Fox Hunting 101: How to Break into the Intimidating Sport of Fox Hunting
Written by Victoria Peace
Photos by Joanne Maisano
I stepped out of my 12-year-old Volkswagen convertible and peered down at the creek. It looked to be about a foot deep, but the water was flowing pretty fast, so it was difficult to tell for sure. I didn’t want to chance it. I hopped back into the car, reversed toward the gate that separated the creek from a larger field, and then dashed out to close it behind me. Sighing, I realized I had lost the hound truck for good. How had I found myself in this situation? It’s a long story.
That chilly March morning, Gregg Ryan, Joint Master of the Snickersville Hounds, had invited me to witness my first-ever fox hunt. Coincidentally, it also happened to be their last hunt of the season. So, without time to borrow my Dad’s truck for the weekend, I decided to brave the morning in my trusty Volkswagen. Initially, I had only planned on watching the start. However, after Kennel Huntsman Gale Cayce invited me to follow the hound truck in my car, I accepted, not wanting to miss any of the action.
I grew up showing in the jumper ring in southern Maryland. While I’ve always known fox hunting existed, it wasn’t until my family bought a house in Middleburg just over two years ago that I gained any first-hand exposure to the sport. Initially, I didn’t expect to spend much time in Middleburg since I was a full-time college student living and working in D.C. However, the pandemic dramatically changed my plans, and within the span of a few months, I suddenly found myself thrust into the heart of hunt country for the very first time. A passionate student of art and history, I decided to spend my summer interning for the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg (NSLM). And, it was this experience that really sparked my interest in hunting. The sense of tradition, the rich artistic heritage of the sport — I was fascinated.
Over the course of the year and a half I spent at home in Middleburg, I was lucky enough to make several amazing contacts in the fox hunting world through both my internship at the NSLM, my part-time job at a local tack shop, and my work as a contributor for Middleburg Life. Through their generous invitations, I attended point-to-point races hosted by local hunts, interviewed jockeys, and toured the Snickersville kennels. And, this was how I ended up just narrowly avoiding bottoming out my Volkwagen in a creek on that chilly but wonderful morning in March, trying to keep up with the hound truck.
After months of learning about the world of hunting from the outside looking in, I had finally started dreaming of actually riding to hounds myself. But, there was just one problem. As many of you may know, fox hunting is not the easiest sport to break into for beginners: it requires time, patience, specialized equipment, solid horsemanship skills, and financial investment. And despite having a background in riding, there was no getting around the fact that I was a college student with no horse, no hunting experience, and limited funds. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to participate.
“That chilly March morning, Gregg Ryan, Joint Master of the Snickersville Hounds, had invited me to witness my first-ever fox hunt.”
However, the fox hunting community is one of the most open and generous groups of people I have ever met. I was continuously astonished at how willing they were to introduce a newcomer to different aspects of the sport. And when I expressed an interest in trying hunting for myself, the staff and members of the Snickersville Hunt went above and beyond to help me have a safe, and incredibly fun, first experience. Just six months after observing my first hunt, I found myself swinging into the saddle of a sturdy black-and-white horse named Rolls Royce. Nervous, but brimming with excitement, I set off with the second field. True to his name, Royce piloted me across the rolling hills in an expertly smooth manner — it was a feeling of pure joy.
If you have ever considered trying fox hunting, this article is your sign to do so. It may seem daunting at first, but there are many resources for riders who are interested in getting involved with their local hunt. Here are some of the best ways to break into the sport from the perspective of a fellow beginner. Trust me, it’s worth it!
Research and Outreach
Most hunt clubs have websites with helpful information about their history, territory, schedule, staff, and contact information. Once you find this information, don’t be afraid to reach out! You can send a message expressing your interest to the general inbox, or to one of the masters if their contact information is listed.
Many hunt clubs also host “Introduction to Fox Hunting” courses. These are a great way to meet the members of the hunt and gain a solid introduction to the sport. Before my first hunt, I also read William Wadsworth’s book, “Riding to Hounds in America.” It provided a helpful foundation of knowledge for what to expect in the field.
Getting Outside the Ring
One of the biggest obstacles to hunting is learning how to ride outside of a ring over rugged terrain. This can be nerve-wracking at first, especially if you are riding an unfamiliar horse. However, a great way to become more comfortable with the environment is by participating in hunt trail rides. According to Snickersville Kennel Huntsman Gale Cayce, the trail rides are great because they give you an idea of what fox hunting is like in a casual environment before you are actually pursuing a fox and galloping through the countryside.
However, other types of cross-country riding can also be great ways to prepare for hunting. A few months before my first hunt, I took a month-long job exercising polo ponies in Millwood, Virginia. I practiced galloping up and down hills in an open field, which was a major confidence builder for my first time in the hunt field.
It is also important to keep in mind that there are different fields that you can ride with when you hunt. First field is for experienced fox hunters with fit horses who can jump obstacles at a gallop and keep pace with the hounds. However, second field riders have the option to circumvent jumps, and ride at a slower pace than first field. And, if you are not yet comfortable galloping, the third field or the “hilltoppers” allow riders to observe the hunt and enjoy the country at a leisurely pace. There are many options for different skill levels.
Visiting the Kennels
While riding through the Virginia countryside is a thrill, as Cayce told me during my visit to the Snickersville Kennels, during a hunt, “the hounds are the real magic.” Understanding the hunting process, how the hounds work together as a group, and what special characteristics enable them to do their job is fascinating and contributes immensely to the enjoyment of the sport.
Each noise a hound makes during a hunt signals something different. Experienced fox hunters can decipher this “hound music” and know exactly what is going on in the hunting process. Although, as a beginner, it’s hard to think about anything else besides staying on your horse, and staying out of everyone’s way.
If you’re interested in trying out hunting and would like to learn about the hounds in a more relaxed environment, consider setting up an appointment to visit the kennels. Many hunt clubs are happy to have people come to the kennels and talk to the Kennel Huntsman if you reach out in advance. Several also host puppy shows, puppy walks, and hound walks, which are great ways to get up close and personal with the key players of the hunt.
Finding a Horse
The most important aspect to having a successful first hunt is having the right horse. According to Cayce, it is important, especially for beginners, to have “a horse that takes care of you and knows a little bit more about the hunting process than you do.”
If, like me, you don’t own a horse that is an experienced fox-hunter, don’t panic — there are cost-effective options available to you. For my first hunt, I rented a horse that was extremely experienced and took amazing care of me. This is an economical way to gain an introduction to the sport in a safe and fun manner since you don’t need to worry about buying tack, committing to a several-month-long lease, or covering trailering fees. If you are interested in renting a horse, reach out to the staff of your local hunt, and they should be able to point you in the right direction.
Looking the Part
Besides the horse, the amount of stylish and specialized clothing and gear that fox hunters use might seem daunting. However, when I went on my first hunt, it was still cubbing season. Cubbing season starts in autumn and is a time when horses, hounds, and riders are focusing on getting conditioned for the months ahead. It is less formal than the regular season, and the pace is a little slower, making it a perfect time for beginners to try the sport out. The attire required is also less formal — I was able to wear the same clothing that I wore when I competed in the show ring. Each hunt does have its own guidelines about attire, so be sure to check with their website or local staff before making a final decision on what to wear. But, especially if you are going during cubbing season, you won’t have to sink hundreds of dollars into attire before finding out if you even like the sport. In addition, if you do decide to commit to buying a full hunting kit, there are several used tack and clothing stores in the Middleburg area where you will be able to find wonderful pieces at much-discounted prices.
Gregg Ryan’s favorite part of hunting is “when the hounds are in full cry and screaming after the fox.” He explains that “both you and your horse will get your blood up and off you will go jumping and galloping along to keep up with the pack. The chase will conclude when the fox gives the hounds the slip or he will find his hole (gone to ground). You will look around and see a lot of smiling faces.”
After my first hunt, I couldn’t stop smiling for the entire day. I kept thinking about the beauty of the territory I was privileged enough to go hunting on, the incredible talent of the hounds and horses, and the feeling of community that came from experiencing both of these things with a group of other people who love the countryside and riding as much as I do.
As someone who didn’t grow up fox hunting and who is relatively new to the Middleburg area, I wasn’t sure I would be able to participate in such a specialized sport. However, with the support of an amazing community, the many resources available for beginners here in hunt country, and a little bit of determination, I not only tried it but fell in love with it. If you are at all interested in fox hunting, reach out, attend events hosted by local hunts, and look for ways you can get involved. You never know what might happen! ML
This article first appeared in the November 2021 Issue.