It’s fox-hunting season and before I even put pen to paper, William Stuart, the venerable master and huntsman of the Fairfield County Hounds, wants to set the record straight: “We don’t kill foxes.” If Stuart is a tad defensive, it’s understandable. The Master of Fox Hounds Association, which governs the country’s hunt clubs, has strict guidelines against killing foxes, yet the controversy has been a constant saddle sore to the sport for almost as long as it’s been around. “The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” wrote Oscar Wilde more than 100 years ago.
Today, members say they seldom get close enough even to see a fox. Still, the 30 or so English foxhounds, bred to track the scent of a fox while on the run, give the hunt field a good ride. There are no winners and losers in this sport, which dates back to the 16th century in England when farmers used hounds to chase down foxes to reduce the population. Here, the fox invariably escapes.
Truth be told, these days the hunt may be more elusive than the fox. That the Fairfield County Hounds, founded in 1924 and located just 90 miles from Manhattan, has managed to thrive, insulated from highways and housing, seems a cunning feat in itself. In the late 1980s, encroaching development in Fairfield County forced the hunt to relocate from Westport to Litchfield County, hence the current misnomer, Fairfield County Hounds. The kennels and the club where post-hunt breakfasts are held were moved to a farm in Bridgewater. Since then, a delicate relationship has been forged between landowners and the hunts, allowing a loose rein over 10,000 acres of open country in Bridgewater and Roxbury. Within this microcosm, professionals of every stripe trade their business attire for jodhpurs and boots and “ride to the hounds.” Members pay $5,000 a year for the privilege of hunting twice a week; associate and junior members less.
When the formal hunt season opens the first week of October, the hunt takes on a certain sartorial elegance. Many of the 30-plus members are impeccably turned out: red cut-away coats, white stock ties, white breeches, black boots with tan leather tops, hunt caps, and silk toppers. “Despite buttoned-up traditions, you shouldn’t equate it with stuffiness,” says Carol Makovich, a principal with the New York public-relations firm Owen Blicksilver. “It’s a very welcoming group that’s drawn together by the love of horses.”
For most, the fast pace of the hunt is challenging, leading them over fences and stonewalls—sometimes at a full gallop. But life also slows down in the saddle. No cell phones allowed, no GPS tracking the hounds, no motorized vehicles. “And, it can be a very quiet experience, just walking or trotting,” says Makovich.
The huntsman, which Stuart has been since 1993, is crucial to the event, along with the whipper-ins whose job is to ride on the outskirts of the hunt, rounding up stray hounds. “I remember the day he fell and broke his ribs, we had to stop the hunt, because no one else can substitute,” says Stuart’s daughter, Julie Stuart Seger.
Not everyone follows on horseback, though. Hill-toppers pursue the hunt on foot, taking their cues by listening to the hounds in full cry or the sudden thunder of galloping hooves. Those patient and persistent and willing to wait long enough might catch a fleeting glimpse of hounds, huntsman and hunters emerging from the dark of the forest streaming out and over an open field. Then, in the blink of an eye, like the fox, they too are gone.