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.