Fox and Hound
The Thrill of the Chase and Blessing of the Hounds
BY KAREN WORKMAN
A winding tree-lined country road led to an old tradition at an historic stone gristmill, this past sunny and brisk Saturday morning.
This was The Blessing of the Hounds at the Iroquois Hunt Club on Grimes Mill Road. The scene was complete with men and women in traditional riding outfits, with classical music (heavy on the brass) lingering over the bottomlands, played
from a stone terrace.
Enthralling as the setting is, it’s a site unfamiliar to many Lexingtonians.
It was originally built in 1807, and was bought by the Hunt Club in 1928.
(One of the club’s founding members was on hand for this past weekend’s first Hunt of the season. Although she did not participate, she did briefly mount a guest’s horse – via a dining room chair – and then gamely toured the premises in a quick ceremonial trot.)
The old mill is the current clubhouse and walking inside is somewhat like entering a stone pub or cottage in England. The ceilings are low with exposed beams and there’s a large corner fireplace with a roaring fire. It is quite dark, but the lighting inside is soft, like a nice comfortable library.
Walking past tweed jackets and crowds of smiling faces (because it is the first day of the hunt season), the dining room is a much lighter room filled with round, white clothed tables and riders everywhere. They are eating in the first seating so that they could change into their proper hunt apparel and hike out to their horses.
This was the Hunt Breakfast (catered by Jerry Hester of Something Special Catering and Flowers) – a lovely traditional buffet serving Eggs Internationale (which he describes as a Julia Child recipe with eggs, mushrooms, and a cream sauce) – augmented by three-cheese grits with red bell pepper, sausage, stewed apples and cranberries in a brown sugar bourbon sauce, buttermilk biscuits, and assorted fall breads (such as pumpkin) and various pastries.
(Later Saturday evening was the Hunt Ball, for which, the entire room is lit by candlelight. Traditionally, the women wear either white or black, and the men wear tuxes or their earned riding colors.)
When I asked a friend what it felt like to ride in a hunt, she explained that although it is a bit stuffy in the beginning (having to be well behaved), once the ride begins, there is an amazing sense of freedom.
Galloping through an open field with all of the other riders, the hounds in full cry, and coming to a fence knowing that you and your horse have a bond and are ready to jump.
The goal of the modern foxhunt seems to be less concerned with procuring quarry and more about riding the fields, exercising the animals, and the thrill of the chase.
Coyote (pronounced with only two syllables by veterans of the sport) are hunted more often now, rarely caught, but more plentiful than the red or gray fox and just as elusive.
The hunted will run in circles for miles, through creeks, backtracking and ending up behind the riders, teasing them.
Coyote have been seen running relays with other coyote to keep the chase going. The hunt is over when the fox or coyote, for whatever reason, tired or bored, enters a hole in the earth or the hounds lose the scent.
There is an alternative to the live hunt, which is called a drag hunt.
Cloth, with the scent of the fox, is tied to a horse and dragged over and across terrain to give the dogs something to chase other than live prey.
The hounds are of three varieties and are products of selective breeding: English, American, and Crossbred. These are hunting dogs, pack animals, not lap dogs, trained to run together and are counted as couples. For example, six couples (12 dogs) are needed for the drag hunt. As working dogs, the characteristics of a great hound are that it stay in its pack, “give great tongue” (the hound’s cry), have stamina, an excellent sense of smell, and obey commands from the huntsman.
Late fall to spring are the hunting months, between field plantings, and this is when the staff of the hunt are truly challenged.
The Master makes sure that the hounds are properly cared for, schedules hunts, and keeps good relations with the landowners. The Field Master leads the riders out into the field. The Whippers-in ride on the outside of the field, making sure that the dogs do not stray into roads or lands not appropriate for hunting.
The staff are, for the most part, the men and women that you often see in the red coats in photos and paintings.
What’s not to love about a sport that requires a wardrobe change?
Men who have earned their colors also wear the red coats called “Pinques” or “Pinks” depending upon which legend of the name you subscribe to.
Some say that Pinque was an equestrian tailor; some say that because the coat loses its color over a hunting season it is called pink, and yet others will tell you that it was a word used as a social class marker that no longer has that meaning.
The rest of the dress is based upon very strict rules of the club and the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America. Hair nets must be worn, for safety reasons; black boots, black coats, and buff breeches to protect the riders from branches; and the stock tie and gold safety pin can become a bandage in case of an emergency in the field. The best requirement is the leather sandwich cases and brandy flasks on the saddle.
The hunt season began this year with The Blessing of the Hounds by The Right Reverend Robert Estill, Retired Bishop of the Diocese of Kentucky and the presentation of St. Hubert medals to each of the riders. The invocation of the blessing by the Bishop is not only for the hounds but the riders, horses, fox and coyote, as well. St. Hubert, as you probably already know, is the patron saint of hunting. He was out hunting on Good Friday (a no-no) when he saw a stag with a crucifix hovering between the animal’s horns. God spoke to him and told him to devote himself to His work. Hubert obeyed and committed his life to God, becoming known as the apostle of Ardenne, and the one who raised the village of Liege to become a great town. He died in 727 and in 743 his remains were taken up, which led to his feast day, November 3rd.
The Rev. Canon Christopher Platt, Chaplain at St. Augustine’s Chapel in Lexington, has been a part of the official Blessing of the Hounds for many years. He explains the Blessing by stating that “there is little outcry when Christian churches bless oyster and shrimp divers, fleets of boats, assorted animals, and even athletic teams. Why then should the Anglican Church not bless the hounds, the horses, riders and even the wily fox? Are any of these beings of lesser creation than oysters or shrimp?” He maintains “that the blessing of a hunt adds a degree of reverence to what might otherwise be little more than a chase.”
Granted, we can sugar-coat the thrill of racing through the fields but it is a hunt, and for live hunts, the chance is there to catch an animal. I asked my friend who has hunted from age nine through age twenty if she ever saw it happen.
She said that she had, only once in all those years, and it was worse than what she had imagined. Considering the fact that this woman is known as a stringent animal lover and that she kept hunting after the catch, there has to be more to it than the stereotype of the landed gentry and vicious animal slayer because she is neither extreme.
The controversy of “to hunt or not to hunt” will never be settled; there will always be two sides to this coin. As Oscar Wilde called foxhunting, “…the indescribable in pursuit of the inedible,” so does St. Francis de Sales say, “The chase makes men strong in resisting vices produced by idleness, and the hunters are agreeable to God.”
The Hunting Dog
A fable As told
by The Rev. Canon Christopher Platt
The man loved the hound as well as anyone could love a pet. He fed it, nurtured it, petted it, loved it. The hound never lacked for any food or comfort. And the man never lacked for a trusty and loyal companion.
Occasionally the hound would seem restless, irritable, discontent, unfulfilled. When the man threw a ball, the hunting dog did not know whether to fetch or point or bay. While walking through the woods and over the fields in autumn, the hound would stray sniffing frantically searching full of confusion. In the end he would return to his master’s side, accepting a pat on the head for compensation.
As the hound grew older, he lost much of his restlessness and the hound grew older comfortably and died. The man mourned the loss of a wonderful companion. And the hound never knew the thrill for which it was born.
The moral? When a living creature settles for contentment, then true fulfillment – the thrill for which we are born – may be lost.
Human beings often find contentment. Human beings rarely find fulfillment.
Contentment arises from enough food and comfort and privilege.