BY GORDON BALLANTYNE
Recently, I was at a charity fundraiser with my wife and her horse barn people. It was a black tie event so I pulled out my kilt, as any good Scotsman would, and unknowingly entered the highbrow world of Fox Hunting.
I expected something of a cross between Downtown Abbey meets Jeff Bezos, but was surprised to find something completely different. It was a posh event at the local old school country club. There was the usual silent auction followed by the rubber chicken with mystery white sauce. The live auction had an item that brought sharp elbows to my ribs from my wife—a private hunt from the Woodbrook Hunt club. With a few too many drams in homage to the homeland, I raised the paddle a few too many times for my own good. We won the auction, winning is not necessarily the correct term, but mamma was happy so I’ll call it a victory.
The Woodbrook Hunt club was founded in 1926; today it is comprised of people riding horses following fox hounds over hill and dale jumping obstacles of opportunity while the pack of hounds follow the fox urine scent laid down via a drag line in front of them.
I was interested in how this activity was mimicked at the A circuit hunter shows I have attended as the horse show husband and dad. The hunter show ring is dominated by very expensive warmbloods who are braided and turned out to perfection in a supposed imitation of fox hunting. Would the same horses and riders excel at fox hunting that perform well in the hunter ring?
We arrived at 10:30, and like most horse shows there was no actual horse riding until noon (seems on par). The riders were all clad in plaid with colored vests and fancy cravats. There was not a single braided horse to be seen. It was an informal hunt and the weather was cool so tweed was the predominant hunt coat material.
Soon it was mimosa time for the riders, a welcome departure from horse shows, and things were looking up for this horse show dad. The riders all mounted up and it was time to tally ho. Horns were blown, hounds were released and riders followed the hunt master in an intricate game of follow the leader. There were riders holding whips out in the flanks herding off-scent hounds back to the center and a line of horses tracking the bulk of the pack numbering around twenty hounds, most of the hounds were running along with their noses near the ground while some were baying the scent. We rode on the Fort Lewis military base federal reserve—well, my wife rode while I was in a pickup truck with my cosponsor, imbibing some liquid courage to ward off the cold and stopping at points of opportunity to watch the procession ride by.
Here is what I learned:
- They don’t take show horses on hunts. Hunt horses are sure footed, don’t spook, are unfazed by dogs running around their hooves. They will jump any obstacle knowing that they will not come down. They have to be OK galloping with other horses right in front of them and directly to their rear.
- The hounds are awesome. I can barely get my two hounds at home to sit on demand, but this pack follows the direction of the hunt master, track scents and work as a team while surrounded by horses. They actually come when the hunt master blows a little horn and stay on the scent amongst distractions. I estimate the hounds ran over five miles and did not even seem winded at the end.
- I am a golfer. It is an excuse to get together with friends and have a few cocktails. Fox hunting seems to be the equestrian equivalent. Every stop seemed to involve a small nip or libation.
- Hunter horse shows bear no resemblance to fox hunting. Not even close. I could not actually identify a single common element other than they both involve a horse and a rider.
A fox Hunt is comprised of three flights of riders. The First flight are the riders directly with the hound pack following at a fast pace. The Second flight follows behind at the canter following a more stately line and jumping obstacles of opportunity while watching the hounds and group ahead. The third flight or hill toppers ride at the walk and trot behind the group watching the action from strategic positions. There are guides for each flight and there is a flight for any rider or horse skill group.
The hunt is very inclusive for all. The Woodbrook Hunt club is one of the few on the west coast, and I would classify it as a social club for equestrian enthusiasts of all skill levels. You can trailer in your horse and there are ample facilities at the club. It is not stodgy or elitist, and all the riders were very friendly and welcoming, I would encourage anyone to give it a try.
The Woodbrook Hunt club can be viewed via their website at woodbrookhuntclub.com. The hounds live at the hunt club facility and are very well cared for and do what they love and were bred to do; their hounds are even available for sponsorship to the public. All in all, it was a very pleasant day and a treat to see a pack of foxhounds working with a gaggle of horses and riders in hot pursuit.
Gordon Ballantyne is a horse show husband of fifteen years and horse show father for four. His wife, Nicole, is an A circuit hunter rider trained at Starfire Farms in the Pacific Northwest while his daughter is a lead line specialist and shameless provider of horse treats. Gordon is a homebuilder and author of America, The Eagle has Fallen; in his spare time (no such thing for a horse husband and father) he enjoys golfing, creating the perfect RV show set up and writing. He is not shown in any of the horse pictures because that would violate the 10 foot horse exclusion zone he maintains at all times.