This holiday season, many of you no doubt basked in the shared warmth of the same comforting customs that people have enjoyed for centuries during this festive and peaceful time of year: Sipping a warm glass of port, wearing your fanciest clothes, spending quality time with your friends and favorite animals in the great outdoors.
And, perhaps, if the eyes of Fortune shone favorably upon you, witnessing a canis latrans or (depending on geography) vulpes fulva torn to shreds by your hounds.
I am speaking, of course, of the traditional day-after-Christmas Boxing Day hunt, the spectacle of horse- and houndsmanship that has taken place across the world since plagues came in colors. While many of us kicked back on this leisurely holiday day-after with a giant bowl of sour-cream-based chip dip to catch the Corporate-Name Doesn't-Matter Bowl, the ruddy-faced sporting horsemen and their packs of baying hounds took to the fields in pursuit of yet another varmint.
You tell me which is the more uncivilized.
Ironically, across the pond in England and Scotland, where the stirrup cup and snorting steeds have been as much a part of Boxing Day as, well, boxing (of presents, not of ears), these are dark days for the hunt. Scotland banned hunting with hounds the summer before last, and England, by most accounts the birthplace of the sport (Bilsdale, in the Yorkshire Dales, don't you know), has been teetering on the verge of outlawing it for several years now. Opponents claim it is unfriendly to foxes.
As in most cases where politics crosses paths with sports and tradition, however, things are not as they first appear. In England, where the fox is considered a disposable pest along the lines of a groundhog or an Amway salesman in the U.S., the raging debate over the hunt -- traditionally the bastion of the upper crust -- is less about animal rights than it is an allegory for resentment against the privileged class.
In Scotland, meanwhile, thanks to a stallion-sized loophole in the new law, more foxes are reportedly being killed today than before the hunt was banned. Now that hounds may not "hunt" -- i.e., kill their quarry -- the dogs are used only to "flush" the fox into the open. At which point the animal is quickly plugged by a mounted marksman. Unfortunately for animal-rights activists who worked long and hard to eradicate the Scottish hunt, this is a far more efficient way to kill a fox than by pitting it against a pack of baying mutts.
Like tea and smallpox, the hunt was taken along wherever the British decided to subjugate the locals. Hounds arrived in America soon after the Pilgrims. It was a popular pastime.
Back when legislators were farmers and not attorneys, and the harassment and sporting elimination of wildlife was a more accepted form of leisure, many of this young country's first and finest lawmakers, including George Washington, were said to have enjoyed the hunt. Today there are an estimated 150-odd hunts in 35 states across the country. Depending on one's location, the quarry is either red or gray fox (in the East, generally) or coyote or the occasional bobcat (as you head west).
Colorado's longest-running hunt began trailing coyotes (known, for complicated historical reasons, as "Charlie") in an organized manner on horseback in 1907, with the kennels for the hounds located on what is now the eighth green of the Denver Country Club golf course. The first president of the Arapahoe Hunt was Lawrence Phipps, a rancher, horseman and future U.S. senator.
The hunt dissolved during World War I, but in 1929 it was revived by Phipps's son, Lawrence Phipps Jr., who had developed a fondness for the chase in England during the 1920s. Junior assembled the resuscitated Arapahoe Hunt in what is now Highlands Ranch, in northern Douglas County, with the kennels located on property currently occupied by a sheriff's office.
In 1987, the Arapahoe Hunt moved its operation to the old Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range, southeast of Denver International Airport. The organization leases about 22,000 acres of rolling grasslands, cottonwoods and old oil wells from the Colorado State Land Board. Though a lifetime horseman, Lawrence Phipps III came late to the sport, after stints in college and the Army. But history and tradition were on his side, and when his father called a special board meeting of the hunt's officers in 1968, it was agreed that the scion should be a master of the hunt, too, and he remains so today.
A short while ago, amid unseasonably warm early-December weather, the Arapahoe Hunt celebrated its 75th anniversary with a three-day rush of activities. Naturally, this included daily hounding of the local coyotes.
Right, then. Bloody bits first.
Sports involving the pursuit of animals traditionally have not focused on live capture, and there is good reason they are collectively referred to as the "blood sports." This is true with the hunt, as well, although less so in the United States, where the chase is the thing, than in England, where the elimination of a fox is considered the proper end to a pleasant afternoon of posting. Still, no matter where you live, when a pack of hounds catches up to its quarry, there is only one possible ending, and after the coyote or fox is dispatched, the dogs are quickly called off.
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.
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.
As the 75th-anniversary weekend begins, Beeman, now seventy and a joint-master of the Arapahoe Hunt, lays out the plan: "Today," he says, "we're gonna draw the hounds north a mile and a quarter or so, then put them under cover and head south. From then on, the coyote will tell us what to do."
In the stables, an equine beautician braids the manes of several thoroughbreds. The horses have been shaved close to the skin so they don't overheat in their hot pursuit of the wily coyote. The hounds mill about in an enclosed area behind the stables. They won't be fed until after the hunt. "It tends to make sure they come home," explains Donald O'Connor, Arapahoe's third and final joint-master.
Masters of the hunt enjoy a lofty position of esteem and respect within their organizations. "We speak only to God," O'Connor explains. "You have to be smooth, elegant and charming and have been around a long time."
O'Connor appears to qualify on all counts, but he has definitely nailed at least one. A New York City native, he agreed to try hunting for the first time in 1965 at the behest of his wife, a prep-school girl from Virginia and a bona fide member of the horsey set. Nearly forty years later, O'Connor is still chasing vermin across the rolling hills and draws of the Colorado plains.
Of course, to many in the hunt world, O'Connor and Beeman are still considered newcomers, dilettante riders with bloodlines as thin as water. "My grandfather did it; my father did it; now I do it," says Mason Lampton of Columbus, Georgia. Lampton has flown up to Colorado for the 75th-anniversary hunt. His hounds, the famous Midland hounds (throughout the weekend, the noun is never uttered without the modifier), were driven up by their professional handlers, a three-day trip.
Even Lampton's pedigree pales, though, in comparison with that of his wife, Mary Lou. Her father is Ben Hardaway, scion of a legendary Southern hunting family. In fact, it is charge over Hardaway's hounds that son-in-law Mason has inherited. Hardaway, the father of three girls (hunters all, but girls, nonetheless), was only too happy to hand over kennel operations to his daughter's husband, a proper Southern gentleman who rode and fox-hunted. "With Mason," Mary Lou continues, "he 'bout broke his ankle clickin' his heels.
Indeed, today's hunt seems to be all about love and tradition. While there has been speculation over how the Arapahoe hounds will get along with the famous Midland hounds, all appears well as the mounted hunters sip sherry and a master from a visiting hunt reads a blessing prior to the start of the day's chase.
"Dear Lord, thank you for blessing this day," he intones. Left for a moment to their own devices, the dogs begin sniffing each other in earnest. "Each hunt is a gift from you..." By now the hounds have started humping each other with serious intent, grinding their hips into any square-nosed face or stern they can get to.
"Blue!" Marvin Beeman growls from his mount, snapping a whip over the head of one especially amorous hound.
"Protect each of us from injury..." Lampton tries to get his pack to focus as well. "Raja! Raja!" he mutters forcefully in a low voice. Then he shrugs as Raja continues to pound away at another Arapahoe hound. "He's horny, I guess. Instead of fighting, my hounds want to make love."
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And what's not to love? The day has warmed to a balmy 60 degrees. The warm weather means that finding and keeping a scent on the dry and dusty plains will prove a challenge to the assembled noses. Yet the warmth and sunshine are early-December gifts.
"Huntmasters, show us good sport," the blessing concludes. Beeman turns his horse and yells to his hounds: "C'mon, boys! C'mon, bitches!"
And the spectacle! A dozen-plus groups from across the country have gathered to celebrate 75 years of Colorado tradition. Scarlet, black and gold are brilliant paint drops dripped against the dun canvas of the brown winter scrub. Overhead, in a spine-tingling, if incongruous accompaniment to the centuries-old union of horses and hounds, black Army helicopters from a nearby base perform maneuvers.
Within half an hour of being put under cover, the hounds pick up the scent of a coyote. They take off running, a full-throated symphony of primordial joy and bloodlust. One hundred and thirty-odd horses and riders follow hard behind. A half-mile to the east, heading in the opposite direction, a coyote crests a rise, pauses for a moment and then lopes off into the distance.