On a crackling clear Saturday morning shortly after dawn, with the sun slanting brilliantly through the chaparral just east of the Temecula wine country and the tray of port just arrived to take the chill off, things suddenly start to get a little screwy.
One might have expected the tweedy, booted folks arriving at the Oak Ridge Ranch headquarters of the Santa Fe Hunt Club to disembark from their Corniches with studied nonchalance, accept crystal glasses from a silver tray, sip the port gingerly, order their grooms to prepare their mounts, greet Reggie or Bitsy or Her Serene Highness with their best Locust Valley lockjaw ("How ah you, my deah?"), swing gracefully into the saddle and, for the next three hours, fix on their patrician faces a look of studied boredom.
But that's not what happened. Instead, Larry Francis, a puckish obstetrician and gynecologist from Fallbrook, spotted an arriving pal and whooped: "Hey, mon! Que pasa? "
The day merrily continued with the port getting swigged out of paper cups, the riders preparing their own horses and saying "howdy," a little more port, the riders swinging gracefully into the saddle and, for the next three hours, everyone trying valiantly to manage the collective adrenalin rush that comes from galloping after a coyote.
That's fox hunting, Southern California style. And it happens every weekend from September through April, with a unique combination of British stiff upper lip and California laissez faire. And, yes, with a coyote, since they are more plentiful than foxes in these parts.
On this particular gorgeous Saturday it was a joint hunt for members of the only two hunt clubs in Southern California recognized by the national Masters of Foxhounds Assn.--the Santa Fe Hunt Club and the West Hills Hunt Club, which is headquartered in Chatsworth. About half of the membership in the West Hills club is from Orange County; in Santa Fe, Orange County residents account for somewhat less than a third. The relaxed merrymaking notwithstanding, both clubs observed a 700-year-old heritage of rigid rules, traditions, modes of dress, signs, countersigns, codes of formality and points of etiquette.
For the first-timer, the rules are fairly basic: Try to stay close to the other riders; try not to distract the hounds; try to control your horse; try not to fall off, and never, never ride in front of the master of foxhounds or the huntsman.
Each club has a master and a huntsman, a pair of field generals whom one rider compared to quarterbacks on a football team. It's the huntsman's job to train the hounds and direct them in the field, in effect to control the chase. The master oversees the riders and the whippers-in (the staff riders who shepherd the hounds and keep them hunting as a group).
The master, huntsman and whippers-in wear the traditional scarlet hunting coat and white breeches--known as "colors" or the "pink coat"--that signify their expertise and high rank in the club. Colors are awarded by a peer vote of the club members. Others in the hunt wear a black coat or, in some cases with women, a dark blue one, which is the female equivalent of the scarlet coat. The scarlet hunting coat generally is not worn by women as a concession to hundreds of years of hidebound tradition. However, in other hunts around the country women have been awarded the scarlet coat when they have attained the title of master of foxhounds, or other high ranks, although such awards are a rarity.
If the sight of all that color flashing around the green hills is striking in the early morning sun, it's no fashion show. All riders know that when they are astride a large, powerful horse, crashing through brush, leaping fences, drumming their way up and down wickedly steep hills--caught up in a kind of controlled frenzy--it is serious business.
"This is suicide riding. I ride, but there's no way I'd do this," said Nethe Stevenson, who was, in effect, along for the ride on the morning's hunt. Riding in the back of a stake bed "hilltopping" truck driven by Larry Francis, she and a small group of observers followed the hunt as closely as the roads and fire breaks on the hilly ranch land would permit. Occasionally Stevenson peered through a video camera at her husband Bob, a Tustin urologist who was riding with the West Hills club in one of the two "fields" of riders.
Suddenly, from an adjacent hillside, rose the sound of many barking dogs. An animal had been scented and several riders wheeled around to follow. The chase was sporadic and short, however, and Stevenson speculated that the pack had lost the scent or had been mistakenly tracking a deer.
"Incidentally," she said with mock seriousness, "they're not dogs. They're hounds. And they don't bark. They speak."
Francis leaned out of the truck cab below.
"Actually, they don't even speak," he said, grinning. "What they do is 'give tongue.' "