Tally Ho! A Brief History of Riding To Hounds

Fox Hunting by Henry Alken

While at sea, the heroes of our beloved series hunt only the French and Spanish (oh, and the Americans when called for), but during the rare time they spend on dry land they engage in the pursuits typical of gentlemen during the Napoleonic Era. One of the pivotal first scenes in Post Captain revolves around Jack and Stephen witnessing a fox hunt while riding. Clearly this sport is little practiced today, but it has quite a long history.

Fox hunting, or Riding to Hounds, as it was called, a sport most associated with Great Britain, was outlawed in 2005. This type of hunting was considered not only barbaric to the fox, but also caused considerable damage to area farmers as large groups of mounted hunters trampled field and forest in pursuit of their prey. The romantic image of scarlet clad hunters on horseback was actually a complicated hierarchy of huntsmen, hounds, their handlers (the Quorn) along with a variety of lookers on.

The earliest known attempt to hunt a fox with hounds was in Norfolk, in the East of England, in 1534, where farmers began chasing down foxes with their dogs as a form of pest control. Packs of hounds were first trained specifically to hunt foxes in the late 1600s, with the oldest such fox hunt likely to be the Bilsdale in Yorkshire. By the end of the seventeenth century, many organised packs were hunting both hare and fox.

Modern foxhunting is attributed to Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn Hunt between 1753 and 1800. Meynell was instrumental in the breeding of a new type of Fox hound. These faster dogs, allowed the hunt to begin later in the day, thus offering a broader appeal to the fashionable ladies and gentlemen who kept city hours, while in the country.

According to Peculiar Privilege: A Social History of English Foxhunting, 1753-1885, November to March marked fox hunting season, starting after the fall of the leaf, when the fields lie fallow, and ending after the last frost, just before the first planting. The golden age for hunting in Leichesterchire is considered to be 1810 to 1830. During this time, there were as many as 300 hunters stabled in Melton Mowbray–with some gentlemen keeping up to 12 hunters. A gentleman could hunt six days a week with the Quorn, the Cottesmore, the Belvoir, and the Pytchley, and to do so would need at least two mounts every day to keep pace with the master and the pack of hounds.

Until the mid 1800’s (when the jumping pommel was invented for the side saddle) the sport of fox hunting remained purely masculine. Ladies were advised to “ride to the meet and home again to work up an appetite” and while many did choose to ride to the hunt, a few followed the hunt in their carriages, keeping to the roads and lanes rather than going cross-country. Grand picnics and “Hunt Balls” were often organized as a way of bringing a societal aspect to this otherwise male dominated sport.

Courtesy of the Jane Austen Centre.

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