What Is Fox Hunting?
"Fox hunting" might refer to any hunter pursuing a fox; however, fox hunting in the traditional sense describes a mounted hunt, relying on hounds to track the quarry. The sport is steeped in tradition and history, and now thrives in several different countries despite ethical controversies.
The hunt is a social event that starts after the harvest and lasts until spring planting (the hunt follows the quarry, who respects no farmer's crops). It is a fast-paced ride through the woods, fields, water, mud, and over obstacles. The hunt is usually followed by people on foot or in cars.
Quarry: The quarry is the animal that is hunted.
The quarry is not always a fox, and depending on geographic location, it can be expanded to include any "vermin" available. In North America, this includes:
- gray fox,
- red fox.
Coyotes, gray fox, and red fox are by far the most common quarry.
Earth: refers to the quarry's den, or underground dwelling.
Fox Hunting History
Fox hunting owes its earliest roots to the Romans who, mounted in chariots pulled by horses, used hounds to track and chase their quarry. 1534 marks the earliest recorded fox hunt with mounted huntsman, in Norfolk, England. At the time, England's red fox population abounded, and they were considered a nuisance animal, and dangerous to livestock.
However, it wasn't until the early 19th century that fox hunting developed into the proper, traditional sport we would recognize it as today. The sport had humbly originated as a practical solution to red fox overpopulation, but as faster, more suitable hounds were bred and men had more leisure time, it morphed into an official, social event. As stags became increasingly rare, the aristocracy adopted the sport of fox hunting, and consequently, the hunt became associated with wealth and social exclusivity.
The sport became so popular that foxes needed to be imported from Europe. The tradition spread along with British Imperialism to countries such as Ireland, Australia, France, America, and Canada.
American Fox Hunting
- In 1650, Robert Brook brought his family and his hounds to Maryland.
- In 1730, the traditional red fox was brought to the colonies because they were considered better sport than the native gray fox.
- The earliest record of an organized hunt in North America was 1747, in Northern Virginia.
- George Washington was an avid fox hunter. He owned his own pack of hounds and often hunted around the capitol. Jefferson and Hamilton were also fox hunters.
- Because the fox population in North America is controlled by rabies and other natural predators, North American fox hunting is about enjoying the chase, not killing the quarry. The dogs are praised when the follow the scent of the quarry to the earth.
- In some parts of North America, the quarry is a coyote, which are considered nuisance animals that destroy livestock. In some cases, the intention of the hunt is to kill the coyote, although it is difficult catch the coyote.
The horn is a copper tube about 8 inches long. It is used to signal the hounds.
Doubling the Horn
Fox Hunting Positions
Master (MFH) is in charge of the hounds and everything else regarding the hunt, both on the day of the hunt and day to day management of hounds and hunt business. There are often two Joint Masters, who split the responsibilities of master. The Master has the power to award colors to members of the hunt, and to carry the horn.
The staff include the huntsman, whippers-in, and the kennelman. Some are professional staff, and are paid for their responsibilities, others are honorary staff, and are unpaid.
The Kennelman cares for the hounds in the kennels.
The Huntsman controls the hounds. He gives the hounds signals and commands.
The Whippers-In assist the Huntsman with the hounds. They may circumvent the hounds before they follow a line across a highway, encourage the hounds toward the Huntsman, and keep them from straying or rioting. The whippers-in carry hunting whips to control the hounds from on horseback.
The Field Master is in charge of mounted followers.
The Field includes any followers other than the master and staff.
- The First Flight stays close to the action and follows the hounds wherever possible.
- The Second Field, or the Hilltoppers, are mounted huntsmen who do not plan to jump or gallup along with the main hunt. They follow the hunt to strategic vantage points to watch the main highlights of the hunt. Riders who choose to stay with the hilltoppers may be young or inexperienced riders, or have a young or inexperienced horse, or they simply want to enjoy the excitement of the hunt without hurtling around the countryside!
- The Third Field, or car followers, are those following the hunt on vehicles.
The Secretary collects the capping fee from non-members.
Cub Hunting, also known as Autumn Hunting, is an informal, pre-season hunt. The purpose is to condition the dogs and the horses, as well as to train young puppies and to "teach" the young foxes, or cubs, to run from the pack.
Fox Hunting Clothes
Fox hunters are proud of the practicality of their clothing, for example: the stock tie can be used an emergency bandage for a horse, human, or hound.
Proper attire depends mainly on the season and the position the rider holds in the hunt. During the pre-season cub-hunts, the riders dress informally. For the formal fox hunting season, the riders dress in formal attire. I have simplified the following description; there are many more guidelines concerning gender and other nuances of dress.
If you consult several sources, you'll notice that there is no set single, agreed upon attire. There are general guidelines that are acceptable at all hunts, but you should always consult the hunt master for specific guidelines.
During the cub hunting season everyone dresses in informal attire; there is no distinction between the field and the staff.
- Riders wear a Ratcatcher-- a wool, tweed, linen jacket. The jacket may be earth tones (brown or green), and subtle plaid, checks, or herringbone patterns are acceptable. The jacket should have three buttons, which must remain buttoned during the hunt.
- Beneath the jacket, riders wear turtlenecks or shirts/blouses of pastel color. Subtle patterning is acceptable.
- Breeches may be beige, buff, rust, or canary.
- Brown field boots or black dress boots are appropriate.
- Traditionally, gloves were supposed to be brown, and sometimes white, but now, in modern day hunting, black gloves are allowed.
Livery: formal attire of the professional staff. Varies from hunt to hunt, but is basically the same as wearing colors with other slight nuances.
Colors: "Colors" are an honor awarded by the Master to a dedicated hunt member. Once the rider has earned his or her colors, he or she is allowed to wear the regular uniform (see below), or the scarlet coat with the hunt's color on the collar. When wearing the scarlet coat, it is appropriate to wear white breeches, and the combination of the white breeches and scarlet coat is known as "pink." Members of the hunt who have been awarded their colors also wear black dress boots with a brown leather top-- no laces.
Uniform: formal attire for members of the field:
- plain black, oxford, or navy hunting jacket with plain black buttons
- beige or buff breeches
- plain black leather dress boots with no laces
- properly tied plain white or cream stock tie with single horizontal plain gold safety pin
- black velvet cap (helmet).
Any rider 16 or under is considered a junior. During both the cub hunting season and the formal hunting season, juniors wear a tweed jacket, paddock boots, and jodhpurs.
Plain, unadorned tack is appropriate for the hunt. It should be made of brown leather, no synthetic materials. White or natural sheepskin fitted saddle pads, no square, adorned, or patterned saddle pads. RUnning martingales are not appropriate, although standing martingales and breast plates are allowed.
The horse should be clean and clipped. For very formal events such as Opening Day or the Blessing of the Hounds, neat braids are required, otherwise, they are optional.
"The true point of riding to hounds was (and is) to watch the hounds work. Those who galloped wildly or jumped unnecessarily were termed “larkers” – an insult – and disdained by the serious hunters." - Word wenches, fox hunt
Hounds in Full Cry
“ ’Unting is all that’s worth living for - all time is lost wot is not spent in ‘unting - it is like the air we breathe - if we have it not we die - it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only five-and-twenty per cent of its danger.” - Surtees; Handley Cross (1843)
Is Fox Hunting Legal?
There is heated debate about the morality of fox hunting, and in some countries, the sport is banned because it is seen as unethical. In England, when the sport became popular, the fox was a nuisance animal that stole livestock from farmers, and people wanted them hunted. Now, it seems that the fox attracts more sympathy from the general public.
Those who argue for fox hunting claim that the fox's death is quick and painless; those against it argue that it is often not a quick death, and that the chase itself is cruel.
In 2004, England passed a Hunting Ban, which prevented the use of dogs to kill the quarry. However, the hunt still goes on-- the dogs flush the fox out of the earth and a member of the hunt shoots it.
In America, drag hunting is commonplace. Instead of following the scent of a real fox, a member of the hunt drags a bag of fox urine along the ground before the hunt so that the hounds follow the scent and the hunt goes on with little chance of killing a fox. There is always the possibility that the hounds begin to follow the scent of a real fox, but even still, it is unlikely that the hounds will actually kill it before it goes into the earth.
"To horse and away To the heart of the fray! Fling care to the Devil for one merry day!" - W.H.Ogilvy
Where to Find a Group
In North America, a majority of hunts are run as a subscription or membership pack, similar to a golf club. A member pays a membership fee pays for the care of the hounds and other expenses. If you are interested in accompanying the hunt for a day, you can contact a local hunt and pay a cap fee. Look up a hunt near you.
Sometimes fox hunting appears like a neat, proper hack through the green country side. This is not the case, especially in New England. It can be exciting for horses to gallop in a group, and the terrain in varied. Horse and rider must be brave, and if the following video doesn't convince you, I don't know what will! I know I wouldn't get my horse to go down that banking in the water like that. And I don't think I would want to finish up the rest of the hunt soaking wet either. These huntsmen are pretty hardcore.
- Horse Country Life - Questions about Foxhunting Attire, Books, Etiquette, Antiques
- GLOSSARY - Foxhunting in Virginia
- The Fox Hunt: From Downton Abbey Back to Its Origins | Jane Austen's World
- A short history of the foxhunt | UK news | The Guardian
- Fox Hunting History and Legend
Harvard fox hounds, Oklahoma
- MFHA - Hunt Organization
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.