The Bite Stuff

The hunt continues to outfox opponents.

What happens next varies from hunt to hunt and from person to person. Public-relations-wise, it is the sport's biggest headache. "That might be something you might not want to cover," notes Pam Buffington, who handles such things for the Arapahoe Hunt. "And," she adds, "it's not something we focus on, either. Some members will not even take part in the kill -- maybe turning their back when it happens."

Still, it's what the uninitiated want to know about most. Tradition calls for newcomers to the hunt to get "blooded" following a kill, a practice in which a small amount of the animal's blood is smeared on the face. Tradition also calls for the first person who encounters the kill to receive, as a trophy, the "mask," or animal's head. Second up gets the "brush," or tail. The next four riders on the scene each get "pads," or legs.

Now that the gory details are out in the open, however, it's only fair to dispel a common myth about the sport: Most hunts pass without a single death. In fact, the vast majority of hunts come up empty-handed. Some groups go years without a kill and don't feel the worse for it.

Dogged days: Hunters prepare to match wits with a 
wily coyote.
Dogged days: Hunters prepare to match wits with a wily coyote.

Officers for the Arapahoe Hunt estimate that in a season's (October to April) worth of weekends and occasional midweek rides, their hounds will dispatch only two or three coyotes -- fewer, probably, than the number that bite it crossing country roads on a given day (or, in Wyoming, in a given hour). And even those that are killed are destined to die soon anyway because they are lame or otherwise infirm, or merely genetically stupid, which is what allowed them to be caught by dogs in the first place. While this does not speak well of the hunt's efficiency, it does put some perspective on its bloodlust.

Besides, those who ride with the hunt insist that it is the tertiaries of the game that they love most. The exhilaration of riding a horse across a meadow at full gallop. The music of the hounds in full cry as they work a scent. The chilling sound of the huntsman's horn as the prey is spotted and the chase is on.

At its most basic, the hunt gives horsemen an opportunity to use their animals and skills in a practical manner -- not riding around a suburban ring on a lead, but navigating field and stream and fence on the trail of real quarry. Anybody who's ever plinked cans with a pellet gun when a squirrel runs by recognizes the primal tug of wanting to test their skills when the stakes suddenly turn higher.

The hunt is all about genes. When people talk about a particular hunt -- the Arapahoe Hunt, the Blue Ridge Hunt -- they are also referring to the organization's hounds (never "dogs"). The pack currently "giving tongue" (barking and howling) typically is the genetic descendant of generations of canines all bred to the same hunt.

For years, and particularly in Europe, this held true for the humans, too. Because hunts happened on large tracts of private land, and because large tracts of private land usually are owned by those with large bank accounts, and because those with large bank accounts typically pass their fortunes down between generations, fox hunting was for many years confined mainly to the rich.

To a degree, that has also been true in this country -- not necessarily because there is a gaping class division, but simply because it takes some means to maintain a thoroughbred (the preferred mount) and a pack of trained hounds -- not to mention a snappy scarlet (never, ever "red") coat and pressed britches. Still, as the price of extracurricular diversions has soared (try taking the family to Vail or an Avalanche game without a second mortgage), the cost of participating in the hunt has become on par with supporting a child in a competitive soccer club, and more and more regular riders are taking part. Many of Arapahoe's members are bluebloods. But the club is happy to host anyone eager to give the sport a try, and members are unfailingly polite to new riders.

That said, however, the hunt, more than, say, bowling, tends to be passed from one generation to the next (the Dick Wagner family excepted, of course), and Roman numerals are common suffixes on the names of hunting-club rosters. At Arapahoe, the name Lawrence Phipps runs like a strand of DNA through the hunt. As does the name Beeman. George Beeman was one of the club's first huntsmen (the leader of the hounds), ascending to the title in 1934. His wife, Marguerite, hunted for a dozen years and then became the doyenne of the "hill-toppers" -- those who ride across the hills and fields in cars, observing the panorama of the hunt.

For years, the Beemans lived on the Phippses' Highlands Ranch property in a small house lighted by gasoline lanterns and heated by a potbellied stove. Their son, Marvin, rode to school on horseback and grew up around the hounds. His love of animals eventually led him to veterinary school. When the job of huntsman for Arapahoe opened up -- i.e., when his father stepped down -- it seemed only natural that Marvin should take his place. "Let's just say I had first right of refusal on the job," he says.

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