Like many foxhunters, there have been times I’ve chosen to car follow a hunt. Sometimes it’s out of necessity and other times by choice. Sometimes it’s been a hunt I was a member of and sometimes not. But it has always been with the same level of interest and enthusiasm and to those hunts I have been eternally grateful. Some refer to us as “car topping” or “gate whips” or other terms. I’ve always thought we should have a code of conduct or rules that are formalized and shared amongst those who pursue this version of our sport. These recommendations are just my musings from years following hunts in Virginia. I hope others will add to this as needed. Hey it’s a start! And I believe we NEED to educate our fellow viewers as surely we have all heard or seen serious problems with the sometimes armies of car participants jamming our country roads to see a foxhunt in progress. We need to transform them from a hindrance to a help as best we can.
I prefer to think of car followers (or CFs) as members of the last field of participants in foxhunting. Their desire to hunt is like that of hilltoppers in that they want to get to an advantageous viewpoint to watch the action or see the fox. But often they are not educated foxhunters and don’t appreciate their potential impact on the day. They can ruin scenting, turn a fox, block the field, anger landowners and neighbors, and make noise you can hear far away. But CFs have rights and responsibilities too. They have a right to a good experience, but we must teach them the right way to do this. Often they are friends or family of mounted riders hoping to catch a glimpse of their loved one. Sometimes they are landowners, neighbors, or their family or friends. Let’s foster their interest and treat them like equals in the pursuit of hunting. It’s good public relations if handled right.
First off, I’d advocate for a “leader” or “core group” of these followers. Someone familiar with the landowners, meet layout, hunt staff and appointed or asked by the MFH to coordinate the CFs. I suggest they be a hunt member and someone with a good knowledge of hunting, the territory, hound work and, if possible, in possession of a fabulous sense of humor. The MFH should announce who the CF “field master” is at the start of the meet and ask that all CFs join up with them to have a good day. This responsibility will lessen the pressures on the mounted staff to deal with the fallout from the CFs.
The leader should walk around assessing who wants to CF and invite them to join him or her. Encourage people to double up in their cars or trucks and decrease the number of cars. Plus it’s more fun this way and a great way to meet people and locals. It can benefit you greatly if you offer a ride to a local who just might get you up a driveway or location you wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. Their knowledge of the area is really priceless. Or if you pick up a total neophyte, you might just hook them on hunting and, after all, the sport can always use another enthusiastic convert! Never pass up the chance to educate someone and show him or her how to do it right. My favorite pickup is a former huntsman or retired foxhunter who will teach me as we drive along.
The leader should also talk with the huntsman and MFHs about their plans for the days draw before moving off. They might be drawing into the wind or left handed up that draw or around that mountain or across the valley. Knowing the huntsman’s plans will help insure success as the hunt progress can be more easily followed. Offer to go to a spot to view away for them. Offer to tend gates or help during the hunt when asked. Tell the whips you’re out there and can be called upon to help as needed. Many CFs have been known to help by picking up lame hounds, lost hounds, injured riders etc. Make sure you know the hunt’s preference for how to handle a view if you get one. Not all huntsman want to hear you tally ho but want you to report it to someone mounted instead or leave it. Follow all the general rules of hunting when you’re a CF as best you can.
As the field is moving off, the leader should tell the other drivers in the caravan what you’re planning and where you’re going and ask them to stay behind you if possible and not block the roads, gates, driveways or jumps. Ask them to be as quiet as possible and to park, get out and walk as they can. Those are the basic rules for them. Some will choose to go off on their own, but again if the hunt endorses organized car following, more people will attempt it.
There are many local traffic laws that must be obeyed and many are common sense. Driving slowly on gravel roads is important as braking distance is decreased. You never know what’s around a turn or over a rise. Carry a map of local roads so you can keep aware of your location. Leave the radio off and the windows open to hear best. Talk in low tones. And when getting in and out of your car, be sure to not slam the door. And for Pete’s sake, try to disable the door alarms. Those ding-dings can be heard for miles! Always turn the engine off. Not only can you hear better, but the sound and smell of engines running can foil scent. Pull off the gravel shoulder as much as possible. Of course, a 4-wheel drive is your best CF asset! (Well that, and some coffee and donuts to enjoy as you wait!)
When you have appropriate permissions, you can pull off the road into a field. Park and go to a high point on foot. Stay in the open and stand still. Talk low and be patient. Wait for the cast to go through before going on. You may get blessed with a splendid view when you are behind as not all foxes go forward in front of a pack. Some scoot out sideways or backwards. Be careful with driveways and farm roads. Unless you have permission, it’s often unwise to use them. Many folks don’t want cars blocking their driveways. If you are using one then be sure to only use a corner of the apron. Farm roads are often rutted, muddy and problematic unless you know how to negotiate them. Many regular cars and SUVs can’t do them well. Clearly the farmer doesn’t want you to get stuck there or rut up his field access. Know your vehicles ground clearance and limitations. This isn’t the time to go 4-wheeling around; drive slow, and do your best to minimize your impact. Leave no sign of your passing if you can. Avoid the low areas in a field; they can be deceptively deep. Park on a solid, raised area and be careful backing out onto the road. Keep your traction tires on gravel or hard ground. Try to stay in the open always. Not only will you hear and see better but going into the woods creates foot noise that can impact the hunting. Under no circumstances drive on fields with crops.
When standing on a roadside shoulder, ALWAYS wave and smile to someone driving by. They might already be ticked at having to slow down for the commotion or wonder what you’re doing. They might not like the presence of your vehicle and other CFers. I think it’s ok to say that you are just following the hunt and say you’re sorry for the inconvenience. Invite them to join you. You’d be surprised how many folks like that, stop and then offer up their farm for the hunt to go on! You never know who you’re going to run into out there. Assume all passersby are important and be friendly. You are an ambassador for that hunt and the sport as a whole when you CF, so take it seriously. You can singlehandedly debunk many myths about foxhunters being snobby by simply acknowledging them and being friendly. If someone is angry, try to be realistic and problem solve. Sometimes drivers are already upset with something that happened before and it’s not about you right then. Offer to leave, offer to liaison to someone in the hunt for them and, if all else fails, offer them some coffee and donuts! Follow through with anything you tell them you are going to do — it’s landowner relations 101!
When CF’ing, dress for the weather and footing conditions. Bring extra layers. Waterproof hiking boots are best. You’ll be walking through grass, mud and rocks and will need them something sturdy and rugged. Standing still on a hillside in the wind requires warm, windproof jackets, hats, gloves, and baseball hats to block the sun’s glare. Remember: Absolutely No Smoking…Ever. Do not bring any pets with you. Listening is the way to know what’s going on. Sometimes seeing things moving tells you where the hounds are. Hopefully the field is not far behind. Often deer running tells you something’s coming, ditto if a bear runs by! Listen for the sounds of housedogs barking in the distance telling you they are disturbed about something they see. Watch livestock in the fields for signs of nearby activity. Horses will often stand head up at attention in the direction of things they hear or see. And if they start running, it often means that the hunt is nearby. Birds will flush out of the corn or brush if disturbed. Corn stalks move when animals are moving in the field. Cattle will sometimes start moving around.
If a fox is viewed, look at your watch and note the time; wait till it goes completely by and note where you last saw it. Make a note of the line he ran. Tally ho with cupped hands if you can, by facing in the direction you think the nearest staff is. When someone comes up, report what you saw and where you last saw him and how many minutes have gone by. Then it’s up to the staff to decide if/how/when your view will be honored. It may not be the hunted fox. Do not leave the area, especially if it means crossing the line. Stay an extra 15 minutes or so to make sure the hounds don’t find your line and come back.
You’ll need to know how the huntsman wants riot handled if you see it happening or if you notice the hounds pickup a heel line. Most huntsmen don’t want you yelling heel. If it’s OK
with your huntsman fine, but better to approach a member of the staff and tell them what you saw. Keeping track of the hounds can get tricky if they split or get separated. You’ll hear hounds, but they may not be the hunting pack. Juvenile hounds often get scared when separated and will howl sadly for someone to come rescue them. Learning individual hound voices is the highest art of CF skill! Anticipating where the hunt is can be very difficult. When in doubt, I suggest you keep moving forward. You already know from talking to the huntsman how he or she plans to go, so move on down the road, park, wait, and listen. If nothing, move on and keep moving. Keep an eye on wind direction and move downwind. Often hunts retrace their steps on a run. Driving back and forth on a road will work often enough because you might get a glimpse of riders or hounds. Riders coming in early can be approached for answers to the question “which way did they go?” Always give the riders, hounds, staff the right of way. Stop and wait till they pass. Offer to open a gate for them.
Since listening is the key, you can enhance your enjoyment by learning the huntsman’s voice commands and horn blows. Ask after the meet what he meant when he made a particular blow or voice sound. Most are glad to share their knowledge. You’ll know what’s going on from all the sounds you hear. Wait for another moment if you hear something to confirm it. Sounds can echo in low areas or against ridges. Sounds can carry in the wind. Wait till you hear it a second time and ask others with you if they heard it. Sometimes you hear extraneous rider voices out there that are not with the hunt in progress. Often riders going in early will chat loudly unaware that someone’s listening or that their voices are carrying well. On a windy day, sometimes cupping your hands behind your ears can help you capture the sounds or direction better. It blocks the wind and its roar. Listen for the sound of crunching leaves or hooves on pavement and rocks; you can often hear the “thunk” of hooves hitting a coop from far away. You may also be able to determine if the hounds are in the woods or in the open by how they sound. Hound voices and horns in covert sound kind of tinny, and echo like they are in a tunnel. In the open, the sound dissipates quickly. It’s fun to hear them speaking in the woods then go into the open and sound farther away as the sound doesn’t carry as well. And remember your voices also carry well when you are up high. It’s hard to avoid talking during the waiting times so keep the tones low to avoid turning game. Remind those around you to do the same too.
If you find yourself near a roadside jump, try to park some distance away. Never stand near the jump but stand still in the open where you will be visible before riders approach the fence. If the horse sees you before, he can spook or look at you then. Most field hunters will glance then concentrate on the upcoming jump. You never want to be the cause of a refused jump or injury. I advocate for folks not to crowd jumps, but hike into the field and stay on a hill in the open where you can be seen. This is a perfect vantage point for seeing everyone jump too. Once the first flight has taken the jump, the hilltoppers or second flight will be along shortly, and you should offer to open and close the gate for them if you can.
Be sure to always hook the gate back up the exact way you found it. Put the chain back on the same side you found it closed. If you observe any damage or repair needed to jumps or gates or fence lines, be sure to report it to the hunt afterwards so it can be fixed. Never take down or change a fence line you happen to cross. Watch for loose boards and climb over at a different place. Be aware some wire fences are electrified. I once climbed over a multi-strand high tensile wire fence and realized the top strand was hot just as I got my first leg all the way over — imagine my surprise!
I could go on with many funny stories about car following hunts but suffice it to say, it can be done safely, responsibly and in a manner that ensures enjoyment for all involved. If you stick around to the end of the day, drive back to the meet site. Be sure to thank the staff, MFHs, and landowners for letting you follow. This allows them to ask you any questions to close the loop on a hunting day. After all, you were an extra set of eyes out there. And be sure to share any coffee and donuts you have left!