Foxhunting, Sans Foxes

Outside Chicago, in a network of forests and streets, the centuries-old sport is in fine form

The first thing Andrea Redmond tells me about the fox hunt she has been riding in for the past 15 years is that no actual foxes are involved. The 70 or so riders in the Wayne-DuPage Hunt, held from August through December in what was once countryside west of Chicago, employ the traditional vocabulary of the sport and observe its centuries-old etiquette. Hounds are trained for the chase by the masters of the hunt, and riders known as whippers-in protect and control them on the trails. Field masters lead the riders,, who must be turned out in white shirts and ascots, vests, jackets (black for women, scarlet for men), jodhpurs, and polished boots. But unlike most of the 171 organized hunts in America, this one has dispensed with tracking a live fox.


Instead, Redmond, a top executive recruiter at Russell Reynolds Associates, and her fellow riders participate in what's called a drag hunt. It is an ingenious and particularly American adaptation of the British sport, one that disarms critics and limits the experience to a couple of hours while still letting riders give themselves over to the chase. Two set off ahead of the group and lay down the scent of a red fox, squirting a combination of fox urine, glycerin, and water onto the ground. The hounds are sure to pick up the trail, and fast, so animals and riders are in almost constant motion. The lines of scent, about a mile long, take 15 minutes to ride.

On this Sunday the "foxes"--two women wearing red T-shirts--lay down six lines. The hunt begins promptly at 10 a.m., with horses and riders, nearly half of whom are women, in a rough approximation of a circle facing 32 very lively hounds. It will conclude 100 minutes later when one of the masters blows a long, triumphant howl with his horn.

Beyond that, nothing is predictable. The trails, 100 miles in all, run through dense woods, creeks, open fields, a wildlife sanctuary, neighbors' backyards, and the occasional street (where the police chief blocks traffic while the horses cross). The opportunities for a rider to go in one direction and her horse in another are limitless. "You have to have some guts. You're always a little out of control," Redmond says. "That's why it's so exhilarating." This is probably the time to mention that Redmond, 50, has had a motorcycle license since college and was set to try the world's longest bungee jump until her son and husband talked her out of it.

The October morning of the hunt is clear and warm. By 8:30, Redmond is tending to her horse, a six-year-old gelding named Graham. Working alongside her is Nikki Reed, her best friend and one of two masters of the hunt, and Reed's husband, Rob, who has been riding horses since he was 3. They look after Graham; Redmond, who recruited Mark Hurd to Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ), travels too frequently to care for him during the week. Her husband, Bill Ferguson, a real estate investor, rode a couple of times, then gave his boots away.


Theirs is an equestrian community, and the hunters' interests are well represented. Thousands of acres of wildlife and forest preserves in DuPage County are available to them. New developments must permit hunters to pass through the property. The pastor in the village of Wayne performs the ritual blessing of the hounds. Still, the hunt's organizers and benefactors are always looking for new trails and often find themselves lobbying homeowners, especially those just out from the city, for permission to hunt on their land. Each season the club hosts a ball to which the landowners are invited, and every December the masters give dozens of bottles of wine in thanks.

Today's hunt has drawn a large group of riders and observers. The "stirrup cup" afterward will be a more extravagant affair than usual, with cocktails on the hosts' lawn and a buffet lunch in a converted barn. The riders will be following trails whose descriptions--Trish's backyard, BB's creek--suggest a deceptive ease. Most of them are narrow paths in deep woods. Together with a dozen other "hilltoppers," I drive from one vantage point to another. Through the forest we can hear the hounds barking--or "giving tongue"--well before we can see the riders and their horses. Then they rush by us in full pursuit. Drag hunters, I learn later, are sometimes called cowboys.

Afterward, Redmond and the masters recall particulars of the hunt that I missed. The first line, on rough, steep ground, had been terrifying. One of the "foxes" had to replace a broken rein with her belt, and the hounds gave chase to a llama on a nearby farm. And, for the first time, Redmond tumbled off her horse when he balked at a jump. She says Graham looked mortified. For Redmond, it was "all part of the fun," and a little port at lunch would ease her sore shoulder. If she didn't want an adventure, she says, she would just ride the trails. "At the end of the hunt, we always say: We have defied death once again,'" she tells me, with just a bit of bravado.

By Susan Berfield

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