Riding the open range with America’s fox–er, coyote–hunters

GORMAN, California (AP) – It’s a pastime, participants will tell
you, that’s as American as apple pie: one played in the great
outdoors, on real grass, with lots of running and jumping and zig
zagging all over the place.

And, no, it’s not football or baseball, although a horsehide is
tangentially involved.

We’re talking fox hunting here, a sport so American it has been
pursued by presidents, Hollywood celebrities and just plain folks
from all walks of life, from the green, rolling hills of Virginia
to the sagebrush-dotted high desert of California.

“You may or may not know that George Washington was a fox
hunter. He kept a pack of hounds,” Mitchell Jacobs says of the
first president as he pulls on his black, knee-length boots in
preparation for a day of charging up and down canyons, across
ridges and over creeks at the base of the snowcapped Tehachapi
Mountains, 75 miles (121 kilometers) north of Los Angeles.

In truth, it’s a sport of European origins, but it’s been
practiced here for centuries. And in a Western twist, the prey is
no longer a fox.

Here, the hounds chase coyotes. There aren’t many red foxes in
this part of the country, so the animal’s distant cousin, the
coyote, stands in. As the fox once was to England, coyotes are
livestock-killing varmints to ranchers, who don’t mind inviting
hunters onto their property to chase them down.

Jacobs, a family law attorney, is an avid fox hunter, as are the
dozen or so fellow riders who have gathered on this wind-whipped
morning of teeth-chattering, 38-degree weather.

If all goes as the riders hope, one will soon shout “Tally
ho!” That means they pray has been spotted.

Don’t feel too bad for the coyote, however. Able to run as fast
as 40 mph (64 kph) for a sustained distance, change direction on a
dime and seemingly much smarter than most of the foxhounds, the
wily coyote usually wins.

“We haven’t caught a coyote all season,” chuckles Jacobs, one
of the co-masters of West Hills Hounds, the venerable Los Angeles
fox-hunting club. Founded in 1947, the group’s members have
included such luminaries as Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and another
American president, Ronald Reagan.

“He was a very good horseman but he wasn’t much of a fox
hunter,” David Wendler, who served as the club’s huntsman for 55
years, says of Reagan.

Wendler still rides with West Hills but these days the huntsman
duties fall on Scott Neill, a 40-year-old native New Zealander who
has been riding since he was 7.

“I’ll be tooting the horn,” Neill says, describing that funny
looking little brass instrument he’ll use to direct the foxhounds.
He might also shout “Tally ho,” but only if he actually sees a
coyote. The horn and the sighting call are among the sport’s myriad

“The first time, the first thing I said was, `Do I have to wear
those silly tight pants and all that other stuff?”’ recalls Dennis
Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds of America,
the 104-year-old, Virginia-based organization that oversees some
170 foxhunting clubs in 36 states and across Canada.

Yes, he was told, he did.

Hundreds of fox hunts later, Foster has come to appreciate the
tradition carried to the United States from England in the

Although often seen by outsiders as playtime for the wealthy,
Foster and others say that in the U.S. the sport has become solidly
middle-class, with participants including a range of people from
doctors and lawyers to teachers and construction contractors.

And while horses often don’t come cheap, Jacobs says many riders
in his group get theirs through adopt-a-horse programs that feature
thoroughbred racehorses that weren’t quite fast enough.

In all, Foster estimates, there are about 15,000 fox hunters in
the U.S. Some fox hunters prefer not to broadcast that number too
loudly, however, not wanting to draw the attention of animal rights
groups. While activists didn’t get fox hunting banned in England,
as is sometimes reported, they did force the sport to stop letting
the dogs kill the foxes.


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