Man has used horses for many tasks throughout history—pulling plows, wagons and chariots, carrying loads on their backs, traveling long distances, and even hunting other animals. In fact hunting was probably one of the first uses of our equine companions. Their speed increased the chances of catching the faster prey and allowed the hunters to cover more ground. Almost everyone has seen the exciting buffalo hunt in the movie Dances With Wolves that vividly illustrated their importance to the American Plains Indians.
Riding in a hunt was dangerous and exciting. Who knew what might happen. A rider could get knocked off, a horse could trip and fall, or a prey such as a wild boar or bear could turn the tables and attack. It was a great way for warriors to hone their skills and horsemanship. As a result, hunting became a favorite pastime of the noble and wealthy.
Of course the basic purpose was to supply meat for the table or to get rid of unwanted intruders that threatened crops and livestock. One such pest was the wily fox, which found farmyard poultry easy pickings. While farmers could use dogs to track, the foxes were smart enough to backtrack and confuse their trails and lose their pursuers with relative ease. At that point a human was needed to redirect the hounds, and only someone on horseback could keep up with the chase. (Foxes can run up to thirty miles an hour.) As forests were cut down to create arable land, the number of deer decreased, causing enthusiastic hunters to switch to chasing foxes instead, particularly in Great Britain.
A whole culture developed around fox hunting in England, dictating what to wear, who could be part of a hunt, where you rode in the group and many other niceties. The most important member is the Master of the Hunt, who runs the whole show. He’s responsible for the care of the hounds, organizing the hunt and supervising all hired personnel. Often he also serves as the Huntsman, the one who controls the hounds during the chase. His assistants are the Whippers-In and they help make sure the hounds don’t go off chasing some other animal rather than the fox. Traditionally, male members of the hunt could wear red coats (often known as “pinks” for some unknown reason), while women wore black or navy coats with colored collars. Only members who have been “honored” by the Master are allowed to wear these colors. Everyone else wears black or navy.
While the original idea of fox hunting was a way to help eradicate a notorious pest, that rational is less valid today. In England, hunting and killing a real fox has now been outlawed. In the US, the emphasis has always been on the chase and foxes were rarely killed. Nowadays instead of pursuing real animals, most often the hounds and riders follow a scent trail laid down by someone dragging a bag smelling of fox. The “first field” of riders follows the trail exactly, going over all the obstacles. The “second field,” sometimes called Hilltoppers, takes an easier route, going through rather than over gates, and going around other obstacles, and sometimes stopping to watch the other riders from atop a hill.
Running full bore across uneven terrain, jumping ditches, hedges, streams, fences and other obstructions is a thrill that’s hard to beat. While the original rational for fox hunting may be long gone, the appeal of the chase will never fade.
****Buffalo photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/l67cwka Old print photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/mxc2fpx Fox hunt photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/m8mrjkm