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Rita Mae Brown
October 19, 1987
A noted author extols the rigor and excitement of the hunt
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October 19, 1987

Awake To The Challenge

A noted author extols the rigor and excitement of the hunt

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It is 5 a.m., and overhead the stars crackle. The sun is a long way from the horizon. It's a hunt morning, so we members of Farmington Hunt Club in Albemarle County, Va., drag ourselves out of bed, pour vast amounts of coffee (tea for some) into our systems and head for the stables. Horses need to be cleaned, manes braided, tack spiffed up and, finally, the humans must get correctly dressed.

Fox hunters have been accused of being Hell's Angels on horseback. We tear over ditches, vault stone fences, fly over timber. We also stand and wait for a sign, any sign, of the fox. Wherever you find Anglo-Saxons, you find fox hunting. It's in the blood. Just why we should be so fond of humiliation is anybody's guess. And we are humiliated. The terrible truth is that the fox is smarter than we are. One small animal leaves a pack of hounds frustrated, horses exhausted and riders dotted over the meadows like junked cars.

An accusation that all fox hunters dodge is that the sport is cruel to the fox. It is, and it isn't. The purpose of blood sport is to kill another animal. In my cross-country rides I have come across wounded deer that died in agony and were never found by the hunters. I assure you the fox does not die in agony on those few occasions when we catch one. The end is swift, and isn't that better than their lingering for days in a trap? Also, it must be remembered that those gorgeous foxes are predators and pests. On my farm I've had all my fowl killed in one night by a pair of foxes in whelping season. An experience like that makes it easier to hunt, but it still isn't the reason we hunt. The truth is: We are hooked by the primitiveness of the chase, an adventure so unpredictable that not even the most experienced huntsman among us knows in advance what is going to happen. In fox hunting the boundaries are fluid, the quarry is cunning, and the weather can turn on you like a cobra. Riding behind hounds in full cry is the closest most of us can ever get to a cavalry charge.

This is particularly true of women, of course. In centuries past fox hunting was the only truly dangerous endeavor available to women in the Western world, because they were systematically denied access to the military, to all forms of physically vigorous sport and, with certain vivid exceptions, to all things of political, economic or religious significance. This may explain, in part, why so many generations of women have embraced this sport so warmly.

Another reason just might be that women are better with horses than men. Oh, I know that's a contentious statement on the face of it. But it is true that many men—maybe most—try to overpower their horses when they first begin to ride to hounds. As any good horse outweighs any good man by somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 1, this is not a smart tactic. Only after a man learns patience and a light leg will he find himself the equal of a woman on a horse.

Farmington Hunt Club, my club, boasts fabulous riders of both sexes. Perhaps the most notable is our huntmaster, Mrs. Paul (Jill) Summers Jr. She rides like a Valkyrie. Her inclination toward horses came from her father, novelist William Faulkner. He gave Jill her first pony, Star, when she was about four, and she has been riding ever since. Summers has been our huntmaster since 1968, and like all contemporary masters, she has to deal with dwindling open land, ballooning housing developments and increased automobile traffic. Ultimately the master is responsible for the quality and safety of the entire hunt. Summers has shepherded her flock very wisely. Our hounds are in good shape, and so is our membership.

The joy of being master is that you set your stamp on the club as well as fully experiencing the sport itself. A club reflects the personality of its master. Some are freewheeling and others are decorous. A daily diet of wormwood and abstention is not the way of the Farmington Hunt Club. We aren't Redneck Gothic, but we are lively. We don't believe that one should go out and risk life and limb and then come back and sit quietly—or dryly.

For most members a flask of spirits is habitually attached to the saddle to provide courage when facing high fences or a biting winter day. Even when there is not a fence within miles, some riders take a nip here and a nip there until they literally feel no pain. This is a condition often tested. When one of those without pain falls off his horse, it looks as gentle and easy as a dishrag sliding into the sink. For me, a fall is more like a whole set of dishes crashing down from two stories up.

There are two reasons for this: 1) I don't drink liquor; and 2) my body is in a sorry state of disrepair. I broke my neck playing rugby 11 years ago, and from other random mishaps I have enough bone chips drifting around inside me to make a domino set. I live on aspirin and optimism, and I'm stiff as a board on a horse. Even my friends can't color the truth and say I'm a pretty rider. The best that can be said for me is that I'm game. This is not to say I am not a coward. I am. I force myself to ride. I can't stand the thought of being controlled by my own weaknesses.

I've always thought that hunt clubs operate on the premise that 60 liars together are better than one liar alone. Liquor may fuel the imagination of both the teller and the listener, but even without booze, I never can resist telling—or listening to—the tale of Grover Vandevender and the fox in sheep's wool.

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