A Different Approach to Fox Hunting

While traditional fox hunting has come under fire for ethical reasons, some clubs are getting creative so that they can continue to enjoy this thrilling sport without harm to animals.

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Originally established in 16th century England, formalized mounted fox hunting with hounds was brought to America in 1650. The first organized hunt club in the U.S. was established in 1766.

Riders go drag hunting, a new approach to fox hunting amid controversy
Photo by Shelley Paulson

Today, the traditional sport continues, but not without controversy. Animal welfare activists feel it is cruel to encourage the hounds to hunt and kill a fox. Others would argue that other means of controlling the fox population (i.e.. traps, poison) are equally or more cruel than a quick kill by a hound.

Because of the controversy surrounding the tradition of live fox hunting, many clubs have shifted to a drag hunt, where hounds and horses follow a scent dragged across the countryside minutes before the start of the “hunt.”

A staff member wears a traditional red coat while galloping his horse
Traditional red coats are still worn by hunt staff members, masters, former masters, whippers-in, and male members who have been invited by masters to wear colors as a mark of appreciation. Photo by Shelley Paulson

The dragsman lays a scent using a bag pulled along the ground in 1- to 3-mile sections across the countryside, with stops for the horses and hounds to catch their breath (called the “check”).

Riders go on a drag hunt, a more human version of fox hunting amid controversy
During formal hunt season (from fall through early spring), an important tradition is coat color. Regular members, both male and female, usally wear a three-button black hunt coat that distinguishes them from staff. Photo by Shelley Paulson

One of the benefits of a drag hunt is the predictability of the path the riders will take through fields and forests. Drag hunts are also more efficient, and last just a few hours instead of all day, because the hounds aren’t as likely to lose track of the scent as they would with a live animal.

Riders embark on a drag hunt with fall foliage gracing the landscape
Area landowners give the club permission to use their land for the hunts. Planning a route in advance is another advantage to drag hunting. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Reimagining fox hunting in this way allows club riders to enjoy their timeless equestrian sport; there are currently over 160 registered drag hunt clubs in the U.S.

I had the pleasure of photographing a drag hunt with Minnesota’s Long Lake Hounds at the peak of fall color in 2020. Established in 1959, this club has a rich history of hosting drag hunts and hunter pace events in the summer in fall.

A rider gallops her horse with fall foliage behind them
Hunts involve a lot of cross-country galloping. At the beginning of the season, sections between checks are shorter due to the heat and horse conditioning. By fall, clubs can plan sections with more distance between them. Photo by Shelley Paulson

Hunter pace events award the group of horses and riders that cover a route closest to the optimum time, which nobody knows in advance. Hunter paces have a variety of jumps and are meant to mimic the pace and terrain of a fox hunt, which can be another great way to experience the thrill and camaraderie of “hunting” without all of the formalities.

The hunt master calls the pack with the traditional hunting horn
The hunt master calls the pack with the traditional hunting horn. Photo by Shelley Paulson

As many of our horse sports come under increasing scrutiny, it is good to see some rethinking of the traditions to the benefit of our horses as well as other species.

This article about a new approach to fox hunting amid controversy appeared in the October 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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