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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Wednesday, 17 March 2010 00:00|
I recently found myself obsessing over the exact shade of the breeches I currently own, whether my horse's long mane would make us the butt of snobby jokes, and how I could possibly convince my friends and family that I wasn't entirely insane for hurtling over rough terrain on horseback, leaping solid obstacles, and dodging other frenzied horses. Yes: I was considering fox hunting.
I had always thought of fox hunting as an upper-class British pastime involving green fields, thoroughbred horses, and a steady drizzle of rain. The more I researched the strict dress code and pages of etiquette tips, the more fascinated I became. Everything from the wearing of "colours" to the use of hounds was so steeped in tradition that it felt like I should be wearing a corseted dress while I researched. And then I found out that it wasn't the moustached and waistcoated British who came up with hunting with hounds. It was Prehistoric man.
Drawings, paintings, and murals made by Prehistoric humans over 20,000 years ago depict men using canines to hunt anything from fowl and small game to larger prey. Egyptians were likely the first group of people to breed dogs for a specific purpose, and included horses in their endeavours, with the nobles, atop chariots, using dogs to hunt hares, gazelles, antelopes and lions. The Greeks, Assyrians and Babylonians, as well as countries and areas influenced by these peoples, also used scent hounds to track prey.
How did this translate into red coats, polished boots and hairnets?
The earliest known attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, England. In 1534 farmers began to chase foxes, considered pests, with packs of dogs. By the end of the 17th century organized packs were hunting both hares and foxes. According to The Fox Website, maintained by the Mammal Group of the University of Bristol, modern fox hunting developed in the late 18th century in Britain and involved following the fox's trail back to its den. Modern foxhunting was mainly developed by Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn Hunt between 1753 and 1800, who now carries the distinguished title of "Father of Foxhunting."
Fox hunting was seen as a sport for the upper class, requiring country estates, large tracts of land, well-bred horses, well-trained hounds, and staff to maintain the house, grounds and animals. No wonder I was worried that my horse is a Spanish Andalusian instead of an English Thoroughbred.
As the lines between British aristocracy and middle class blurred, fox hunting became more accessible to equestrians and amenable to the public. Landowners often allow hunt clubs to cross their lands, provided that gates and fences are closed and/or left intact, and hunt clubs may host special hunts throughout the season called "Hunter Paces" for non-members. Perhaps most important, between the Hunting Act of 2004 passing in the U.K. and the increasing commonness of drag hunting in the United States and Canada, no foxes are actually being harmed.
The Hunting Act of 2004 outlaws hunting with dogs. To clarify: fox hunting is illegal in the United Kingdom (in Scotland since 2002 and England and Wales since 2005). To say that the Act was controversial is to trivialize the uproar: between farmers arguing that foxes are pests and endanger their livestock, equestrian hunters arguing that it makes a mockery of a sport steeped in tradition, and anti-cruelty groups vowing vigilante action against hunting, I can imagine that the Labour administration who passed this law had quite the difficult time reconciling all the points of view. What the Act does not ban -- and was never intended to ban -- is drag hunting: the most evolved form of fox hunting.
Drag hunting has many advantages over traditional fox hunting, and let me tell you why. As a lover of all things cuddly, watching floppy-eared dogs with tongues lolling happily brings a smile to my face. Shrieks of agony and blood flying from a wild creature do not. Drag hunting requires -- wait for it -- no fox whatsoever. No mink, no deer, nothing that's alive except you, your horse, a pack of yipping dogs, and clones of the well-turned out horses and riders. An athletic person runs ahead of the pack along a pre-conceived path dabbing a scent on the trail, usually consisting of animal droppings or urine, aniseed, and fixative.
Another reason why drag hunting is superior to traditional fox hunting: this path can avoid specific farmers' fields, incorporate fences and gates, include roads and trails, eliminate dangerous terrain, encourage rest stops, and strategically pick the best hurdles to fly over. A typical drag hunt takes only hours, whereas a fox hunt can take all day. "Hunting the Clean Boot" is a variation of drag hunts in which the pack chases a man with hounds trained to follow human scent; this alarmed me greatly until I discovered that it was not The Most Dangerous Game, but rather an excuse for the dogs to slobber all over their quarry in happiness.
What has not evolved, however, is the dress code. Whether fox hunting, drag hunting, or hunting the clean boot, traditional hunt attire is mandatory. Specifics vary from club to club; at the Ottawa Valley Hunt, for example, riders "without colours," meaning that the Master of the Hunt has not bestowed upon the rider the privilege of colours or buttons, must wear a riding helmet with hairnet, a black, brown, or navy coat, buff, beige, or grey breeches, riding boots, appropriate gloves, and a white stock (a kind of riding shirt) with a tie or choker.
As the hunt has come so far, I now look forward to the further evolution of fox hunting where it will involve a warm, puffy coat with varying amounts of horse drool, thick, fuzzy gloves for minimum numbness of appendages, and paddock boots coated in Canada's fine fall mud.
Tags: canada, culture, dogs, drag hunt, england, equestrian, evolution, fox hunting, foxes, horses, ottawa, scotland, wales