- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

The skies are blue, with the temperature in the low 40s and a slight breeze blowing through the turning foliage. In other words, it’s a perfect mid-October morning in the Virginia countryside.

“It’s a beautiful day, but it’s a little windy,” says Cathy Marco, a member of Bull Run Hunt, a fox-hunting club in the Culpeper area. “We’ll see how it goes,” she says, leading her gray horse, Adventure Mouse, its mane and tail braided, out of a silver horse trailer parked in a wide field along with dozens of other trailers.

It’s the morning of Bull Run Hunt’s opening meet at club member Joseph Kincheloe’s pristine several-hundred-acre Culpeper farm. At least 75 riders are here to hunt — or, as some refer to it, “chase” — a fox or two with the help of 18.5 foxhound couples — in other words, 37 dogs.

The riders are “turned out” in formal fox-hunting attire. Many of the men wear red coats and white breeches, while the women, including Mrs. Marco, wear beige breeches and black coats. All wear a white stock tie with a gold pin and tall riding boots.

The club offers three fields, or waves, of riders, depending on the skill level of the horse and rider. The first field runs hard, goes over jumps and follows closely the pack of hounds and their huntsman (the person who takes care of the hounds during hunts and otherwise). The second field does intermediate riding, and the third field mostly trots.

“It’s a great way to get people comfortable and involved,” says Mrs. Marco, who rides this day with her husband in the second field. “We try to offer something for all levels. But we do have a reputation of moving fast.”

Some clubs are more social, others more serious about the traditional aspects of fox hunting. Bull Run Hunt, at least according to its members, is not very serious about the formalities, but moreso about the sport. They move fast, and they don’t cancel meets, even if it sprinkles or the ground is frozen.

On this particular morning, they ride for up to three hours through woods, across fields and over jumping obstacles (in the case of the more advanced riders). They chase three foxes, but on this day, not even the first field goes all that fast or hard because Mrs. Marco’s worries about the wind hold true and the hounds have a difficult time following the scent of the foxes. The hunt is described by several participants as “fun, but on the slow side.”

“I would say it was pretty good,” Mr. Kincheloe says, relaxing in his grand-piano-equipped living room, which, after the race, featured a luncheon and plenty of such Southern comforts as Jack Daniels and Early Times for members. “We ran three foxes.”

“Ran” means “chased,” and that is the goal in American fox hunting, says Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America. The association, based in Millwood, Va., governs fox hunts in North America.

“The goal is not to kill,” Mr. Foster says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the fox gets away.”

When it doesn’t and the hounds catch and kill it, he adds, it’s often because the fox is old or sick. He acknowledges, however, that fox hunts during other eras, such as in the late 1800s, when boxed foxes were used, were less acceptable.

“That’s when we got a bad rep,” Mr. Foster says.

Using a boxed fox means that a captured fox would be released right in front of the hounds, providing an easier catch and almost-certain kill.

If the fox is killed during a fox hunt, it’s by the hounds — which maul the fox — and never by the riders who, instead of rifles, carry flasks in their saddles.

“They’re killed in an instant,” Mr. Foster says.

To Dr. Elliot Katz, founder and president of San Rafael, Calif.-based animal rights group In Defense of Animals, that’s not a convincing argument.

“There is no good rationalization for hunting and killing an animal for sport,” says Dr. Katz, a veterinarian. “It’s sending a message to young people that it’s OK to kill. Next thing you know, they’re pulling wings off of flies and throwing stones at birds. … It’s just a ridiculous and cruel way to treat the fox.”

Barbara Lawrence, who has been a Bull Run Hunt member for 20 years, says she has seen no more than 20 foxes killed over the years.

“And I’ve seen 10 times that [many dead foxes] along the road,” she says.

Adds Greg Schwartz, the huntsman: “The foxes do some neat stuff to lose the hounds. They’ll run into a field with cows, and that throws the scent off. … It’s all about the chase. Some foxes seem to enjoy it.”

For Ms. Lawrence, though, fox hunts are less about the chase and more about the riding. Ms. Lawrence is a horse trainer and competes in equestrian events, such as dressage, that are highly controlled and planned.

“This is more rough and tumble. Your plans go out the window when you see a fox. It keeps it interesting and unpredictable,” Ms. Lawrence says. “The other thing is, unless you’re part of a club, you would never get the permission to go on all this land,” adds Ms. Lawrence, who is not a landowner.

Many of the members are landowners, and it is mostly on their land that the hunts take place. Mr. Kincheloe owns several hundred acres; other members own thousands. But it’s not a requirement.

“It’s open to everyone,” says Billy Fredericks, Bull Run Hunt’s former huntsman.

The field — albeit predominantly white — is full of women during the opening meet.

“I would say 50 percent or more are women nowadays,” says Mr. Foster of the 15,000 or so riding members of fox-hunting clubs nationwide; 27 of the clubs are in Virginia, which has the highest concentration of clubs. “That’s not true for Europe, where only one-third are women.”

“I think that’s part of the misconception,” Ms. Lawrence says. “That you have to be wealthy to do this and that it’s mostly men.”

She says she and her husband, a librarian, are barely middle class.

“It’s about what your passion or hobby is,” she says. “I can’t believe how much money some people spend on ski vacations, and I am sure they say the same about the money I spend on horses.”

An annual Bull Run Hunt membership is close to $1,000.

Unlike Ms. Lawrence, Mr. Kincheloe and Mr. Schwartz say the hunt for them is not primarily about the riding.

“I love to hear the hounds run,” Mr. Kincheloe says. “That’s the ultimate.”

Mr. Schwartz agrees. As the huntsman, he communicates directly with the hounds with his voice and a horn and can tell what they are up to by the way they’re barking.

“There’s a lot of different voices, different qualities and temperaments in a pack,” he says. “Some of the dogs have really nice, deep voices. … The bitches are more social and a little tighter to the line,” meaning they stay together better and are a little better disciplined. “Watching and listening to the hounds is my favorite part.”

Mr. Schwartz, who trains the dogs not to run after deer or get too close to roads, gives the hounds directions by tooting a horn, talking or screaming. If he produces two long toots through the horn, it means “run,” if he produces one long toot, it means “hounds back.”

“If I scream like I’m going to die, it means I like what they’re doing,” says Mr. Schwartz, whose full-time job it is to raise the hounds and lead the pack on hunts.

To Mr. Foster, fox hunting’s appeal is a combination of all of the above. He likens the hounds and foxes to actors in a plot that never repeats itself. The riders are mere spectators.

“It’s like a theater production where Mother Nature is the conductor and the hounds and horn are the orchestra,” he says. “The thrill is unbelievable.”

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