An old tradition attracts the young

Hunt: Despite less-than-ideal conditions, several young riders turn out to experience the thrill of the fox chase.

December 28, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Elkridge Harford Hunt Club's annual Junior Fox Hunt was off to a slow start Friday morning. Endless, it seemed, for 3-year-old Darby Hyde, who rode on a lead-line with her mother, Lani, before the hunt.

Darby watched her father, huntsman Jeffery Hyde, gather the hounds and prepare for the chase. A small brass horn stuck out from the top of her tweed riding coat. The horn, she explained, was to keep track of him.

Darby and Cricket, her 12-year-old pony, made their debut, which lasted until a minute after 11, when the hunt began and they returned to the warmth of the trailer.

The conditions were less than ideal. The greasy footing - a horseman's term to describe muddy and slippery conditions - made the hunt more difficult. Temperatures dipped to near-freezing with frequent winds. Even the hounds, which gathered in preparation around the huntsman and master, were shivering. Besides adding to the riders' discomfort, the winds posed the risk of scattering the scent of the fox, making it difficult for the hounds to follow the trail.

Despite the elements, the hunt, originally scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving but rescheduled this year because of torrential rain, began on time.

About 30 riders, a dozen of them children, donned the traditional attire: pink or black wool jackets, breeches, leather boots and black riding hats. From the expansive fields across from Tally Ho Manor in Monkton, the huntsmen rode first, leading the hounds to the covert, a thicket of outlying trees. The riders followed closely behind the pack of nearly 25 hounds, in an age-old quest to chase foxes in their natural habitat and then run them to ground.

Sparse turnout

The turnout was sparse, compared with earlier hunts that were attended by more than 100 children. This time, under a gray-white winter sky, slightly more than a dozen junior hunters, most in their early teens, rode beside their adult escorts.

Within the hour, the pace quickened with sight of two red foxes.

James Monie of Parkville is a retired rider, hunter and horse-show judge. On Friday morning, he and another former hunter, Nancy Hale, were spectators. Back at the starting point, they watched as the last of the riders disappeared from view, listening for the howls that would lead them to the next location.

The trail is ever-changing, adding to the thrill, said Monie. "You go where the fox goes, and where the hounds go after them," he explained.

Old tradition

The rolling hills of Southern Maryland have been the backdrop for fox hunting since the mid-1600s, when Col. Robert Brooke, the commander of Charles County, is credited with bringing the first pack of hounds to the colonies. Today, about 40 fox-hunting outfits exist in the region. The season runs from November to March, after the harvest and before spring planting.

"It's a tradition that goes way back when. You see the officials, some call their coats red, some call them scarlet. Actually, the name is pink. They were created by a tailor in England by the name of Pinke years and years ago," Monie said.

The children's hunt began about eight years ago, according to Monie, who has attended most of them.

Monie first learned to ride as a young boy in Pennsylvania. At age 9, he saved up his allowance to pay for riding lessons. He was hooked immediately, he said.

"Of course, back then you could rent a horse for a dollar an hour. Today, it's $25 an hour," he said.

Over the years, Monie has owned nine horses, selling the last one in 1990.

Now 84 years old, he still loves the thrill of the chase. The Parkville resident said he spends more time in Harford County than he does at home. A veteran horseman, he prefers to be wherever there is a hunt or show.

He pointed to the truck beside him, where Hale, with her Jack Russell and Cairn terriers, had retreated from the cold. "She was the rider," he said. "She showed all over - Madison Square Garden, Lancaster ... "

"That was a long time ago," said Hale with a laugh.

Hilltoppers

Monie and Hale are regular watchers - known as hilltoppers - at the Maryland hunts.

"We're listening for a horn or a hound," said Monie.

In England, the fox hunt grew into a popular sport as a way to reduce an exploding fox population. In Maryland, "we'd rather let them live and go through another chase," said Monie. "Actually, it really should be called a fox chase rather than a fox hunt."

His days of riding and hunting are over, but the memories remain, returning with each new hunt he sees. "It's the exhilaration, the thrill," he said. "Having the fence coming up in front of you and if you're in strange territory you don't know if you should turn down that corner or the other corner. And then viewing the fox is exciting."

This was 11-year-old Meg Gill's fourth junior hunt. She and her twin sister, Emily, who was sick at home with an ear infection, also participate in the adult hunts. Their uncle, John Almond, is the field master of the second of two fields.

Jumping is Meg's favorite part of the hunt. "I also like to just tear out in the field and watch the hounds chase after the foxes," she said.

As second field master, Almond leads the slower riders who prefer to avoid the high jumps. "I make it so they can still enjoy the hunting, so they can still come out and see the fox and see the hounds work, and be out in the countryside with their horse and friends, but not have to go to the big fences that worry you," he said.

By 12:30 p.m., the hunt was wrapping up. Five foxes had been sighted and run to ground within the first hour and a half. As Monie and Hale followed the last of the hunters farther down Hess Road, the hunters, young and old, straggled back to their trailers. The riders dismounted and fed their horses carrots, to thank them for a job well done.

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