People always seem surprised when I tell them that in our immediate area there are three, count ‘em, three, active groups of horses and hounds, red coats and all!
“Riding to hounds” is all about the horses and dogs (referred to as “hounds” in hunting circles), and enjoying the beautiful outdoors.
Living Spaces talked to two “hunts”, The Eglinton and Caledon Hounds in the Caledon area, and the Wellington Waterloo Hunt near Guelph. Still an active sport, today there exist 168 recognized hunts in North America, overseen by the sport’s self-regulating governing body the Masters of Foxhounds Association whose many functions can be seen at www.mfha.com. Last year, the Eglinton and Caledon Hounds held a Hunt Festival where horses and riders came from Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton and the USA too.
The Eglinton Hunt became a separate offshoot in 1930 of the Toronto Hunt (founded in 1843, later the Toronto and North York Hunt). With Toronto’s expansion, they moved to Caledon in 1963 and became the Eglinton and Caledon Hounds. The Wellington-Waterloo Hunt established in 1965, also benefited from the Toronto and North York with their first hounds.
Do you need a fancy horse as a hunter? No. “Beauty is as beauty does”. Of course, in their owners’ eyes, they are all beautiful. The important thing is they are fit and comfortable going cross country, have a “head” for the hounds and different footing, and are “sensible”.Yes, there are a lot of traditions, developed for safety reasons. The rules have not changed for centuries. Proper footwear and a helmet are necessary. The jackets and high boots protect riders from brush and branches. Even the white hunting stocks on the shirts can do double duty as slings and tourniquets “if required”.
As for the formal jackets, the colours are all meaningful. Originally the red, or scarlet, jackets worn by the “Master of the Hunt” (whether man or woman) imitated British military uniforms. The popular term “Pink” is often thought to come from the London, England, tailor Mr. Pink. Some hunts’ masters do not wear red due to other traditions. The “red” however, does make the Master of the Hunt very visible on the field. Men who are members in good standing, may wear red as well. Women wear a black or navy jacket in formal attire, both in good standing, as well as the Master, wear “colours” on their collars, an honourary designation and identifiably different to each hunt. “Ratcatcher” refers to informal attire with a tweed jacket and tan breeches.
The Master is never overtaken, out of respect and safety. This person safely knows the terrain and the fields where the group has permission to ride, and where to lead the group. Riders are respectful of private property and will avoid or go in single file around the edges of fields of planted crops. Riding to hounds is not the “free for all” people think, but far from it!
You might see horses in the field with ribbons tied to the base of their tails. Red means the horse is likely to kick if approached too closely. Green means the horse is new or inexperienced, and they always go to the back of the “field”.
Helping the Master are the “Field Masters” who lead groups of riders. At any one time, a hunt can have two or three “fields” or groups, with riders who may not want to jump, or others who want to take it at a slower pace as “hill toppers.
Watching the hounds work is part of the day out. Every hunt has its favourite lines and they are kept by the “Huntsman” responsible for their welfare, exercise, breeding and training. Young puppies are often fostered by families to get them accustomed to people and basic handling first. Hounds are traditionally counted in couples and can vary greatly on a particular day. The Eglinton & Caledon go out with about 14 to 16 couple, and The Wellington-Waterloo go out with around nine or ten couple. The Huntsman controls the hounds’ direction regarding boundaries, roads and where the hunt is permitted. The “Whippers-in” or “Whips” are flanking riders to the Huntsman, helping with this. Those big whips they carry are meant to make a loud “cracking” noise to get the hounds’ attention and nothing more. “Road Whips” follow in cars, to support Master and Huntsman, putting on four way flashers to warn any oncoming traffic there are horses, riders and dogs coming.
So how has the 21st Century made inroads in this very traditional pursuit? Radios! Each hound has a tracking device on its collar, so they may be found easily if they carried away. The device tells the huntsman if any are missing and where they are. The Master, Field Masters, Huntsman, Whippers-in and Road Whips carry radios to stay in contact about their relative locations, as well as report any untoward events like “involuntary dismounts”.
The sport is completely non-competitive, and almost any level of riding is accommodated. Historically, it has been done by farmers and landowners alike – not the elite as commonly held, and today people from all walks of life participate in it. Riding to hounds also provides family fun as it can be enjoyed at any age from as young as six to those members over 70.
You don’t even have to be a rider! You can see the hunt off in the mornings and help with the “stirrup cup” or be a “road whip”. The “stirrup cup” is a small glass of port or sherry offered from a silver tray along with sausage rolls or other snack to the mounted riders, prior to taking off. Then there’s the great social life afterwards at the “breakfasts” held after the hunt. Usually there is a dress up ball or barn dance in the spring or fall, informal fun summer rides (often followed by a picnic), and other activities!
The horse and hound groups welcome interest. If you want to join for the day, an experienced rider will help you out, whether you ride English or Western. Or you can join as a supporting member for the friendly people and events! You can get more information from www.eglintoncaledonhounds.com or www.wwhunt.ca
You might say it’s the ultimate in the country living lifestyle!
Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski | Photography: Cory Bruyea