All photos/art by Kindra Clineff
At the venerable Myopia Hunt Club, horses, riders, and hounds no longer pursue live foxes, but the thrill of the chase remains.
The hounds cast at 1:00.
Meaning: The hunt begins at 1:00 p.m., when the huntsman and the hounds lead the riders and their horses westward across a field to the first jump. Call the hounds “dogs” and you’ll be corrected–gently, but corrected nonetheless. Foxhunting has its own language. The whipper-in, for example, assists the huntsman and looks after the hounds. If a rider spots a hole in the course, he or she says, “Ware hole left”; to signify a stop, “Hold hard.” The coded vocabulary is distinctive enough to make a newcomer note that the terrain is not her own.
Today’s event, organized by the century-old Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, plays out against an autumnal landscape: green fields going to dun, leaves drifting from the trees, brilliant sky. The huntsman clears the first jump and approaches the second, a stone wall topped by a log. Other riders follow suit, single-file, at a canter. Hooves thud against the ground.
The hounds press on, noses to the ground. Rider after rider takes the jumps. Clouds scud across the sun–dark, light, dark–a chiaroscuro that heightens the drama and the majesty. Save for the traffic along Route 1A, the pickups with horse trailers, and the absence of an actual fox, it could be a scene from another century.
Although foxhunting, imported from England, took hold in the United States in the 1600s and quickly gained popularity (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both kept foxhounds), the tradition has evolved toward fox “chasing,” in which the animals are pursued but not killed. Many American venues, including Myopia, are “drag hunts,” in which artificial fox scent (Myopia uses aniseed oil, to which the hounds are trained) is laid beforehand and the actual animal isn’t involved. At Myopia the hunt seems equal parts tradition, love for horses and hounds, and land stewardship. The tone is decidedly noncompetitive.
“There’s no winner, and there are no losers–we go out to have fun,” says former Myopia huntsman Richard Emmott, who ceded the title to Robert Howarth in 2010. The English-born Emmott has been involved in the hunt since he was six months old, when his parents took him to his first one in Yorkshire. He makes no bones about it: Foxhunting is his world. “Oh, where do you start?” he asks. “It’s a love of hounds, the horses, the countryside. It’s a whole way of life.” Heather Player, Myopia’s former whipper-in, holds a similar view: “It’s a very wonderful thing,” she says, “to be able to gallop along with a pack of hounds.”
As the group, still led by the hounds, disappears into the woods, spectators in fleece jackets turn to one another. Where the hunt will go now is anyone’s guess; only the huntsman, in charge of laying the scent and leading the pack, knows the exact terrain a given hunt will traverse.
Protocol and formality notwithstanding, there’s no lack of drama, however. Occasionally a rider falls or a horse is injured. Today, in addition to the antics of the two novice hounds, there’s the story of a Percheron/Thoroughbred mix, Merlin, who may be making a career shift from show jumper to hunter. This afternoon is Merlin’s second formal hunt. He’s here with his trainer, Andrea Mank. Merlin’s comportment today is particularly important because he’s up for sale, and another rider, Andrea Caruso, is considering buying him. Caruso summarizes Merlin as “magnificent.”
But Merlin hasn’t always behaved magnificently. Before the hunt began this afternoon, he was acting up, tossing his head and backing away from the other horses. Some of the riders seemed put off; one suggested that Merlin doesn’t yet “know his job.” Only now, deep in the woods, far from the eyes of the spectators, does he finally get it together.
“He did really well,” Heather Player will later observe in her understated way. The turnaround is fortunate, because the hunt will wend its way several more miles across Hamilton, though Pingree Reservation, west to Brick Ends Farm, then down over Vineyard Hill, before circling back.
The sun is low in the afternoon sky, the air chillier, as the meet draws to a close. The group as a whole seems worn out. Only a few horses attempt the final jump, and some of the hounds are panting. Paws and pasterns are splattered with mud. The group assembles near Myopia’s polo arena and the huntsman’s horn sounds, announcing the end of the meet. Following custom, the riders press close to thank the master of foxhounds and the huntsman.
Widespread admiration of horses is evident. “They’re the most generous animals in the world,” says rider (and assistant to the master of foxhounds) Linda Donovan. “My horse anticipates what I want. He takes care of me. It’s a partnership based on mutual trust.”
Spectators are welcome at Myopia events; there’s no admission fee. Event schedule, club membership details, and information on introductory rides and the Learn-to-Hunt program at: myopiahunt.com. For a slide show of additional photos, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more