I was told later that the hounds drew southwest towards Henchman’s Lea, then west across Thumb Run Road into Mrs. Ryan’s soybean field. I was more focused on just getting there!
In true hilltopper fashion, Betsy settled the group on top of a hill bordered by woods on three sides to watch the action. We could see the first field trotting along in single file in the distance, and suddenly the huntsman and hounds bounded out of the woods. The fox was in the covert of trees on one side of our field!
Betsy explained that foxes generally run in a circle — wherever the hounds find them is generally where they want to be, so they run and then circle back to their original spot. Meanwhile, the hounds pressed the fox through the thick bramble, but didn’t seem to be able to find exactly where he was.
That’s probably because the fox followed Betsy’s instructions and ran RIGHT IN FRONT of us hilltoppers! He had circled around from the covert, through the woods bordering the field on three sides, and cut across the field to get right back to where he started…after the hounds had long since left the area, of course. It was the perfect sight to see on my first hunt — a brilliant red with a big, fluffy brush running flat-out.
Betsy instructed us to stay put. She galloped out where the fox had been, pointed in the direction it was traveling, and emitted a rebel yell that stopped my blood cold. There is no way to describe it, but suffice to say it was nothing like the Billy Idol song. Time seemed to stand still until she got the attention of one of the whips, who went to alert the master.
The hunt went on a little longer, and we followed through the wooded trails, but nothing could top the sighting of the fox. Eventually, the hounds lost the scent around 10:30 a.m. when the air dried. We packed up, cleaned our horses and I thanked Betsy for a wonderful day…then returned to the suburbs to pass out on my couch.
So my fellow suburbanite ring-riders — there is hope! You too can foxhunt if you are able to find someone to host you and provide you with a trusty mount. If there is no place around you that offers hunt horses for hire, you should find the contact information for your nearest hunt and ask how you can get started.