Fort Leavenworth Hunt (KS) recently held its Junior Meet, the culmination of a thoughtfully-planned program to encourage children to ride in the field. Joint Master Steve Smith shares their strategy to engage youngsters, and several juniors themselves weigh in on the day's sport - and how to attract other kids to come out foxhunting.
Fort Leavenworth Hunt juniors proudly show off their MFHA Fairly Hunted Award certificates. Photo courtesy of Steve Smith, MFH.
"I asked to lead this year's Junior Hunt for a couple of reasons. First, I have three juniors in the hunt: Sam, 15, Dylan, 11, and Finn, 10, so it's a personal investment. Second, I truly believe that juniors are the future of foxhunting. FLH has a long history of getting juniors involved. Our methods have included Pony Club affiliation (North Acres Pony Club), inviting juniors from the Fort Leavenworth Stables, asking our equine professional members from facilities such as the Wild Rose Equine Center or Tally Ho Equestrian Center to bring juniors, or just having our juniors talk about foxhunting with their friends at school.
"I led the effort to organize the hunt with the help of the other four FLH Masters, Dr. Steve Thomas, LTC Jim Fain (Ret), COL Mark French (Ret), and Gayle Rue. We started talking at the beginning of the year, but really planned in earnest about a month before. Events included a hunt seminar and an unmounted mock hunt at my home. We had a beautiful hunt whip donated by two members of the hunt, and had a drawing for the whip at the seminar as the kids ate their post-event pizza and talked about horses, riding, foxhunting, and laughing at some of the spills and thrills from the past season. This seminar took place two weeks before the hunt, and allowed us to assign positions and let the juniors observe the adults in the positions they would fill. At the end of the junior hunt, the members provided sweets and other potluck dishes, we awarded their Fairly Hunted Awards, and then chatted about the day's hunt.
Huntsman Steven Thomas was assisted by junior Michaela Frye, 12. Photo by Angela Fain.
"Getting juniors involved in the hunt is more difficult now than it was just 20 years ago. I am not an expert in this endeavor, but one of the keys is to find kids with an interest in horses (and their parents), and let them know about the sport. From the juniors' love-of-horses foundation, we can build a love of foxhunting. We can't expect kids to show up to their first hunt ready to watch hounds work, and spot the nuances of a day's hunt. Instead, we should understand that hunting is first and foremost a social activity for the kids. It gets them out of the house, most likely away from their parents (even if it is only a riding field away), and mingling with kids who have similar interests. As the season matures, so does the junior's understanding of the activities that take place during a day of hunting.
"So, if I had a checklist on how to get kids involved, it would include: find kids who like horses; tell them and their parents about the sport; invite them to try a hunt (for free); allow them to make mistakes in the field; put them with kid-friendly members of the hunt; never berate them in the hunt field...especially in front of other juniors; thank them for coming out each time you see them; invite their parents to watch their kids hunt (car topping) and to stay for the breakfast even if the parent isn't a member (FLH has a junior only membership that is 1/3 of the price of a full adult or family membership). In short, get them involved, make them feel welcome, and thank the parents for allowing their kids to spend time with the hunt."
Michaela Frye was honored to ride with huntsman Steve Thomas on her 24 year old pony, Jazz - who also loves to hunt. Michaela's favorite part of the day was getting to ride with the hounds and see them work up close. She found the most challenging part was blowing the horn. "What the average person probably doesn’t understand about hunting is that we are not hunting to kill the fox," she says, "that the hounds do the work and we get to follow the hounds." To get more kids involved, Michaela suggests doing more with local Pony Clubs and offering more opportunities to follow along in a vehicle, though she notes it is tough to follow in FLH's country.
Dylan Smith whipped-in during the Junior Hunt. "My favorite part about hunting is going fast and jumping and being able to hang out with other kids my age. The most challenging part about hunting is learning how to jump and not falling off after you jump a coop." He adds, "None of my classmates know what foxhunting is. They don’t understand that we ride horses and they think that you just do it on foot, but we use hounds and ride horseback."
Finn Smith's favorite aspects of hunting are riding his horse, jumping, and the views. The greatest challenge? "Not falling off the horse." He would like to tell peers who haven't hunted yet "That it is so easy if you learn how to balance, it is super fun and they would like it." Leading up to the Junior Hunt, he says, "I hosted the unmounted mock hunt in my back pasture and our retired foxhound and our dogs helped chase the mock coyote. I was a whip."
Juniors were invited to ride with whippers-in as well. Photo by Angela Fain.
Maria Molinari, who rode as a whipper-in with Mark French, enjoys "meeting people with the same love of horses that I have, which I don’t get often in my life. The most challenging part of hunting probably for me is jumping, because my horse isn’t really the jumping type which is hard for me to work with." Asked what the average non-rider probably thinks about foxhunting, she replies, "They don't know or understand that horseback riding actually is a hard sport and there’s a lot of pressure on the rider to make sure the horse is prepared for every hunt." To attract more kids, she suggested inviting them to help more often and having an experienced rider alongside them the first couple of times.
Sam Smith says, "My favorite part of foxhunting is the long, fast runs when the hounds catch the scent of a coyote and are right on its tail. The most challenging part, in my opinion, is the first few years where you are learning all the rules of foxhunting, how to adjust to the different terrain, and keep your horse calm around hounds. I believe that the average person doesn't know what foxhunting really entails. I have had multiple people at my school ask me what foxhunting is, how it's conducted, and why people do it." Sam whipped-in at the recent junior hunt. "I was able to make decisions with the whipper-in I was assigned to, and it was a really enjoyable experience. I think the easiest way to get kids to join is to make foxhunting known to them, to inform them that it's a possibility for them."