Karen (aswanargent) wrote,

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I'll be counting boozy foxhounds tonight, not sheep

Ciara, this article from today's New York Times is especially for you (but other people will enjoy it as well).  Do the tweedy types at the Kennel Club know that foxhounds have a fondness for anisette, I wonder?  How about your Big Book of Dogs?

And have we caught the Times out in an error, referring as they do to "red coats" and not "pink coats"???  Of course it could also be that here in the Colonies if you say "pink coats" before anyone other than a hunting audience, people would picture, well, pink coats and not the colour that's really meant.  Anyway, take a look at the article.  I think you'll be amused.  :-)

The Anisette Is on the Move! Release the Hounds!

Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Spring Valley Hounds conducts drag hunts in which the dogs follow an artificial scent trail rather than pursue an actual fox.

Published: December 8, 2006

FOX hunting is a sport with significant public relations issues, something that might conjure visions of the idle rich blowing brass horns, galloping obliviously across their properties (and others’) in search of tiny woodland creatures to be torn to shreds.

Skip to next paragraph
Laura Pedrick for The New York Times

Hounds ready for the chase in New Jersey.

When the Spring Valley Hounds hunt group of Allamuchy, N.J., gathered for a meet last month, it might have evoked that picture. Riders in brown-topped boots and black and red coats saddled their horses. The group’s foxhounds nosed about. Two riders arrived in elegant sidesaddle dress, with veiled faces and long skirts.

There was just one big difference: these riders weren’t hunting a fox.

Spring Valley is a fox hunt with a fake fox. The quarry is actually an empty soap bottle filled with diluted anisette liqueur.

“I don’t know why it clicks in their brains,” said Valerie DiCristina, one of Spring Valley’s two leaders, but the hounds go crazy for the scent of anise. “We used to use fox scent,” she said, “but it got all over everything, and the husbands complained.”

This form of pretend hunting is called a drag hunt. For its adherents — on this day’s meet, the riders were women, men and children in roughly equal numbers — it is a happy medium that gives riders the opportunity to experience hunting’s highs without taking themselves too seriously or threatening area wildlife. The fact that drag hunts are much faster only adds to the appeal.

A drag hunter for nearly 30 years, Ms. DiCristina, 67, has endured her share of spills, but she’s hardly intimidated. “I hope I make it to 70,” she said. “I’ve had two hip replacements. My doctor would kill me if he found out what I was doing.”

To understand what might compel people to hand over their well-being to a pack of boisterous hounds, I was invited to ride with Spring Valley during its Election Day meet.

Ms. DiCristina and her husband, Vito, lent me a horse from their stable. The horse, Windsor, a Belgian draft cross the color of honey and the size of Volkswagen bus, is normally Mr. DiCristina’s hunting partner. Watching the hounds from his stall, Windsor banged on the door with his enormous, sledgehammer feet. The bus was ready to leave.

Riders in Spring Valley’s formal uniform (canary vests, light breeches and red or black coats and, for those with senior status, a maroon velvet collar) gathered on a hilltop behind the DiCristinas’ antique farmhouse, where a receiving line of sorts floated around Valerie DiCristina and Frank Gibbs, a local dairy farmer. Mr. Gibbs and Ms. DiCristina share the hunt’s top title, master of fox hounds. Drag hunting provides plenty of opportunities for faux pas, but failure to greet a hunt’s officers, including the hunt secretary, huntsman and masters of fox hounds, is probably the most egregious breach of etiquette.

Members, following in vehicles for the day as spectators, served the courage supplements. Of fox hunting’s many quaint traditions and locutions, perhaps the “stirrup cup,” a tiny glass of sherry offered at the start, is the most useful.

Carol Dilley, 62, started off early. Ms. Dilley, a sharp-witted woman with a kind face and the automatic movements of a lifelong horse person, was setting the scent track. This is called “laying drag.” Ms. Dilley frequently lays drag because it allows her to ride at her own pace. Her horse can be rambunctious in the field, and, as she puts it, “I went ‘A’ over ‘T’ one too many times, if you know what I mean.”

Hunt staff members corral the group of riders and hounds, a task not unlike herding cats. The field master keeps riders a safe distance from the hounds. Ordinary riders form the “field,” organized according to experience and status (peons like me at the back). The whippers-in hover on the sides of the hunt like friendly hall monitors who happen to be holding long lashes at their sides. They warn the hounds against straying too far from the pack.

Perhaps the purest fun of a drag hunt is watching the hounds. Ms. DiCristina gave the go-ahead, and the eight “couple” of hounds — that’s 16, total — romped down the trail, tongues wagging, long ears flopping, scooting and darting after each distraction. The first quarter-mile was slow, as the hounds marked every rock, tree and clump of vegetation. Then they caught the heady scent of diluted booze.

Usually, you don’t see the hounds when they find the scent — you hear them. The hound that finds it first is quick to brag. When he bays it is called “speaking,” and those who hear him hustle over to check out what he has found. As each hound confirms the scent, he begins “speaking” too, until the entire pack is yammering like an algebra class with a substitute teacher.

Hunt horses know this sound, too. As the hounds got louder, Windsor hopped in place restlessly. The field picked up a trot and rode into an open pasture, where I could see Ms. DiCristina charging ahead in her red huntsman’s coat. Then the horses in front of Windsor stepped into a gallop, heading for a steep trail burrowing into the woods. We were off.

Legend has it that Windsor was a logging horse in Canada in his youth. Now, he grabbed the bit and hauled me around like easy cargo, leaving little room for discussion about our speed and direction. I watched as the horse in front of us hurdled fallen logs and dodged left and right on the trail, coming within inches of kneecapping the rider. Windsor knew the sharp overgrowth and low-hanging branches that challenged his passage through the woods, and I hoped he wouldn’t use that information to his advantage.

We scurried up the path and poured into an open field, running flat out toward a low stone wall. On the backside, the hounds had found Ms. Dilley. Windsor took one look at his buddies on the other side of the wall and leapt forward like a thousand-pound marlin on the end of the line. Your impulse at such times is to brace with your legs and “water ski,” but doing that only makes a horse charge harder. I asked forgiveness for the sins I could remember and let go.

“You’re doing great — you’ve survived!” Mr. DiCristina exclaimed when I arrived the end of the run down the road from their house. He was genuinely encouraging, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gotten away with something.

Laying drag is a little like playing hide-and-seek with the hounds. As Ms. Dilley sneaked off for the next run, I followed her. Safely away from the hounds, we picked up a canter. Ms. Dilley opened the bottle of anisette, casually giving it a squeeze every few strides. After a couple of miles, we pulled up and listened for the hounds. It was not long before they exploded over a small wall into the field where we were waiting.

Spring Valley usually does four or five gallops in a day, covering roughly 15 miles, often across land preserved by members. Mr. Gibbs and his family put their 800-acre dairy farm into permanent easement in 1989, one of the first farms in the area to do so. Conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy and private farms also grant Spring Valley permission to ride. One gallop wound up at a farm, where 16 irrepressible hounds overwhelmed the farm owners’ Labrador retriever, wanting to play.

Mr. DiCristina met the hunt in his car, and there was more sherry to go around. With Windsor halted on a stone bridge for an 11 a.m. belly-warmer, I looked at the field of black caps and bright coats, and it was easy to think I was on the set of a Merchant-Ivory costume drama.

But Windsor had no patience for that. The hounds howled and tore off down the final gallop. We were on our way again.


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