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A New World tradition of horses and hounds

Hometown U.S.A.: Monkton, Md.

American fox hunts reenact a classically British scene, complete with riding costumes and blasting horn. 'It's a piece of Maryland history,' says one enthusiast.

March 23, 2013|By Jill Rosen

Called to action by the blast of a horn, more than 30 yapping, spotted hounds spill down a hill, bound across a country road, leap a fence and rush a faded winter field. On their heels are about two dozen hunters on horseback, men and women in breeches and tweed and velvet hats.

The few motorists this deep in the country on a winter weekday morning slow down to watch. Some stop. It's something to behold, this pageant of beasts and man — a scene from another time, another place. A painting.

It's the living history exhibit that is Maryland's fox hunt.

"It's beautiful to watch," says David Hagen, a retiree who belongs to the 135-year-old Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club just to photograph the hunts with his wife, Joan. He takes each picture with the attitude of someone capturing the last breaths of an endangered species.

"It's a piece of Maryland history," he says. Referring to the fishermen and crabbers who've plied Maryland's waterways, he adds, "And it's going to go away, just like the watermen."

The Masters of Foxhounds Assn. counts 163 American fox-hunting clubs. That's about 20,000 hunters in 34 states. Maryland has seven clubs, including two in Baltimore County, the state's de facto fox hunting capital.

These days, the 100 or so hunters with the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club have hard-fought permission to ride through about 120 acres. It's farmland mainly, pastures that dip and crest, with well-kept homes, dilapidated barns and lightly forested pockets. If their clubhouse weren't recognizable from the "Horses and Hounds crossing since 1878" sign, there's always the door knocker: a brass fox.

Club members convene three times a week during the fall and winter, stopping in March, which is fox cubbing season. On a recent overcast Monday morning, with predictions of snow on the way, the hunters sip warm port and stroke their horses' muzzles.

Their dress is little different from what George Washington wore to hunt. Everyone wears a frock coat or hacking jacket, breeches, riding hat, knee-high black riding boots — often custom cut — and white neckwear called stock scarves held with gold pins, ready to be unraveled should man or horse require a bandage.

On top of that foundation comes an elaborate code of accouterment. Depending on your role in the hunt, your gender and other particulars, there are certain coat colors, certain numbers of buttons, certain collars — even certain directions to point your scarf pin.

"England did it that way, so we do it that way," says Liz McNight, a former steeplechase jockey and the club's master, an elected office she has held for 20 years. "Continuity is very important to this sport."

They ride — for as long as four hours sometimes — across farms and fields, jumping fences, high-footing through mud, splashing through puddles and streams. Folks come and go as they please. More aggressive, seasoned riders lead the pack while those interested in a more leisurely afternoon stay back and sometimes lose track of the hounds altogether.

During the Monday hunt, a few members of the party break off from the group to head home along one of the winding, paved country roads. Cars keep a respectful distance as the horses clap along the pavement, making their way back to the start under a canopy of bare tree branches.

The hunt concludes with most of the party never even seeing a fox, though the hounds certainly roused a few — and deer, too. Though animal rights groups have sharply criticized hunts, particularly in England, for killing foxes, that's one British tradition the Americans never embraced. Though overly enthusiastic hounds have caught foxes, hunters will tell you that's not the intention. They aim to chase a fox to ground — its hole — and then call off the hounds and leave.

"They shouldn't call it fox hunting," says Cappy Jackson, 58, who started fox hunting when she was 7. "They should call it fox chasing. We never catch them."

Geoff Hyde, 54, the club's huntsman for 24 years, lives at the club's property to care for their approximately 100 hounds and train them in the ways of the hunt.

"It's a way of life, not a job," he says. "You've got to love it. And you have to be able to read the hounds and the horses. The hounds, the horses and the countryside."

These are not "dogs" to fox hunters. Do not make that mistake. They are hounds. Specifically, they're crossbred foxhounds of English and American lineage. Hyde brought 15 and a half to the Monday hunt — they're traditionally counted in pairs. All with tan ears and spotted coats, to a newcomer's eyes they look essentially identical. Yet Hyde, who raised each one from a pup, recognizes them all. Tokyo. Ivan. Rocket. Paddy. Cowboy. Lex. Anchor. Cyclone.

Their barks and cries carry over the hills and through thickets. Enthusiasts call it music. Same with the notes Hyde blows on his antique huntsman's horn. A call of three long notes brings wayward hounds back to him. A staccato blast has them scurrying from cover. When he blows three notes, holding the final one until his face turns scarlet, the hunt has ended.

To Hyde, that call sounds mournful.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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