Crisp morning air, mist draped through the woods, the surge of the horse beneath and the sound of the hounds’ voices blending with the huntsman’s horn … it would be hard to find something not to love about foxhunting.
While foxhunting has been an American tradition since the colonial days and started in the Camden area as early as the 19th century, Camden has boasted a hunt club recognized by the Masters of Foxhounds Association since 1926 in response to an influx of sports-minded visitors to the area at the turn of the century. In the late 1920s, the Camden Hunt began holding annual Hunter Trials on George Washington’s birthday which has now evolved into the popular Carolina Cup. Now going into its 90th year, the Camden Hunt is still offering Midlands riders the chance to partake in an activity as extraordinary in its distinguished history as it is thrilling to experience firsthand.
Melissa Rice has been riding with the Camden Hunt since the mid-1980s and was offered the position of huntsman this past May. “Most people who hunt come to listen to the hounds’ voices, the different tones of them speaking,” she explains. “You do it because it’s early in the morning and the sun is coming up; you’re in the woods and you’re with your friends and your horse. That is the draw. So it really isn’t even about hunting. It’s about being in nature, slowing things down, enjoying life for a few hours, riding your horse and enjoying camaraderie.”
The Camden Hunt holds “meets” every Wednesday and Saturday morning from early October through mid-March. While it used to be a “drag” hunt, where a bag of oils blended to resemble fox scent is dragged through the woods, it is now a live hunt where the dogs trail red and grey foxes as well as coyotes. The animals are never killed, however; the hunt terminates, usually after about three to four hours, either when the pursued “goes to ground,” or when the hounds lose the scent. The sandy terrain in Camden does not allow the scent to linger long; plus, foxes are wily animals. As predators, foxes know the terrain very well and also how to elude their own pursuers; they often pull clever tricks to confound the hounds such as crossing creeks but exiting farther downstream.
At the start of a meet, the huntsman announces the plan to hunt a particular territory surrounding the meet. The four assistants — whips or whipper-ins — then station themselves about 100 yards apart at the four sides of the “coverts,” or specified hunting areas, where the hounds will be “cast” to ensure that they do not travel onto another property or go out on a road. Hounds are counted in couples, and typically they take out about 18 couples, or 36 hounds, all together. The members and guests riding in the hunt are called the “field,” and usually the field is divided into two or three sections, or flights, each led by a field master. The first will ride at the same speed as the huntsman, whereas the second flight, or “hill toppers,” ride at a more leisurely pace and do not jump. The huntsman casts the hounds into various coverts — swamps, creeks, cornfields, woods — and when they have “caught scent” and begin “speaking,” the huntsman cheers them on with certain notes of his or her horn. The hounds are trained to respond to various notes of the horn, whether it be to direct them, encourage them to give chase or to call them in. As the current huntsman, Melissa will also indicate what is happening to the field and the field masters via the tunes of the horn.
“Everything is about listening to where and what the hounds are doing,” says Joint Master of Foxhounds Nancy Tans. “On a good day we may travel 10 miles; on a slow day, maybe five. Our hunt country is about 15,000 contiguous acres and is all privately held. The Hunt is generously granted permission to use the land in return for maintaining the riding areas, which takes a great deal of time.”
Nancy has been riding for nearly 70 years, almost 40 of them with the Camden Hunt. “My favorite part of the hunt is divided between being on a great horse in beautiful country, with terrific friends, watching wonderful hounds work their magic. It may be cold, it may be hot, it may be slow, it may be terrifically exciting … but no matter what, it’s where I want to be. Yes, I’ve had a close call on a horse and been with friends that have also. Yes, we get injured a bit, but we heal and off we go again.”
Melissa explains that her first fox hunt was when she was 10 or 11, and she remembers being a little terrified. “The most important thing in a foxhunting horse is that it is quiet in a large group of horses, doesn’t mind dogs under its feet and whizzing by, and most especially that it is obedient. My pony that day was quite naughty which frankly was frightening. I also did not understand a lot of what was going on.” Clearly though, there was enough of a spark lit to set flame to the passion that is hers today.
“Being a professional huntsman is so much more than a full-time job — it’s a way of life,” she explains. “The hours are long, and it can get complicated managing everything as there is so much that goes into it — land permissions and such — but it is so much fun.” One part of the job that takes a lot of time is managing all of the dogs. The Camden Hunt keeps upwards of 50 foxhounds at a time, mostly cross-bred (a mixture of the English and American foxhound) as well as some of pure English breeding.
For Melissa, the best part is being around the animals and interacting in nature. It is not surprising then that some of her favorite memories of foxhunting are of a horse that would stand so quietly at their post when she was working as a professional whip that the woods would resume its normal activities. “Elkins was a horse that truly loved hunting. He thought like a hound and had a keen sense for it. When I was at my post, it would often involve standing still for several minutes at a time while waiting for the action to start. He was so relaxed that the wildlife would begin acting as if we weren’t there — squirrels and birds, and we even saw a coyote pass through the woods a time or two. It gave me a chance to peek into nature doing its thing,” she says. “Honestly though, every fox hunt is my favorite hunt.”
Sue Sensor, another Joint Master at the Camden Hunt, has held jobs in foxhunting on the East Coast since the 1960s, from whipping-in and managing stables to exercising race horses. “For years I was hunting three to five days a week, so fortunately my husband, George, has always understood my passion. He very graciously put up with sandwiches for dinner on occasion!” she laughs. “My favorite part of hunting has always been watching the hounds work a line, especially when the young ones ‘get it’ and you see them figuring it out.” She remembers one hunt in particular where they ventured out at 9 a.m. and kept finding fox after fox to chase. As they kept finding more game, the field gradually dwindled until there were only four of them left; they finally called it a day at 3 p.m.
“The other hunt that really stands out to me was when I was riding a Connamara pony named Beau with the Cheshire Hunt in Pennsylvania, and the hounds took off and headed for a farm where the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup is held. I could barely see over the top rail of the first fence we came to on the course, and Beau jumped it with room to spare. I wasn’t scared after that!” she laughs.
Hope Cooper too is a long-time foxhunting veteran and has been riding for the past 65 years, dating back to the time of her childhood horses, Mickey and Lumpy. At the Camden Hunt, she was a whipper-in for many years and Master from 1986 to 1990. She will attest that a sport involving galloping a horse across the countryside is not without a significant element of danger and risk of injury; however, she admits that aside from being lost occasionally, she was very lucky to avoid any serious mishap. “The record will stand as I retired my hunting whip and spurs last year,” she says with a chuckle. “My favorite memory though, through it all, is being given my colors and button in the hunt field back in the 1960s. There are far too many other rollicking tales to be contained in this article!”
What a lifetime of foxhunting has given her, though, is a profound respect for all flora and fauna as well as a strong sense of conservation, like many hunters of other game. “It has tied me very close to the land,” she says. “To me the relationship of my horse, the hounds, the quarry and the countryside was ethereal.”