Written by Dasha Morgan / Above photo courtesy DonWestPhotos.com
The age-old sport of fox hunting may have mellowed with modernity in some respects—but it remains a challenging, exciting affair.
Fox hunting is about a chase, an afternoon with mother nature, on your horse, following excited, barking hounds across various terrain.
All ages and dispositions seem to enjoy the sport once they experience it. And even if you don’t ride, it is a treat to participate in the activity. Observers can watch the hounds, the horses, and the riders galloping across the hillside or over a bridge, perhaps jumping a log or fence.
It is quite a colorful, action-laced spectacle to see. To some, chasing a fox across a field, over a stream, and into the woods on their horse behind a pack of hounds with a group of friends, is incredibly exciting, challenging, and fun. They must always stay alert, as abruptly they might have to stop—the hounds have lost the scent of the fox, the coyote, or even perhaps a bobcat has suddenly changed directions. (Yes, despite the sport’s name, all these animals can be chased on a fox hunt, but not deer.) And it enjoys enduring popularity in the Western North Carolina region.
Fox hunting has a long, colorful history, going back to medieval times. Here in the United States it has existed since Colonial day; throughout his lifetime George Washington enjoyed fox hunting at Mount Vernon, as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. It was even popular here in Western North Carolina—Rob Neufeld, columnist and author of Visiting Our Past, mentioned it in the Asheville Citizen-Times as recently as this past July, writing, “When the Swannanoa Country Club hosted a fancy ball in Coxe’s hotel (The Battery Park) in 1890, members recalled how the Club had, in years past, run fox hunts on the hill until barbed wire prevented their roaming.”
Of course, horses were a much bigger part of everyone’s lives at the turn of the century. Cars were just coming into existence; the phone was only beginning to be used; it was a different world then with horses at the center of day-to-day transportation—certainly not as today. Over the centuries, with urban growth and population soaring, the available land to hunt diminished considerably. Thus, hunting needed to change. It became more of a sport than a practical part of farming existence and keeping livestock alive. Along the way, as with most sports, it also spawned a unique terminology (see the Glossary sidebar, page 85, for an extensive list of terms and descriptions), a range of formalized behavior, and men’s and women’s attire specific to the sport.
Early on, the fox was widely regarded as vermin, and the hunt was done as a means of pest control to protect the animals, the chicken, goats, and sheep; farmers needed to hunt foxes to prevent them from killing their livestock. Today, fox hunting is a widely enjoyed sport with a rich tradition, enjoyed by all ages both male and female. The Masters of Foxhounds Association lists approximately 151 foxhound packs in the United States and Canada, the most plentiful state for hunts being Virginia, with over 20 hunts. Here in North Carolina, there are six hunts, while Maryland has nine, and somewhat surprisingly, there are also a few in Texas, Oklahoma, Montana, and Colorado.
However, it is important to note that pursuing quarry for the purpose of killing is strictly forbidden by the Masters of Foxhounds Association. According to article two of the organization’s code: “The sport of fox hunting as it is practiced in North America places emphasis on the chase and not the kill.”
Fox Hunting in Polk County
Fox hunting in Polk County is a sport enjoyed by many, both riders and onlookers. There are two major hunts in the Tryon area: Tryon Hounds and Green Creek Hounds. Tryon Hounds is one of the oldest and most prestigious hunts in the Southeast. The late Carter Brown established it in 1926 when he came to this area; it was recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association in 1935. When the hunt season begins in late summer, due to the heat, fox hunts in Polk County start early in the morning, 7AM or 7:30AM. Later in the season, as the weather gets colder, the start time is later in the morning. Both clubs hunt twice a week, but on different days, with Tryon Hounds hunting on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Green Creek Hounds on Thursdays and Sundays. Both have clubhouses, an active social and riding membership, and a full-time Huntsman to look after the pack of well-trained, responsive hounds. Generally speaking, Tryon Hounds is considered the more traditional club, holding fast to the fox hunting traditions and formal attire; whereas Green Creek Hounds is considered more relaxed and modern in approach.
Members of both hunts actively participate in all aspects of the sport, devoting a great deal of time to keeping the hunts operating smoothly. Tryon Hounds is a corporation with a Board of Directors, and to quote Becky Barnes, president of the Board of Directors and a Field Master, “It is a well-oiled machine with strict attention to the business side of hunting.”
There are three Masters of Foxhounds at Tryon Hounds: Mrs. George Hughtston Jr., Mrs. Charles C. Lingerfelt III, and Dr. Dean McKinney. They work together on an almost daily basis, and combined, they have over 75 years of experience as Masters with Tryon Hounds—quite an accomplishment to have that level of experience and devotion to a hunt, not just in Western North Carolina, but anywhere in America. Their territory consists of rolling green hills, open fields, and hardwood forests in Polk County, as well as in Spartanburg, Greenville, and Union Counties in South Carolina. They also have permission to hunt on a 15,000-acre plantation in the low country of Ridgeland, South Carolina.
On the other hand, the Green Creek Hounds, which was founded in 1988, sees itself operating as a hospitable, private organization that is run by a Master of the Hunt. Deborah Bundy, the Master of Foxhounds for Green Creek Hounds, explains, “There are four masters, including myself, Kem Ketcham, Christi Fowler, and Tot Goodwin. Between us we keep our hunt running smoothly. We also have an Events Committee. They come up with our many social activities and make those happen.” Through the generosity of Jennifer and Roger Smith, partners with the new Tryon International Equestrian Center, the Green Creek Hounds is now able to hunt over a large swath of contiguous territory. The Smiths had visited the region and found Tryon to be the perfect fit for their personal and business needs—near enough to airports and a comfortable climate—so they purchased property and moved here in 2003. Roger has been an avid fox hunter and was once a Master of the Hounds. He thoroughly enjoys the friendships made through the sport and “the fun and the challenge of the chase,” and adds that his wife, Jennifer, also enjoys fox hunting occasionally. “It has been such a pleasure to be able to experience this type of life, with friends and family. [My dream] is to offer this type of experience to others in the area for years to come.”
Bundy notes, “We have hunt ‘fixtures.’ These are the sites where we gather to hunt. These are different places around our territory where there is enough parking for trailers. We don’t usually start from a member’s home, except at Opening Hunt. We (the Green Creek Hounds) hunt through a large territory covered by our charter, which is approved by MFHA (Masters of FoxHounds Association) and covers half of Polk County, most of Rutherford County, and Cleveland County. It also covers much of Greenville County in South Carolina. We can hunt in any of these counties with permission of the landowners. We are always looking for new locations to hunt from, though we love our local territory here in Polk County.”
As each hunt club has a specific territory and land on which to ride, many members hunt with both. At various times of the year, the hunt clubs will issue invitations to other hunt clubs to come join for a weekend of hunting and parties. They also are invited to hunt with others farther away and usually try to arrange a trip south in the colder months.
During the early season, called Cubbing season, fox hunting attire is less formal, perhaps a polo shirt, tan breeches, or tweed jackets and tie. Casual dress is called “ratcatcher” attire. However, with Opening Hunt, the riders must wear their formal attire, which is steeped in tradition and rigidly conventional. The coat, the breeches, the boots, the shirt, the hat, the gloves, all need to be “proper” and in correct colors. A hard hat must always be worn. As for someone’s hair, it must be done up tight and inconspicuously, perhaps with a net. It should never be loose and flying. According to William Wadsworth, MFH, in his pamphlet Riding to Hounds in America, “You could play the World Series with both teams in slacks and polo shirts, but neither the teams nor the spectators would enjoy it as much.”
Women usually wear a black jacket and black boots, with a stock tie and pin. The right to wear a scarlet coat by a gentleman is earned by his accomplishments and volunteering, as is the right to wear the hunt button and “colors.” Many hunts now allow women to wear scarlet. It is reserved for women designated as Hunt Masters, Field Masters, and Whippers-In. A distinctive color on the collar of a scarlet coat distinguishes the uniform of one hunt from another. For Tryon Hounds members, the color is a sage green. Green Creek Hounds colors are emerald green with blue trim, but only for staff. Others have black or dark melton on their collar. (Needless to say, gentlemen and ladies who have earned their colors are quite proud to wear them.)
The Fox Hunt Itself
The riders all mention that they enjoy the “chase,” the interesting friendships they make, and the social activities surrounding the sport. Of course you need to have access to, or own, a well trained hunter — a horse — in order to bring him to the various “meets.” The riders on these hunts choose to put themselves into various “flights.” According to Tryon Hounds’ Barnes, “Most hunts have three flights. First flight follows the Huntsman and takes all jumps. This is the fastest flight. Second flight is not as fast, and jumping is optional. The third flight, also known as Hill Toppers, move at a slower pace and do not jump. All flights have a Field Master. The hounds, too, have what is called a ‘Whipper-In,’ to control them, making sure they don’t stray, get lost, or get into trouble.”
Hunting is a great way to get out in the country in all kinds of weather. Polk County is challenging, as it is hilly, wooded, and a little rocky. It takes a careful, agile horse and a good rider to hunt it well and safely. In the area one sees two-to-three-foot brown wooden fences called “coops,” for jumping in and out of pastures or onto a dirt road. This allows the horse and rider to go from one area to another, without slowing down and stopping to open a gate when the chase is on. From time to time it is necessary to cross a stream or river, but generally the horse has been taught to gallop through them and not to jump over other them.
It should also be remembered that there is a certain danger with any equestrian sport. The safety to the rider and the horse is a paramount issue and always on the Huntsmen’s minds. “We have spent many hours prior to the hunt, filling holes, building bridges over creeks, removing dead trees, making the sport safe and our hunt country safe as possible,” says Barnes. “The hounds, too, must be kept safe: Every hound has a GPS collar.” (No fox hunting enthusiast wants his or her hounds to get lost.) In addition, permission must be granted by the landowners for a hunt to cross their land. Every consideration must be given to the owner of the land, and his wishes respected.
It is easy to become passionate about fox hunting. It should be mentioned that very seldom do the hounds actually catch a fox. Foxes are known for being cunning (perhaps by taking a sudden right turn, or by running on a surface they know will not hold a scent, such as a paved road). A red fox he can quickly tuck itself into an underground hole of some sort, or while a gray fox might simply climb a tree. William Wadsworth observes, “I am convinced that the fox also is a sportsman and has a sense of humor, as I can see no other reason for a fox to stay above ground and permit himself to be hunted in a country so full of holes as my own.” And there are also “drag” hunts, artificially laid trails where a fox scent is dragged across the land for the hounds to follow, with no physical fox involved at all.
That is currently the way hunting is done in England and Wales, after Parliament made it illegal in 2005 to hunt with hounds in the traditional manner, as “anti’s” (mostly urban dwellers) had picketed and called fox hunting a blood sport. Since the ban, hunts have followed artificially laid scented trails. According to the Wikipedia entry for fox hunting, the sport gradually became controversial, with proponents viewing it “an important part of rural culture, and useful for reasons of conservation and pest control,” and opponents arguing that is was “cruel and unnecessary… The controversy around hunting led to the passing of the Hunting Act 2004 in November of that year, after a free vote in the House of Commons, which made ‘hunting wild mammals with a pack of dogs (3 or more)’ (in the traditional style) unlawful in England and Wales from February 18, 2005… Scotland, which has its own Parliament, restricted fox hunting in 2002, [and] traditional fox hunting remains lawful in Northern Ireland.”
Glossary of Fox Hunting Terms
BUTTON: To receive, or be awarded, the button is to be given the right to wear the hunt buttons and colors.
CHECK: 1. (n) An interruption of the run caused by hounds losing the line. 2. (v) Hounds check when they lose the line temporarily.
COLORS: 1. The distinctive colors that distinguish the uniform of one hunt from another. Usually a distinctive color of collar on a scarlet coat. (Some hunts have coats other than scarlet.) 2. To be awarded or given the colors is to be given the right to wear them and the hunt button.
COVERT: (Pronounced “cover”) A patch of woods or brush where a fox might be found.
CRY: (n) The sound given by hounds when hunting, e.g., “The pack, in full cry.”
CUB: A young fox.
DRAW: 1. (v) To search for a fox in a certain area, e.g. “To draw a covert.” 2. (n) The act of drawing, e.g., “Thorny Woods is a difficult draw.” 3. (v) To select or separate a hound or a group of hounds in kennels for a particular purpose.
EARTH: Any place where a fox goes to ground for protection, but usually a place where foxes live regularly—a fox den.
ENTER: A fox is entered when he is first regularly used for hunting. This year’s “entry” are the hounds entered or to be entered this season.
FIELD: The group of people riding to hounds, excluding the MFH and staff.
FIELD MASTER: The person designated by the MFH to control the field.
FIXTURE: The time and place of the meet or assembly of the hunt. A fixture card is a card sent out to list the fixtures for a given period.
GROUND: “To go to ground.” To take shelter (usually underground), e.g., “The fox went to ground in the main earth east of the swamp.”
LINE: The trail of the fox.
MARK: (to ground). A hound “marks” when he indicates that a fox has gone to ground. He stops at the earth, tries to dig his way in, and gives tongue in a way quite different from his hunting voice. Some hounds are better at marking than others.
MASTER: The MFH. The person in command of the hunt in field and kennels.
MEET: The assembling of the hunt for a day’s sport, e.g., “The meet tomorrow is at…” or, “Hounds meet tomorrow at…”
NOSE: The ability of a hound to detect and interpret the scent.
RATCATCHER: Informal hunting attire. Correct for cubbing.
RIOT: Anything that hounds might hunt that they shouldn’t.
RUN: (n) A period during which hounds are actually hunting on the line with a fox. (Usually implies a gallop for the field, as opposed to a “hunt in a covert after a twisting fox.”)
SPEAK: To give tongue. Usually of a single hound, e.g., “I heard old Homer open, and he spoke for some time before the others got to him.”
STAFF: The huntsmen and whippers-in.
TONGUE: 1. (n) Cry. A hound “gives tongue” when he proclaims with his voice that he is on a line. 2. (v) To give tongue.
WARE: A caution 1. To riders, e.g., “Ware wire.” 2. To hounds, e.g., “Ware riot.” Usually pronounced “war.” An abbreviation of beware.
WHIPPER-IN: A staff member who assists the huntsman in the control of hounds.
From the 1987 pamphlet Riding to Hounds in America, an Introduction for Foxhunters, by William P. Wadsworth, MFH. Used with the permission of The Chronicle of the Horse, Inc. (P.O. Box 46, Middleburg, Virginia 20118)
Early Hunting with the Hounds
The hunting season begins in the fall. The new hounds must be taught and shown what is expected of them and their training begins then. The young pups must be carefully trained to stick with the pack and not “roam” or go off on their own or chase chickens. New pups are walked on foot as early as April; sometimes they are tethered on the collar to an older, wiser hound to stay with the pack as they learn the ropes. A lot of time and attention goes into training them properly.
In 2016 Beth Blackwell was hired to be in hunt service for the Tryon Hounds as their Huntsman— the first female Huntsman in the history of Tryon Hounds. A Huntsman is the person paid to care and train the hunt’s beloved hounds, and to have a woman as Huntsman is something of a rarity in the fox hunting world, as the vast majority of Huntsmen in North America are men. Before coming to Tryon, Blackwell inherited the Cedar Way Bassets from Herb Schneider of Alabama. “I have hunted hounds as either a visitor or resident in 11 states and served as both honorary and professional Whipper-In for five packs, and hunted foxhounds professionally at Tennessee Valley and De La Brooke Foxhounds as the Huntsman,” says Blackwell.
Walking out to the Tryon Hounds kennel, with much barking and carrying on as she approaches, Blackwell recognizes each hound by the sound of its voice. She is obviously sensitive to each one and calls out their names (such as Craisin, Pacolet, and Warrior), eliciting an instant reaction. The Tryon Hounds pack consists of American Foxhounds, including the Penn-Marydel Foxhounds, and some French Bassets. The American Foxhound has excellent scenting ability on good or bad hunting days and will pursue its quarry with speed and ability. The short-legged bassets are known as PBGV’s (Petite Basset Griffon Vendeen), which were bred to flush and track hares in the Vendé district of France. Some retirees from the pack are even up for adoption. (To find out more go to Tryonhounds.com or to the Cedar Way Bassets’ Facebook page.)
Beginning the Season
A myriad of social activities can be related to fox hunting, among them the elegant Hunt Balls, the festive fall Opening Hunt in traditional formal attire, the delicious Hunt Breakfasts after a hunt, and, at Green Creek Hounds, many less formal gatherings on off days, such as a cruise on Lake Lure or a Pig Pickin’ Porch Party at a member’s home. The formal hunt season begins with The Opening Hunt and the Blessing of the Hounds. Green Creek Hounds start the formal hunting season the earliest, with this year’s Opening Hunt set for November 11 (the Tally Ho Wagon reservations for spectators wanting to follow the riders went on sale on September 14 and sold out almost immediately). The Tryon Hounds Opening Hunt has a long-standing tradition that has it each year on Thanksgiving morning at Thanksgiving Hill. The Hunt traditionally begins and ends the hunt season at the Iron Bridge that spans across the Pacolet River in Caroland Farms. This is a big community event and local tradition for which the public is invited to attend. (It is free and starts at 10AM. If someone is interested in participating, they should check out the Tryon Hounds website for more information and get the latest updates.)
The Social Side of Fox Hunting
According to Green Creek Hounds’ Bundy, “Green Creek Hounds does have a clubhouse, though we will be getting a new one—with a new fully equipped kennel—in a year or so. We are moving to a lovely new site. We have Breakfasts at our present Clubhouse after hunts, and parties during the holidays and at the end of the hunt season. Breakfast is called ‘Breakfast’ regardless of the time of day and can be anywhere from real breakfast food to tenderloin, or soup and salad. These meals can be quite lavish or very simple. It’s more about getting together [and] reliving the hunt to enjoy each other’s company, than the food. Sometimes a Breakfast is held at a member’s home. It is up to the members hosting as to where it will be.”
Much like many other sports and games, the camaraderie enjoyed with the sport plays a big part in the excitement and fun. “We have many members, some riders, some strictly social,” continues Bundy. “Usually, on a weekend hunt we have about 30 to 40 riders out. At Opening Hunt, we may have as many as 75 or 80 on horseback and another 150 observers on Tally Ho wagons alone. We do allow guests from other hunts, by invitation. They and any other observers need to contact a Master of Green Creek Hunt for permission. Contact information is on our website. It is considered correct to wait for an invitation to hunt, but these days, most hunts, including ours, encourage a person who wants to try fox hunting to contact us. Once a year, we issue invitations to join as a member, so that a person can ride whenever she/he is able to make a hunt.”
Some riders have grown up with a horse and are familiar with riding. Perhaps they grew up on a farm, had a horse themselves, or were members of a Pony Club. Others, who grew up in an urban environment, may not be as aware of the sport—the fun and excitement around it. The young and the old all participate in the sport. Becky Barnes, from Tryon Hounds, notes, “We have a strong partnership with the River Valley Pony Club. The Pony Clubbers are the future of fox hunting, and we are fortunate to have them participate in our hunts, hound walking, and in many of the club’s activities. These talented riders’ age ranges from eight years to 21. All Pony Clubbers and Junior riders hunt free of charge with the Tryon Hounds. As for the older generation? “Two years ago, in honor of Louise Hughtston’s 40th year as a Master of the Tryon Hounds, the Tryon Hounds Board voted to name her a Master of a Lifetime. She is in her Eighties and does not ride anymore. But she is a Road Whip for the hunt and is still active in all aspects of the hunt.”
A Challenging Sport
As noted above, there is a common fox hunting vocabulary to learn (if you don’t, you may not know what is going on at all) along with fox hunting-specific routines and attire. One major factor which differentiates each hunt, however, is the lay of the land. Hunting out West with the often dry, arid conditions there is quite different from fox hunting on the East Coast. Hunting in Ireland or England, with the notoriously difficult terrain (such as deep ditches to cross and wide brush fences), is quite different from hunting across the challenging hilly, wooded, and slightly rocky land of Polk County.
David Abel Smith, who hunts in England with his daughter Eliza in the North Cotswolds at the Heythrop Hunt in Gloucestershire, said in an email, “The best country in England is dairy grassland with hedges without wire; all too little of that these days and grass being replaced by wheat, etc., and less maintenance of fences.” He even mentions that there are “lots of lady Masters and even ‘Huntsmen,’ and sometimes more women on a hunt than men.” Smith’s description of hunting at the Heythrop, which starts later in the day, sounds quite intense as they have a designated place where “you can change onto another horse in the afternoon.”
Regardless the setting, those who participate in fox hunting enjoy the wildlife, the trees, and the feel of the wind on their faces. They get to hear the various sounds of the horn directing the hunt, the “tally ho,” and the “cry” of the excited hounds as they follow a scent. And the camaraderie and shared excitement, regardless of whether you’re a participant or a spectator, is vivid indeed.
A Fall Day Fox Hunting with the Green Creek Hounds
Written by Deborah K. Bundy, MFH
Mist curls around the distant hills like a white gentle stream and teases us with the promise of winter as we gather at Green River Farm for the first cast. Tot Goodwin, the professional Huntsman for Green Creek Hounds, prepares to loose the pack in the near thicket where they will search for game. Hound noses lift on the wind scenting the air. Horses dance lightly on their feet, eager in the brisk autumn air.
I came to the area seventeen years ago, drawn by the beauty of the mountains, the small towns, and the wonderful riding community.
A Whipper-In helps the huntsman keep an eye on the hounds. He orders a wayward young hound back to the pack. The long lanky first year entry looks at the mounted rider, sees no avenue of escape, and rejoins the milling hounds clustered around the Huntsman. Christi Fowler, MFH, welcomes everyone. It is time to hunt.
We leave the fixture through a generous landowner’s property and hunt along the river. The land holds the colors of autumn, shades of crimson and gold scattered like jewels amidst the pines. Glittering thickets make bright accents on the scenery. For a short while, as the hounds search in the thickets, I take in the view, and then a motorist stops and tells of a red fox viewed crossing the road. Since I am a Whipper-In, I alert the Huntsman and Tot gathers the hounds, recasts.
A hound opens. His voice is beautiful and his mates join in. In perfect harmony, and moving like Formula 44 racers, the hounds roar off on the scent of the fox. Even the young entry, a hound’s first season of hunting, runs like a seasoned pro.
We fly across fields and through the woods. The fox cuts to the west and then heads north with the hounds hot on his heels. He weaves back and forth, uses all his tricks to evade the huntsman and his hounds. After a twenty minute run the fox leaves our territory and the Huntsman and Whipper-Ins gather the hounds.
I look around, a little anxious, for the young hounds. There they come, tongues lolling out, happy hound grins on their faces. Horses jog in place as riders queue up behind the Field Masters. First Flight, those who love to go fast, are led by MFH, Kem Ketcham; Second Flight, those a bit more cautious, follow Field Master Anna Dalton; Third Flight, led by either Field Master Janet Cummings or Erin O’Dwyer, go at a sedate pace, taking short cuts to catch up. Riders are hot, horses are tired, but our Huntsman is still feeling good.
We move the pack across the road and into the woods. The day has warmed and the scenting turns poor. We ride awhile longer, and then the Huntsman calls the hounds in, and bids the fox a fond farewell.
As I looked around I see a smile plastered on every face. I give the pups a silent congratulations. They hunted like grown-ups and it dawns on me they are no longer little puppies. They are hunting hounds, born and bred to do this job. Fall hunting, or Cubbing as it is called, because of the young hounds out, is a time of change, a time of letting go. It is also a time to be thankful for the seasons that have passed and the seasons to come.
The Huntsman blows his horn. We join together, Green Creek Hounds members, guests and our four-legged friends, and move off as one toward home.
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…