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Sport Tallyho and Tribulation

Illustration by Griesbach and Martucci

In the sport of fox hunting the first thing to understand is that things almost never go right

by Stephen Budiansky

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.
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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.

In the ring, with a raked stone-dust footing and nicely painted standards holding a crossrail that obligingly drops to the ground if your horse's foot so much as brushes against it, you might, after years of lessons, jump a three-foot-high fence. In hunting there are four-foot jumps made of the most unforgivingly solid materials in the most awkward of spots: uphill, downhill, into the woods and out, some with extra rails on top to keep the cows in, some with a two-foot drop down a bank on the landing side. The fences that one jumps in the hunting field these days are usually modified for the purpose of jumping, but even so no two are alike in how they need to be ridden or in the ways they can cause trouble.

In the old days fox hunters just followed the hounds wherever they led, and when the horses came to a stone wall or a post-and-rail fence, they jumped at any likely spot. Then came wire fences, which only the borderline suicidal try to jump -- horses have a hard time seeing a wire from a distance or judging its position in space, and so the likeliest outcome is that the horse stops short when he reaches the fence. The worst outcome is that he goes ahead and jumps, and misjudges it and catches a foreleg. When a thousand-pound animal trips in midair, a soft landing is not generally possible.

With the coming of wire, fox hunters sought farmers' permission to build short panels of wooden fencing into the fence lines, the most common pattern being the "coop" -- two sloping wooden panels that straddle the wire in the shape of an inverted V, rather like an old-fashioned chicken coop. Coops are solid and have a clearly visible ground line, which horses need to judge the location and depth of an obstacle properly. With only one jumpable spot per fence line, riders can't always follow the hounds in a straight line, but at least the jumps offer a way of getting across a fence at some point. Head out onto a back road near Woodstock, Vermont, or in parts of Dutchess County, New York, or drive out of Washington, D.C., for about an hour in a westerly or northwesterly direction and start prowling around what's left of the countryside, and you'll see coops punctuating the fence lines of fields that used to be full of cows and sometimes still are (though at least where I live, outside Washington, they're as likely these days to be full of 6,000-square-foot houses built in the Tudor Norman Brick Colonial Tara architectural style).

BEFORE paragliding, bungee jumping, snowboarding, and sky surfing there was fox hunting. The appeal in all cases is much the same. A retired Air Force pilot whom I used to see out hunting many Sundays, a kind and sympathetic man well into his seventies who took pity on a struggling beginner and would always let me ride right along with him and never said a word even when I was much too close behind him ("Do you want to get into my pocket, sir?" is what a furious fox hunter in a Trollope novel says in a similar circumstance), one day turned to me after we had galloped over three huge coops and said, "You know, it's just like flying a fighter plane." When everything goes right, it is blissful.

When things go wrong, you fall off. There are many ways to do that. The easiest is when your horse decides not to jump the fence he has been galloping toward and slams on the brakes at the last instant; in accordance with Newton's First Law of Motion, horse stops but rider does not. I have more than once done a 360-degree airborne flip and landed on my feet during this maneuver -- something that a relatively unathletic six-foot, 185-pound man is unlikely ever to manage in ordinary life. I have been dumped right into a coop this way, but one time I actually cleared the fence, almost landing on my feet on the other side and still holding the reins, and I stood there imagining the ignoble scene that was to follow (climb back over the coop, struggle back into the saddle, have another go at the fence with the same result, repeat until I slink away in shame or am carried off on a stretcher). My horse took a look at me standing there, decided that the fence mustn't be so bad after all, and leaped over to join me.

The other ways to fall off include simply losing one's balance on the far side of a jump, especially if the horses in the lead have made a sharp turn after landing and one's own horse, pulled ahead by the supermagnet of the herd instinct, takes an even sharper turn to follow. There is also a phenomenon almost identical to what the Air Force calls "pilot-induced oscillation" (the fighter-plane analogy again). This occurs when the person at the controls pushes the stick down too much and then reacts to the plane's sudden plunge by pulling the stick too far back up, causing the plane to nose up too far, and so on and on. With horse and rider it unfolds like this: Approaching a jump too quickly, the rider checks his horse by pulling back on the reins. The horse then hesitates or stops just before the jump, causing the rider to lose his balance and flop forward, suddenly loosening the reins, at which the horse goes ahead and jumps from a standstill, causing the rider to lose his balance and fall backward, jerking the horse in the mouth, which causes him to buck or react in some other uncontrollable manner upon landing. Falling off is sometimes dangerous, occasionally fatal, and always humiliating. In all my years of taking riding lessons I was so determined never to fall off that I never did; even the times I should have, my instructor would look over to see the spectacle of a man half out of the saddle defying the force of gravity by clutching his horse's mane with grim determination.

Then I started hunting, and fell off every other time I went riding. It never really worried me until last year, when the huntsman of one of the local hunts, schooling a horse he had ridden a hundred times, jumped a three-foot-high row of rails that he had jumped hundreds of times (one that I have jumped probably a dozen times), and his horse went one way, and he the other. He ended up rocketing headfirst into a tree and breaking two vertebrae in his neck; he's now paralyzed from the chest down.

As with all such sports, the whiff of danger is no doubt an element of the appeal, but that's more danger than I had bargained for. Still, along with the thrill comes an almost Zen dimension to jumping -- or at least so I tell myself, for that is probably the only way to cope with day after day of frustration. Jumping over a fence on horseback is an almost utterly counterintuitive process. Getting it right is a trick of the mind as much as a physical skill, a process of learning at times to do the exact opposite of what the self-preservation instinct demands. In the perfect jump the rider feels as if he is the one soaring through space in a parabolic arc; the horse is just something below swiveling on gimbals, leaving the rider's balance unaffected. To achieve that result the rider must maintain his balance with supple knees and ankles -- he must be, in effect, independent of the motion of his horse. Yet he can achieve that only by being fully aware of and at one with the horse's motion -- and, indeed, the horse's anticipation. Riders in the ring are sometimes taught to deal with this contradiction by what has always struck me as a bastardized compromise: you sit firmly in the saddle, with your balance in the center of the horse; you keep your horse under an almost rigid control with your hands and your body weight; and then, at the last second, just as the horse pushes off the ground, you shift your balance forward into the airborne jump. The show-jumping ideal is to be able to choose the exact distance from a jump where you want to take off and "place" your horse at that precise spot. Riders who do this for a living on the Grand Prix show-jumping circuit can even make it look artistic and natural -- some of them, anyway.

The show-ring style has always been strongly influenced by the close-order drill of the cavalry manual, with its emphasis on absolute control, synchronized movement, and a flashy, prancing gait with a tightly arched neck -- an ideal of power that goes back to the ancient Greeks. In the hunting field, on uneven ground, with a herd of horses galloping off ahead, the Zen approach is a more prudent choice. It is, as well, the hunting ideal; as early as the seventeenth century practitioners of "scientific equitation" were expressing dismay about how English squires let their horses gallop during the hunt "as they would without a rider." Rather than sitting firmly in the saddle and trying to place your horse precisely where you want him every step of the way, you keep your weight off his back and your hands soft most of the time and let him do the driving. Achieving such a state of naturalness requires not so much that the rider become one with his horse as that both horse and rider become one with the very act of galloping and jumping. The paradoxical necessity when a horse is coming in to a jump too fast or awkwardly is to give him more rein, so that he will relax and be able to figure out the approach for himself.

The difference between a good jump and a bad jump is like the difference between playing in tune and playing out of tune -- even a little bit off is awful. But in hunting there is the compensation, the wonderful compensation, of practicality: jumping over fences has the genuine purpose of getting from here to there. After years of brooding darkly over my imperfect days in the saddle (that is, all of them) I in realism adopted the binary system for rating my jumps. Forget the Olympic ten-point form scale; mine was one or zero -- either I made it to the other side and was still in the saddle or I did not. (The time I got over and then immediately fell off into a pond I secretly scored as a two.)

LIVING on a farm, and having seen a good measure of what nature routinely dishes out, I have never taken seriously the claims of cruelty leveled against fox hunting by animal-rights activists. In ten years of fox hunting I have seen far more foxes killed on the road by cars than killed by hounds. And foxes, themselves predators, are almost insouciant about being chivied around the woods, often doubling back to lay a confusing trail. I have even seen a hunted fox stopping to hunt mice when he had put a few minutes between himself and the hounds. For the most part American fox hunting has escaped the wrath of animal lovers, because of its emphasis on the chase over the kill, and because fox hunters are in many rural areas a major force for the preservation of open space and wildlife habitat.

I worry more about the charge of affected quaintness: fox hunting when you hardly ever kill a fox, and when you haul your horse in a trailer behind a Ford pickup truck to the spot where you can ride, and when you jump panels that have been built into lines of wire fence expressly for the purpose of giving fox hunters a place to jump, is, as charged, contrived and anachronistic. But there is anachronism and anachronism: there is the kind in which you dress up as somebody's idea of a Renaissance character and go around saying "forsooth" for the tourists, and there is the kind in which you find a real bit of woods and field and submit yourself, if only for a few hours, to the full force of untamed pre-twentieth-century nature. Falling off and breaking your neck is a melodramatic way to make the point. But there are far worse ways to spend an autumn morning than leading your horse across three miles of fields and woods after he's thrown a shoe. You'd feel like a fool setting out to do that on purpose (uh, just taking my horse for a walk), but you never cease being grateful for such mornings. When scent or hounds or foxes fail to cooperate, there are days when nothing happens, and you stand around for three hours scarcely going anywhere, but there are worse ways, too, to spend a morning than to be sitting on horseback on a hillside while the rest of the world is listening to traffic reports on the radio.

And there is nothing contrived about the work of the hounds in following a scent and the reality of wind and weather and the huntsman's knowledge of every copse and path and the fact that one's day is in the lap of fortune. Hunts that spend most of their time puttering through the back yards of those 6,000-square-foot tract mansions are starting to seem like trail rides with dogs, but when the hounds can do their work, they force us to think like dogs and to think like foxes; they turn us from passive spectators and consumers of nature into participants. There are hunters who can hear a hound's cry and read a whole tale from it, hunters who while the chase is on live through the eyes -- or the noses -- of the hounds. Thoreau wrote of taking "rank hold on life" and living more as the animals do, of spending days fishing and hunting in order to approach nature with an honesty that philosophers and poets "who approach her with expectation" lack.

In this age of spectators I am not even sure that anyone would understand if fox hunters uttered the truth about what they do and why they do it. The friends of nature say they want wild, untouched nature, but what most people are really after is tame, pretty nature, and those who glower darkly out on a wood through the eyes of hounds and foxes are strangely out of keeping with the spirit of a time whose representative naturegoers are those nice extroverts in the L. L. Bean catalogue, with their ripstop-nylon parkas and their fresh faces aglow in wholesome recreation.

I realized recently that the breezy sportsmen's reports that pass for the literature of fox hunting are a fraud that hunters perpetrate on one another, a way to pretend that what they do is ordinary, routine, something like golf or woodworking, a pursuit for enthusiasts that is reducible to conventional narrative. A true narrative of the internal experience of a fox hunt would bear no resemblance to external appearance. The formal rituals of hunting -- the black and red coats, the polished boots, the saddle-soaped tack, the well-brushed horses that immediately get muddy and disheveled -- are there to keep the disguise propped in place. But then it slips, and the truth is out. I will never forget the horror and wonder and delight I felt the day the truth came to one huntsman, a man of decades of experience, a man whose living room is filled with silver trophies and plaques he has won for steeplechase racing, a man who knows hunting and hounds and every fence in the woods. I will never forget the words he shouted as he tumbled from his horse, a sudden burst of fury and truth: "Just one day! Just one day!" He, too, wondered why there can't be just one day when nothing goes wrong.


Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His book on code-breaking in World War II, Battle of Wits, will be published next month.

Illustration by Griesbach/Martucci.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2000; Tallyho and Tribulation - 00.09; Volume 286, No. 3; page 105-109.