Foxhunting: The exhilaration of unrestrained riding

When autumn and spring descend upon New England, foxes everywhere turn over in their dens, for with the warm weather comes the commencement of foxhunting season. Not just a British pastime romanticized on shows like Downton Abbey, the sport is a little known American staple for equestrian lovers, with a variety of hunting clubs located throughout the North East.

A relatively obscure sport, modern American foxhunting is a crowded affair that combines horses, riders, foxhounds, and foxes. Despite its name, the sport is not centered on killing. The fox serves more as a symbol honoring the sport’s namesake than the primary focus of the hunt. Some foxhunting clubs run a drag hunt, meaning organizers use a bottle of fox urine, spilling it in intervals along the ground to create an invisible trail. The hunt begins when the hounds, let loose, uncover a scent and lead the way. It sometimes takes hours before the hounds discover the scent. Following the dogs are the riders, determined to find one of two things: the fox itself or the fox’s den, where the scent trail ends.

Foxhunting encompasses the exhilaration of unrestrained riding, of chasing a scent while negotiating trees shedding leaves, all beneath skies held together by a stitchwork pattern of clouds. Unlike show riding, the huntress is at liberty to break away from form and ride as she pleases, without worrying about judges evaluating how she manages her horse. While the hounds that detect the foxes’ scent occasionally catch one between their teeth, killing the creature is not regarded as the most desirable outcome.

In the world of accredited foxhunting, strict rules govern the sport; however, most of these rules pertain to dress code. In this way, the sport retains the propriety of its British roots while still capturing one inherently American quality: free rein. When it comes to the actual rush of the hunt itself, there are two general laws: one, participants must wear a helmet fastened with a chin strap, and two, they must be a good rider.

Noël Estes, a local rider and an avid foxhunter, belongs to the Norfolk Hunt Club. She cherishes her horse, Lyla, and rides 4 to 5 times a week. A marathon runner in her youth, Estes uses riding as an athletic outlet. She is aware of the many misconceptions that arise at the mention of foxhunting. “When I say I’m going hunting, people always assume I’m going to go out and shoot a fox. That’s not my intention.” During hunting season, Estes rides almost every Saturday, and occasionally on Tuesday if the weather is good. Hunting memorabilia overtakes her home, and everywhere you look, it seems, the dark eyes of a fox are staring out at you from within kitchen tiles, towels, and paintings.

The Norfolk Club has two divisions: juniors and seniors. Riders under the age of 18 compete at the junior level. The senior division typically attracts 20 to 90 riders per hunt.

An old English tradition, foxhunting was imported to America in 1650, when Robert Brooke, his family, and his hounds moved from the old country to Maryland. Foxhunting is a sport that, despite the macabre connotations of its name, attracts nature and equine enthusiasts alike and, as Estes says, is truly about the “conservation of great traditions.”

When life overwhelms, there is no better way to reassess priorities than to leave the concrete world behind, mount a horse, and drown oneself in the interactive impressionist painting that is nature. American foxhunting, in the context of the modern world, is pure escapism.

Photograph courtesy of Noël Estes.

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