Hunting Sketches, by Anthony Trollope

How to Ride to Hounds

Now attend me, Diana and the Nymphs, Pan, Orion, and the Satyrs, for I have a task in hand which may hardly be accomplished without some divine aid. And the lesson I would teach is one as to which even gods must differ, and no two men will ever hold exactly the same opinion. Indeed, no written lesson, no spoken words, no lectures, be they ever so often repeated, will teach any man to ride to hounds. The art must come of nature and of experience; and Orion, were he here, could only tell the tyro of some few blunders which he may avoid, or give him a hint or two as to the manner in which he should begin.

Let it be understood that I am speaking of fox-hunting, and let the young beginner always remember that in hunting the fox a pack of hounds is needed. The huntsman, with his servants, and all the scarlet-coated horsemen in the field, can do nothing towards the end for which they are assembled without hounds. He who as yet knows nothing of hunting will imagine that I am laughing at him in saying this; but, after a while, he will know how needful it is to bear in mind the caution I here give him, and will see how frequently men seem to forget that a fox cannot be hunted without hounds. A fox is seen to break from the covert, and men ride after it; the first man, probably, being some cunning sinner, who would fain get off alone if it were possible, and steal a march upon the field. But in this case one knave makes many fools; and men will rush, and ride along the track of the game, as though they could hunt it, and will destroy the scent before the hounds are on it, following, in their ignorance, the footsteps of the cunning sinner. Let me beg my young friend not to be found among this odious crowd of marplots. His business is to ride to hounds; and let him do so from the beginning of the run, persevering through it all, taking no mean advantages, and allowing himself to be betrayed into as few mistakes as possible; but let him not begin before the beginning. If he could know all that is inside the breast of that mean man who commenced the scurry, the cunning man who desires to steal a march, my young friend would not wish to emulate him. With nine-tenths of the men who flutter away after this ill fashion there is no design of their own in their so riding. They simply wish to get away, and in their impatience forget the little fact that a pack of hounds is necessary for the hunting of a fox.

I have found myself compelled to begin with this preliminary caution, as all riding to hounds hangs on the fact in question. Men cannot ride to hounds if the hounds be not there. They may ride one after another, and that, indeed, suffices for many a keen sportsman; but I am now addressing the youth who is ambitious of riding to hounds. But though I have thus begun, striking first at the very root of the matter, I must go back with my pupil into the covert before I carry him on through the run. In riding to hounds there is much to do before the straight work commences. Indeed, the straight work is, for the man, the easiest work, or the work, I should say, which may be done with the least previous knowledge. Then the horse, with his qualities, comes into play; and if he be up to his business in skill, condition, and bottom, a man may go well by simply keeping with others who go well also. Straight riding, however, is the exception and not the rule. It comes sometimes, and is the cream of hunting when it does come; but it does not come as often as the enthusiastic beginner will have taught himself to expect.

But now we will go back to the covert, and into the covert if it be a large one. I will speak of three kinds of coverts, the gorse, the wood, and the forest. There are others, but none other so distinct as to require reference. As regards the gorse covert, which of all is the most delightful, you, my disciple, need only be careful to keep in the crowd when it is being drawn. You must understand that if the plantation which you see before you, and which is the fox’s home and homestead, be surrounded, the owner of it will never leave it. A fox will run back from a child among a pack of hounds, so much more terrible is to him the human race even than the canine. The object of all men of course is that the fox shall go, and from a gorse covert of five acres he must go very quickly or die among the hounds. It will not be long before he starts if there be space left for him to creep out, as he will hope, unobserved. Unobserved he will not be, for the accustomed eye of some whip or servant will have seen him from a corner. But if stray horsemen roaming round the gorse give him no room for such hope, he will not go. All which is so plainly intelligible, that you, my friend, will not fail to understand why you are required to remain with the crowd. And with simple gorse coverts there is no strong temptation to move about. They are drawn quickly, and though there be a scramble for places when the fox has broken, the whole thing is in so small a compass that there is no difficulty in getting away with the hounds. In finding your right place, and keeping it when it is found, you may have difficulty; but in going away from a gorse the field will be open for you, and when the hounds are well out and upon the scent, then remember your Latin; Occupet extremum scabies.

But for one fox found in a gorse you will, in ordinary countries, see five found in woods; and as to the place and conduct of a hunting man while woods are being drawn, there is room for much doubt. I presume that you intend to ride one horse throughout the day, and that you wish to see all the hunting that may come in your way. This being so, it will be your study to economize your animal’s power, and to keep him fresh for the run when it comes. You will hardly assist your object in this respect by seeing the wood drawn, and galloping up and down the rides as the fox crosses and recrosses from one side of it to another. Such rides are deep with mud, and become deeper as the work goes on; and foxes are very obstinate, running, if the covert be thick, often for an hour together without an attempt at breaking, and being driven back when they do attempt by the horsemen whom they see on all sides of them. It is very possible to continue at this work, seeing the hounds hunt, with your ears rather than your eyes, till your nag has nearly done his day’s work. He will still carry you perhaps throughout a good run, but he will not do so with that elasticity which you will love; and then, after that, the journey home is, it is occasionally something almost too frightful to be contemplated. You can, therefore, if it so please you, station yourself with other patient long-suffering, mindful men at some corner, or at some central point amidst the rides, biding your time, consoling yourself with cigars, and not swearing at the vile perfidious, unfoxlike fox more frequently than you can help. For the fox on such occasions will be abused with all the calumnious epithets which the ingenuity of angry men can devise, because he is exercising that ingenuity the possession of which on his part is the foundation of fox-hunting. There you will remain, nursing your horse, listening to chaff, and hoping. But even when the fox does go, your difficulties may be but beginning.

It is possible he may have gone on your side of the wood; but much more probable that he should have taken the other. He loves not that crowd that has been abusing him, and steals away from some silent distant corner. You, who are a beginner, hear nothing of his going; and when you rush off, as you will do with others, you will hardly know at first why the rush is made. But some one with older eyes and more experienced ears has seen signs and heard sounds, and knows that the fox is away. Then, my friend, you have your place to win, and it may be that the distance shall be too great to allow of your winning it. Nothing but experience will guide you safely through these difficulties.

In drawing forests or woodlands your course is much clearer. There is no question, then, of standing still and waiting with patience, tobacco, and chaff for the coming start. The area to be drawn is too large to admit of waiting, and your only duty is to stay as close to the hounds as your ears and eyes will permit, remembering always that your ears should serve you much more often than your eyes. And in woodland hunting that which you thus see and hear is likely to be your amusement for the day. There is “ample room and verge enough” to run a fox down without any visit to the open country, and by degrees, as a true love of hunting comes upon you in place of a love of riding, you will learn to think that a day among the woodlands is a day not badly spent. At first, when after an hour and a half the fox has been hunted to his death, or has succeeded in finding some friendly hole, you will be wondering when the fun is going to begin. Ah me! how often have I gone through all the fun, have seen the fun finished, and then have wondered when it was going to begin; and that, too, in other things besides hunting!

But at present the fun shall not be finished, and we will go back to the wood from which the fox is just breaking. You, my pupil, shall have been patient, and your patience shall be rewarded by a good start. On the present occasion I will give you the exquisite delight of knowing that you are there, at the spot, as the hounds come out of the covert. Your success, or want of success, throughout the run will depend on the way in which you may now select to go over the three or four first fields. It is not difficult to keep with hounds if you can get well away with them, and be with them when they settle to their running. In a long and fast run your horse may, of course, fail you. That must depend on his power and his condition. But, presuming your horse to be able to go, keeping with hounds is not difficult when you are once free from the thick throng of the riders. And that thick throng soon makes itself thin. The difficulty is in the start, and you will almost be offended when I suggest to you what those difficulties are, and suggest also that such as they are even they may overcome you. You have to choose your line of riding. Do not let your horse choose it for you instead of choosing it for yourself. He will probably make such attempts, and it is not at all improbable that you should let him have his way. Your horse will be as anxious to go as you are, but his anxiety will carry him after some other special horse on which he has fixed his eyes. The rider of that horse may not be the guide that you would select. But some human guide you must select. Not at first will you, not at first does any man, choose for himself with serene precision of confident judgment the line which he will take. You will be flurried, anxious, self-diffident, conscious of your own ignorance, and desirous of a leader. Many of those men who are with you will have objects at heart very different from your object. Some will ride for certain points, thinking that they can foretell the run of the fox. They may be right; but you, in your new ambition, are not solicitous to ride away to some other covert because the fox may, perchance, be going there. Some are thinking of the roads. Others are remembering that brook which is before them, and riding wide for a ford. With none such, as I presume, do you wish to place yourself. Let the hounds be your mark; and if, as may often be the case, you cannot see them, then see the huntsman; or, if you cannot see him, follow, at any rate, some one who does. If you can even do this as a beginner, you will not do badly.

But, whenever it be possible, let the hounds themselves be your mark, and endeavour to remember that the leading hounds are those which should guide you. A single hound who turns when he is heading the pack should teach you to turn also. Of all the hounds you see there in the open, probably not one-third are hunting. The others are doing as you do, following where their guides lead them. It is for you to follow the real guide, and not the followers, if only you can keep the real guide in view. To keep the whole pack in view and to ride among them is easy enough when the scent is slack and the pace is slow. At such times let me counsel you to retire somewhat from the crowd, giving place to those eager men who are breaking the huntsman’s heart. When the hounds have come nearer to their fox, and the pace is again good, then they will retire and make room for you.

Not behind hounds, but alongside of them, if only you can achieve such position, it should be your honour and glory to place yourself; and you should go so far wide of them as in no way to impede them or disturb them, or even to remind them of your presence. If thus you live with them, turning as they turn, but never turning among them, keeping your distance, but losing no yard, and can do this for seven miles over a grass country in forty-five minutes, then you can ride to hounds better than nineteen men out of every twenty that you have seen at the meet, and will have enjoyed the keenest pleasure that hunting, or perhaps, I may say, that any other amusement, can give you.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43