WHEN I dream about horses, as I sometimes do, I often dream about my own horse, a large and touchy palomino, on the one day in ten years of fox hunting when everything went right. On that October day the red-tailed hawks whistled overhead, the soft early sunlight angled through the mist rising from the woods, the autumn smells of sumac and fallen leaves and damp earth filled the air, and my horse was the palomino Pegasus. He soared over every fence as if he had wings. He never pulled at the bit or crowded the horses in front of him or embarrassed me by running wildly past the master as all the field looked on. He didn't fidget and paw and buck at a halt and force me to walk him nervously around in a circle. He didn't stop suddenly at a jump and send me soaring over the fence as if I had wings. He stood neatly to the side when the huntsman with his red coat and the hounds with their heedlessness came dashing toward us on a narrow path in the woods, not blundering into their way at the last second owing to that perverse quirk of human and equine psychology that all too often leads us somehow to signal, and horses somehow to heed, the one thing we are trying with all our conscious might to tell them not to do. He was, in short, the perfect horse on the perfect day.
And then he threw a shoe, and I took him home. I have not taken a survey among fox hunters, but I think one (almost) perfect day in ten years is well above the mean.
There are few sports in which image and reality are as far apart as they are in fox hunting. The literature of fox hunting is all noisy insiders' bluster; the public spectacle is all anachronism and pomp; the politics (here in America less so, but ineluctably in animal-loving and class-resentful Britain) is all about privilege and cruelty. The reality is none of these things. Fox hunting is essentially an inner struggle against dashed hopes. It is an elemental experience for horse and human being alike. For the coddled horse it is a day of behaving like the herd animal that a horse fundamentally is -- a day of milling about with a few dozen other horses and then (what horses do best) stampeding. For the coddled human being, used to controlling at least some things in his modern life, it is a raw exposure to all the powers of fate and misadventure that used to constitute human existence, and for which we were not always the worse.
I don't mean danger, necessarily, though there is some of that. What I really mean is things not going right. Things never go right in fox hunting. I could write an epic of dashed hopes on the subject of horseshoes alone. And as for getting over fences, one lifetime would scarcely be enough to record all the heartbreak that fences represent.
To outsiders, fox hunting probably seems incomprehensible, or at least very odd. There are 168 organized fox hunts in the United States, nearly all supported by their dues-paying members, many of which hire a professional huntsman to take care of, train, and hunt the hounds two or three days a week during the season, which runs from fall to early spring. Its elitist image notwithstanding, even in eighteenth-century England hunting was quirkily egalitarian: farmers and dukes rode side by side, and the Prince Regent could tell a tall but not actually implausible tale of having gotten into a scuffle on the hunt field with a Brighton butcher who had "rode slap over my favorite bitch, Ruby." In some ways American hunting in the early twentieth century, when it became officially organized with associations and "recognized" hunts, was more English than the English, a way for nouveau riche northern plutocrats and faded-glory southern gentry to burnish their self-styled aristocratic images. But that has all been more or less swept aside, not so much by American democracy as by the American middle-class enthusiasm that is the chief characteristic of most participatory sports these days. The people who were in it for the social cachet have long since found easier ways to make a social statement. In most hunts well over half the members are women, mirroring the general demographics of equestrian enthusiasm. And hunting is no more expensive than golf or skiing or sailing -- other pursuits once exclusively for the idle rich.
About half the foxhound packs in North America hunt coyotes, which are rapidly taking over the habitat of the red fox in the United States and Canada. In American hunting it is far and away the exception for hounds actually to catch and kill a fox (there are U.S. fox hunts that have hunted for thirty years without making a kill), and foxhounds almost never catch a coyote (coyotes are faster than hounds, and woe betide any hound that does manage to catch up with a coyote). Serious hunters talk about the pleasures of watching hounds work a line of scent and of hearing them speak, and they are not talking through their hats. I thought that one woman who rides with my local hunt, a nurse who arranges her shifts in the pediatric intensive-care unit around her hunting schedule, was putting me on when a hound a quarter mile away would speak and she would name him, but I soon discovered that she did in fact know every one of fifty or so hounds both by looks and by sound. But most hunters, and I don't claim to be an exception, are attracted by the excitement of being able to gallop over big fields and jump big fences out in the real world. Fox hunting is an experience unlike anything available at the Merrymount School of Equitation, where riding around a ring in a horse show is as exciting as it gets.