There must be something innately human about our quest to find our roots. We subtly gravitate to the familiar and seek our people, history, culture, our tribe. Most of us wonder why we like the things we like and ponder how we become who we become, especially when there is no practical evidence in the present to support it. Perhaps this is apparent in America more than anywhere, where most of us are displaced from another place with a longer, more romantic past and we wear our heritage like a badge that somehow differentiates us from the rest.
The hunting community might look a little different in England... Photo by Renee Daniels-Mantle.
It took me over 400 years to get to Montana from the shores of Virginia. Pursuing (or more likely fleeing from, knowing my family) something, we came from England. There may not be anything more un-English than the Marlboro Man, just as there may not be anything more un-Montana than traditional foxhunting. And yet, 14 generations later, I find myself entrenched in a very Cowboy Way of life, on a ranch surrounded by horses, cattle, wide-open spaces… and a pack of foxhounds and a fledgling hunt called Big Sky Hounds. It is little wonder I have been on a quest to figure out why.
For years, I have traveled across the ocean, drawn to places that spoke to me on an unexplainable level, often dragging a group of willing like-minded participants. The music, colors, climate, geography, languages, clothing, faces, and endeavors of people in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England bring me back over and over. Foxhunting, hunting folk, stables and kennels, horses and hounds, and long-preserved traditions of the hunting culture keep sucking me back like a magnet. Along the way, we have made amazing friends, ridden incredible horses with spectacular hunts, witnessed remarkable hounds, admired extraordinary feats of horsemanship and houndsmen, and then sat around sipping something at a local pub, soaking in the reflections of the day and camaraderie of people we somehow know, but have never met before.
Was an ancestor of mine a huntsman? Doubtful. Did I, in some past cellular life, ride to hounds? Probably not. Did we have an estate on which we employed a pack of hounds and someone to hunt it? Definitely no. So what explains this lifelong draw to foxhunting and my unwavering pursuit to bring hounds and traditional foxhunting to the last place on the planet it is known?
I found my answer in the midlands of England a few weeks ago. While visiting a friend from Stafford, I was invited into the hunt world in which he has lived for over 75 years. He is a retired custom farmer and owned some land on which the local hunts meet or cross occasionally. His family farms, his father farmed, and so on for generations. He follows four different hunts, from a car now, but before on foot. He is entrenched in this hunt life. We toured kennels, drove through various hunts’ territories, ate with Masters, smoked with huntsmen, drank with whips, and laughed with grooms. We chatted about hunting, and griped about antis and the hunting ban while gutting cows and sheep for the hounds or picking stalls at the stable. All of these sights, sounds, and scents were wonderfully familiar to me from my present life in Montana. However; on the very last day of my visit, we went out with a hunt for an evening cub hunt and I experienced something I had never felt before. I found my people.
This meet was held at a large estate, with an appropriately majestic estate house that probably dates back to before my people left England. Surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland and beautiful coverts, they also stock it with birds and have shooting endeavors. Fox are about as welcome there as coyotes are in sheep country here. As usual, the hounds, horses, and staff arrived properly fitted and looking dashing. About a dozen riders arrived sporting cubbing attire right out of a fashion magazine. The kids rode perfect ponies. At precisely 6pm (they are English, after all) horses and hounds trotted off, the terrier man scooted out, foot followers jogged behind, and about 40 cars full of people followed the procession.
After watching hounds be cast, we drove to a spot that only my friend would have sought on a curvy, narrow, tree-lined, two-track road on the edge of the covert. It was misty with rain and the air was still. Inside I could hear the huntsman’s horn or voice and the cry of hounds, so I got out to stand in the road and listen and see. There I stood, not on a horse, without a horn, and with no members looking to me for direction or even friends to talk with. I just stood and soaked it in. Myself.
I watched with jaw dropped as this scene unfolded. It was timeless and beautiful. It was a community of people bonded through generations of local tradition. It felt like coming home.
... but all share the same love of outdoors, animals, and friendship, no matter the scenery or attire. Photo scouting new Montana country by Lori Dooley, MFH.
These are the same people I know from my place in the West. These are my people. We’re farmers and ranchers and hunting folk. We show up at the neighbors’ brandings, help on gathers, pitch-in for barn raisings. We arrive with trailers when livestock has to be moved, fight wildfires alongside one another, and bring our latest catch or the game we bagged (and guitars) to the BBQ after the wheat harvest. We laugh about what horse bucked which cowboy off last year. Ask about family. Discuss the markets and the price of hay.
And now, we foxhunt together. In Montana. Sometimes in red coats and funny tights.
All along, I thought I was trying to create something new in the West by bringing traditional foxhunting here. I thought I was a pioneer. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I learned in England, the Bastion of Proper, that foxhunting isn’t about the clothes you wear, what saddle you ride, the type of hounds you follow, which club you belong to, or what your title is. Foxhunting is about community. It can, and does, exist everywhere.
Maybe in a state that is not even 130 years old, we will continue to seek and validate our more ancient traditions for a long time. I’m sure we’ll change a few foxhunting customs and adapt our clothes, horses, and hounds to better suit our climate and topography. But, I think if an Englishman from a foxhunting way of life were to come visit us, he’d feel right at home.
Thank you, England. I had to go a long way to find what I had in my back yard. Now, as we start our season here in the West, Big Sky Hounds has a new appreciation for what “Traditional Foxhunting” really is all about. We’re all one giant glorious family.