Foxhunting is a discipline in the equine world that you probably hear a lot about but you don’t really know what it is. I grew up foxhunting the mountains of Virginia, and I have to say, it’s one of the most exhilarating yet terrifying things that I’ve ever done.
So what is fox hunting? Fox hunting is an equestrian sport where the horse, rider, and hound track a scent, either real or artificial, through varied terrain and wilderness.
While in the past, the fox would’ve been hunted and killed, today in America, the sport is merely for the thrill of the chase; the hounds will always be called off before any harm can come to the fox.
While fox hunting is popular throughout the world, the discipline still follows the strict rules that were established centuries ago when the sport first came to be. This is a great activity to take your riding to the next level, as well as introducing the both of you to something new.
How Foxhunting Works
The fox hunting season runs September to March through the winter months. At the beginning of the hunt, all the riders will gather together to address anything that may be of importance for that day, like new hounds being out or possible weather conditions.
Once the gathering is over, the hunt ensues. I’ve been on hunts that lasted anywhere from 1-4 hrs, so if you plan on foxhunting, make sure your horse is in shape. After the hunt, the huntsmen will come together and celebrate the hunt with a tailgate. This was always my favorite part of foxhunting! Nothing like eating a feast after a long ride.
The Fox Hunting Field – Members & Flights
Fox hunting consists of three moving parts: the hounds that track the scent, the staff, which can basically be considered the managers of the hunt, and then the field. The field consists of the rest of all the riders who are hunting.
The Huntmaster or “The Master of the Hounds,” is considered the leader of the hunt. This person will command the hounds using vocals or a horn. The whipper-ins are staff members who assist the hunt master by bringing stray hounds back to the pack. These two groups of people will usually ride out first to allow the hounds to catch a scent. They always have right-of-way whenever they interact with the rest of the field.
The field can be broken into different “flights.” The 1st flight will try and stay closer to the hounds, so this flight will usually be much faster-paced and clearing jumps will be mandatory. 2nd flight stays further behind at a moderate pace, and the 3rd flight is the last flight, coming in at a slower pace and not usually jumping.
Depending on how big the field is will depend on how many flights there will be. I’ve been to hunts that had two flights and I’ve been to hunts that had five flights.
Each flight is led by a field master. The field master can communicate with the staff members via walkie talkie in order to keep track of the hunt. A field master will be familiar with the territory and will be able to guide their flight to assist in the hunt as needed.
The hunt will usually end once the fox has gone underground or once the hounds find the end of the artificial scent. At this point, the field will make its way back to the trailers where they will partake in a tailgate.
Dress Code & Gear Used for Foxhunting
The dress code for fox hunting is known to be strict. Riders are to wear tall boots over tan or white breeches. A blue, black, or tweed coat should be worn over a white shirt, canary vest, and a stock tie. Hunting caps or riding helmets must be worn and a pair of black or knit riding gloves. If you are a member of the staff, you wear a pink coat (actually the color red) to symbolize your position.
Since the fox hunting season takes place over the winter months, I recommend investing in some warm thermal clothing to wear under your riding attire. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come in from a hunt and couldn’t feel my limbs!
Some common and also needed gear that you will see on the hunt field will include an English saddle, a white shaped saddle pad, a breast collar, a sandwich case, (attaches to your saddle and can be used to carry tools) and of course, a girth and bridle. You will see staff members carrying whips with long thongs they use to signal the hounds.
In fox hunting, you’ll mostly see close contact or all-purpose English saddles used. If you need an English saddle, check out our recommended products page by clicking here.
Some Rules of Foxhunting
There are quite a few rules to remember when it comes to foxhunting. These rules either help to keep the tradition of the hunt or they ensure that the hunt is not interrupted. Here is a list of some of the rules I remember from my days of fox hunting:
- Always wear the proper attire
- Don’t make a lot of noise, as the hounds may hear you and get distracted
- Always use proper terminology
- Always warn the rider behind you of possible hazards
- Never ride past your field master or the Huntmaster
- staff members and hounds have the right-of-way
- Make sure your horse NEVER kicks a hound
- If you fall off then you owe the Huntsmaster a bottle of wine (this was taken as a joke by many)
- A junior rider should always get the gate (another joke within the hunt but was taken with all seriousness. I just so happened to be the only junior on many of the hunts)
- Find out if braiding your horse’s mane is required beforehand.
While all the rules of fox hunting may be a turn-off in the beginning, you soon begin to appreciate the tradition that the clubs have managed to keep for hundreds of years.
If you’re interested in attending a fox hunt, it would be helpful to learn some proper fox hunting terminology beforehand. It can be considered rude to use incorrect terminology in some cases. Here is some basic vocabulary to be aware of:
capping fee: a fee charged to all non-members who want to hunt.
cry: this is the proper term used for when the hound is barking or howling, signaling that they have picked up a scent
cubbing: a time before the formal fox hunting season where the field will hunt in order to give new hounds, new riders, and new horses experience.
hill toppers: a slower flight or group of riders that can opt out of jumping the field jumps and go through a gate instead
quarry: the animal that the field is hunting. Hounds will sometimes track coyotes, deer, and bear rather than a fox.
reverse field: a term used by field masters to let their flight know that the flight needs to turn around. The correct method to do this is to move to the side and let the hounds, staff members, and the faster flights pass through first.
speaking: another proper term used to describe a hound calling that it has picked up a scent
tally-ho: the term cried when any member of the field has spotted the fox.
‘ware: a term used to warn other riders of upcoming hazards. For example, if you spot a hole, you’d point to the hole and say, “‘ware hole.”
Even if it’s your first time fox hunting, you can make a good impression with the Huntmaster and the staff by using the correct terminology.
Preparing for Your First Fox Hunt
There are many aspects to consider when preparing for your first fox hunt besides learning terminology and collecting the right gear and attire. This sport is totally different compared to anything you or your horse has probably done before. Make sure that both of you are ready and willing to face any challenges that may come your way.
The first thing I recommend is to make sure that your horse is fit and capable enough to handle the excitement of the hunt. To a horse that has never hunted before, fox hunting may seem very chaotic. You may be in a field of 50+ horses and there will be many new sounds.
Make sure that your horse can ride out in large groups of horses. While this may not seem like a big issue, I’ve seen many horses lose their cool on the hunt field because they couldn’t handle the flight taking off or they didn’t like being near other horses.
It’s important that you can control your horse when it’s a particularly fast flight. You’ll be galloping over terrain that may not be clearly marked or coursed. Take time before the hunt to condition and prepare your horse for what to expect. Ride out during the cubbing season, the season before the formal hunt, as the hunts tend to be more casual and slow.
The History of Foxhunting
According to what I was taught by my fox hunting club, fox hunting started out in England centuries ago where farmers were simply trying to perform pest control. Foxes were known to be nuisances by killing small livestock and chickens, so the farmers would hunt them down with hounds.
What first started as a necessary duty to keep farms running quickly became an admired game by the rich and noble. The noblemen of England took the hunt, added specific rules and regulations to attire and vocabulary, and created the sport we know today.
Since fox hunting was popular with the noblemen of England, who usually happened to be military officers, this activity quickly became a favorite among the cavalry. This hunt based on endurance and stamina was a great way to keep the cavalry horses in shape when they weren’t training for battle.
Thank you for reading! And if you’re off to your first hunt, best of luck. If you’d like to know about other English riding disciplines, check out my article here on the Types of English Horseback Riding.