F is for … Fox Hunting

Quotes are taken directly from the ‘Etiquette’ section of a hunt website…

“The first thing to do is telephone the Hunt Secretary and ask if you may join the hunt for the day and check with him/her the amount (cap) you will be required to pay.”

It took me a long time to find a hunt that would have me, especially when I explained I would be writing about my experience. In fact, this was probably the most difficult community for me to infiltrate so far. When I finally found a hunt that would accept me, I still wasn’t allowed to know the location of the ‘meet’ until the last minute, and even then I had to be told through a chain of people rather than directly from the hunt secretary.

The reason for this level of secrecy is that hunts in the UK often come into conflict with ‘hunt sabs’ – people who are anti-hunting and attend the hunt meetings in order to sabotage the proceedings – so, as an outsider, the community was understandably suspicious of me and what my agenda was in writing about them.

The ‘cap’ for a days mid-week hunting was £70, on top of the £225 it cost me to rent a horse for the morning. Hunting is certainly not a cheap affair.

“Black or navy blue coats should be worn with 3 black buttons. Ladies should wear buff breeches with plain black butcher boots. Hair should always be tied up and held in a suitable hair net. A hunting tie should be worn with the pin placed horizontally for safety. Earrings and other piercings. Let’s just not go there!”

I spent the days leading up to the hunt pulling together everything I needed; investing in a posh velvet hat, a hairnet and some leather gloves, and borrowing a hunt jacket, stock and tiepin from a friend. On the morning of the hunt I wasted a long time in front of a YouTube clip trying to work out how to tie my stock. I was completely flummoxed by it. In the end I had to ask my friends mum to do it for me so I didn’t miss the hunt all together!

I didn’t really understand the ‘earrings – let’s just not go there’ statement but opted to go ear naked. I guess this is why you don’t see many Goths on the hunting scene.

Etiquette demands that you should say good morning to the Joint Masters. The correct greeting being “Good morning Master” (even if you know them personally)

A ‘meet’ is the gathering point for the days hunting, often on the property of a hunt supporter who provides refreshments. I attended two separate hunts over the course of three days – one mounted and one on foot – and both provided a ‘stirrup cup’ (mulled wine), whisky, homemade cakes and savory snacks.

“Good morning!” “Good morning!” “Good morning!” I couldn’t believe how polite the introduction ritual was. The men all tapped their caps at me as they walked past, elaborately introducing themselves with their full names.

“Ah Splendid!” the hunt master brayed when I revealed this was my first hunt.

You should not enter any field without the Field Master unless instructed to do so.

As per tradition, the hounds and ‘hunt servants’ (hunt staff) were the first to enter the meet, followed by the bird of prey and its handler (a legal requirement since the ban on hunting with hounds in 2004), followed by the rest of the ‘field’ (mounted hunt members) and the ‘foot followers’.

At all times ride behind the field master. Do not attempt to jump if there is a hound anywhere near a jump.

When the wine and whisky supply started to dry up, the huntsman sounded his horn – ‘brrrrrr brrrrr’ – and we were off, cantering across the countryside en masse.

The experience was nerve wrecking at first. Everyone seemed to know what was going on except for me and the horse I had been given to ride (‘Smarty’) was huge and unfamiliar. I watched the field of forty-odd horses leaping over the first fence with dread. Looking around for a gate, I realised with a pounding heart that the jump was the only way out. I pointed Smarty in the right direction and held my breath as he leapt into the air at full speed. It was utterly exhilarating.

We hunted almost entirely on farmland for the next four hours, passing through endless miles of country without a road in sight, over rolling hills in every shade of green. It was impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the British countryside.

It is your responsibility to shut gates or call back “gate please”. In the event that riders behind are out of earshot a raised whip or hand is the method of communication.

“Gate Please!” I quietly practised this phrase over and over again in the poshest accent I could muster, trying to mimic the others in a shameless attempt to fit in.

At the end of a meet it is customary to say “Good night”.

…regardless of the time of day! “Good night” I dutifully said as I trotted back to my horse box at 2pm, having seen neither hide nor hair of a fox all day.

On my way back I spoke with Angela who hunts her ex-racehorse twice a week when she isn’t treating her physio clients.

“The weekday meets are the best to come along to,” she tells me. “At the weekend you get all the dribs and drabs – the London lot who hire from Jill and don’t have any idea what they are doing. They’re all over the place and can be a real pain”.

I had come from London, hired from Jill and didn’t know what I was doing. I looked at her. “Erm. Isn’t that me?”

She smiles. We both know it is me.