Sunday, March 28, 2004

Last March in Georgia

Have you ever felt the power of a horse beneath you as you raced like a madman across the countryside? With hooves pounding, and your mount giving his all: reaching, straining, gasping for air?

Have you ever raced down impossibly steep terrain, steeper than you would attempt on your own feet, then back up, wondering how your horse can stay upright and sure you will both come crashing down?

Have you ever dodged hardwood trees, steering your horse along at a gallop, trusting in something higher than you that you won’t loose a leg, or a knee, part of your face, or an eye?

Have you ever jumped obstacles on horseback, taking off from impossible positions, giving your life over to the athleticism of your horse?

Welcome to foxhunting. This is an account from last March, of a day I spent in Georgia, riding with the some of the best horses and horsemen in America.


Gina Salatino is an experienced foxhunter. She's hunted throughout North America, in England and in Ireland. My sister Elise is just as experienced and just as well traveled. Last week Elise and Gina took five of us to hunt with Belle Meade Hunt in Thompson, Georgia--a hunt they billed as the best in North America. Thompson is near Augusta, home of the Master's Golf Tournament.

Foxhunting is a sport that is little understood by people who've never ridden in a hunt. While I've hunted off and on now for over two decades, this has been my most active season. I am basically a rank novice to the sport.

Many people have some sense of foxhunting. Most everyone has seen a hunt painting or print, though they may not realize it. Hunt prints are populated with horses and riders galloping across idyllic rural landscapes as streaking hounds lead the way. The riders are dressed in britches with high black leather boots. They wear black or red coats, and top off their outfits with a black velvet hunt cap or silk top hat. The film Mary Poppins even incorporates a foxhunt into the story.

A hunt scene strongly suggests the eighteenth century and aristocratic England. This strong association and kinship with the past is one of the most compelling aspects of the sport. It has a look and feel that is very distinct to another era even as it thrives today.

By reputation, this is a sport for blue bloods. The associations with upper class Britain and uppity people taint the whole idea of foxhunting for many. It would be highly disingenuous to deny this aspect of the sport, but people assign meaning to foxhunting just at they do to anything. Whether someone associates glory and beauty with the sport, or resentment of privilege that is born and not earned, or something else, is a choice for each person to make.

Hunting is more controversial then ever today in Great Britain where it is on the verge of being banned by the government. Class associations and resentments fuel the controversy. In America, land of the Second Amendment, hunting of any kind isn't as controversial as it is in Britain. Yet as civilization removes us further and further from our hunter-gatherer pasts, hunting of all types faces many threats.

Genealogy aside, Elise and Gina are not blue bloods. They aren't people who were granted access to this sport simply by being born into a family that set them up for life with land and horses. Both of these women hunt because they are passionate about hunting. They have created lives for themselves that make it possible to participate in foxhunting and they work as hard as anyone I know to pursue their passion. Both of them make a living, in part at least, by breeding and training horses to hunt to the hounds.

Elise overcame a debilitating accident where she was nearly crushed to death and lost her hip—-she now has a fake one. The doctors told her she'd never ride again, but once she got her new hip they couldn't keep her off a horse. Five years after her accident, her pain is just now becoming more bearable and her riding is finally getting back to where it was before her accident. Through her ordeal, she only missed two seasons of hunting.

Fox were considered vermin in Britain and the British still generally hunt to kill. In North America, with wilder, more expansive terrain, foxhunting has always been a sport focused on the chase rather than the kill. Kills are rare here. To the non-hunter it may sound ludicrous, but foxes enjoy the sport as much as the hounds and riders. This is evident in their cunning and showy playfulness as they taunt the hounds on a chase.

Our hunt at Belle Meade last week began on a very warm early spring day at 5 PM. I was riding Kenny, a five-year-old Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse cross. This is Kenny's first full hunt season and I've been his principle rider since November. I was nervous as the hunt began after hearing Gina and Elise go on and on about how this hunt was serious business and we were guaranteed good sport. Good sport means fast and furious riding and lots of jumping. These are the reason we love to hunt, but the wild nature of the sport can also be intimidating. Even Elise and Gina have a healthy respect for the dangers of fox hunting, though it is the dangerous aspect of it that draws them back time and time again.

The first hour of the hunt was fairly slow as the hounds milled around looking for the scent. Belle Meade's hunt country, like so much of North America, has been overtaken by coyotes. When coyotes move in, fox are pushed out. They still have some fox in this part of Georgia, but usually the hounds find coyotes. Coyote runs tend to cover more ground. They are faster, straighter, and longer than a typical fox run.

At about 6 PM the hounds were finally on to something. We were riding in what is called "the field," behind the field master. The field is all of the horses and riders that are out for the chase. The huntsman and his staff were off in the near distance, working the hounds in pursuit of the scent of a fox or coyote. When the hounds get on to a scent they go into a full cry and take off in pursuit of their prey. For someone like my sister, the sound of hounds on a run is pure music. Even for me, someone born with a lack of hunting genes of any kind (whether fox, coyote, pheasant, duck, or deer), the sound of hounds in full cry is something.

As the hounds began singing and running, we waited a few minutes more to see which direction they were headed. Then we too were off.

For the next hour we galloped madly through Georgia's red clay country. The Belle Meade hunt has permission to ride over tens of thousands of acres of open land, all privately owned. We crossed fields, cut through woods, and crossed treacherous creeks that cut deep through the clay. Belle Meade is infamous for its many difficult creek crossings. They've installed bridges throughout their hunt country, but many crossings still require doing it the old fashioned way--dropping down in to the deep cuts in the land, and climbing back up the other side.

My horse, Kenny, was afraid of water at the beginning of this hunt season. He nearly killed himself and me the first time we went out together with Middleburg Hunt in Virginia. At Belle Meade he showed his increasing maturity. While our crossing weren't always pretty, he was a different horse compared to last November.

Even so, we still managed to have one especially ugly moment at the day’s worst crossing. It included an especially steep and dramatic drop of about fifty feet to a creek, where the horses essentially had to sit down as they dropped down the steep walls of the ravine. Kenny went down faster than I wanted him too, jumped the water and despite my efforts to slow him charged straight up the other side like a cat. He ignored the trail, making his own. I stayed on and somehow he stayed upright climbing the nearly vertical embankment and crashing through fallen trees and limbs on the way up. Any other horse pulling such a stupid stunt would have ended up doing somersaults down to the bottom of the ravine. Kenny's athleticism saved us both.

The daylight began fading by 6:45 and we were still galloping madly. About this time I had my second faux pas. We were charging along with another creek to our left, this time going parallel to it. The ground was flat where we were but dropped off ten feet just to the left of our trail. As a result I overcompensated to the right and crashed in to a tree while at full speed, banging my knee so hard that even my sister cringed as she heard my bone hitting the wood. I wasn't seriously injured, but did knock the wind out of myself and gasped for air as we continued our gallop through the woods. This mishap refocused my attention on avoiding the trees, as well as the precipitous drops.

Our run ended, incongruously, next to an Interstate highway. This modern thoroughfare had its own high pitched scream which drowned out that of the hounds. By this time it was time to call it a day as our daylight faded to darkness. We headed in as the huntsman and his staff gathered up the hounds, some of whom were miles away, off on another run.

The ride back to our meeting place lasted another hour. I was eager to see if the moon was out and had a hard time finding it. The night sky seemed bright and I finally tilted my helmeted head back far enough to see the half moon straight over head. The moonshine lit our way casting shadows of horses and riders and trees as we headed in. What is it about the moon that has such a powerful pull on us? Of course it is strong enough to move oceans, so it is no surprise that we feel its powerful presence.

The field was very large that day, especially considering it was midweek. There were about twenty-five of us in the field and about twenty-five more who rode with the hilltop group. The hilltoppers ride at a slower pace avoiding jumps and the difficult creek crossings.

Because it was so warm (80 degrees when we began in the late afternoon), jackets were waived. People were still dressed up and we were a sight not too different from that of any hunt print.

This year Belle Meade constructed a new clubhouse where we were served dinner after the hunt. The members of the hunt were warm and friendly—living up to the notion of southern charm.

A beautiful painting sat on the floor next to the chair where I collapsed with my food. The picture was of a handsome and confident man, clearly a hunt master, on his horse with hounds around him. I asked someone about it and was told a brief history of a man named Master James Wilson, Junior, one of Belle Meade's founding members. His son, Epp, served as a master along side him beginning in the mid 1980s. Epp is still master today and served as our huntsman. His father, known to thousands as Master James, died last April just shy of his eightieth birthday after a long and full life. His biggest legacy, outside of his family, is the hunt that he helped found and build into what today is widely regarded as one of North America's best.

As we prepared to head out that night, Elise and I spoke to Epp. She knew him from previous hunting experiences. I was meeting him for the first time. Our aunt, Lynne Ashbrook, is also an avid foxhunter. This month Lynne stepped down after leading Rocky Fork Headly Hunt in Columbus, Ohio for seventeen years. Epp told us how he remembered hunting with her and he commented about what a talented woman she is with her hounds. As much as anyone, I owe my riding career to my aunt and her contribution to me when I was young. It was great to hear her spoken of in such a way from someone who was clearly an accomplished huntsman himself.

With foxhunting in its fourth century, I feel lucky to be participating in this old tradition. George Washington was an avid foxhunter. Thomas Jefferson hunted as well.

It was an unforgettable moonlit night in Georgia, riding to the hounds.

Jim Breitinger
March 19, 2003 (Finished March '04)

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