For most people, the vacation of a lifetime would take place somewhere warm; perhaps with a sandy beach, turquoise waters and palm trees. For me, my vacation of a lifetime took place in an area known for its cold, wet seasons and muddy fields. Instead of a comfortable lounging chair by the water, I was on the back of a horse. And instead of swimming with dolphins or touring the local attractions, I was galloping behind a pack of foxhounds. All of this because instead of Bali or Mexico or the Caribbean, where most "normal" people choose to spend their vacation, I was in England, riding with distinguished hunts such as the Bicester with Whaddon Chase, the Vale of the White Horse, and the Ledbury.
I was chosen as one of four members of the United States Pony Club to travel to England as part of an annual foxhunting exchange. To ensure our suitability as exchange members, we each went through a rigorous selection process that included multiple essays on foxhunting and letters of recommendation, including those from the Masters of Foxhounds of our own home hunts. We must be well experienced in the hunt field, be exemplary members of both the hunt and Pony Club, and be comfortable on a variety of mounts. Once in England we would meet up with four other members of the United Kingdom Pony Club and four from the Irish Pony Club.
Though the vast majority of the exchange was geared towards foxhunting, there was a large cultural emphasis as well. Having a team from each country made hunting even more of an experience. Even the matter of where to ride within the field was up in contention. The American custom of having up to three separate flights was, as one English lad delicately put, "A tad bit over-thought, perhaps?" and our convention of staying in an orderly line, one horse behind the other, absolutely had to be thrown out the window at the first run, as the entire field went galloping by us orderly Americans. And the Irish? Well, in their opinion, if you could keep up with the huntsman, that's where you should be riding! For all of us, the first hunt was a learning experience.
Conversations taking place outside of the hunt proved equally as interesting. The English and Irish for the large part had the misconception that America was still the Wild West--free, open, and full of gun-slinging cowboys! They were genuinely surprised when we showed them pictures of our own hunts ("Why, that looks just like our own hunts--that picture could have been taken in England!") and even pictures of our red fox. They were astonished that we have preserved the numerous traditions encompassing the sport so well across an ocean. To we Americans, even the local language took some adjusting to--for example, you ate "biscuits", not cookies, "chips", not fries, and "crisps", not chips! We each were maneuvered into consuming gallons of tea, agreed that the roads in England were nerve-wracking at best and downright terrifying at worst, and marveled at the fact that there was a pub in every village, even if the village itself only consisted of five buildings. In short, we fell completely in love with charming England.
"Foxhunting within the law" was an oft-used phrase while foxhunting in England. Though we Americans were solidly versed on the foxhunting ban and its history within England, to see it in affect was startling. All hunts took multiple precautions to ensure that they did not incriminate themselves. Before we left each meet the masters were videotaped declaring that the hunt taking place that day consisted of following pre-laid scent lines and exercising hounds. In a few hunts, the huntsmen and whippers-in had abandoned traditional scarlet hunt coats in favor of the more subtle black or tweed, so that they did not stand out amongst the field. Though the "anti's" (also known as the "league", short for the League Against Cruel Sports) are generally no longer violent, as they once were, they still regularly attend meets. They come armed with video cameras, and tape everything that happens in the hope of capturing evidence that the hounds are in fact chasing a live fox. For we Americans, watching this spectacle was eye-opening. The impact upon the day, though kept to a minimum, is still felt. As one huntsman said to me, "Around here, you have to keep one eye on the hounds--and the other eye watching for anti's."
My trip to England was an amazing experience that left me with a much greater appreciation of foxhunting around the world. Though we share many differences, one thing stays true no matter where you are: genuine love and passion for the sport. We must use this underlying drive to ensure that the sport lasts for generations to come. In England, the fight is to minimize the impact of the ban, and ultimately eradicate it. In America, we must battle to make certain that lawmakers do not implement similar acts against our sport. Everywhere, we must encourage the youth to participate, so that they too will join the generations of people whose hearts leap at a hound's piercing cry.
Sharlee Lowe is a member of the Metamora II Pony Club and serves as an honorary Whipper-in for the Metamora Hunt in Michigan.