On a crackling clear Saturday morning shortly after dawn, with the sun slanting brilliantly through the chaparral just east of the Temecula wine country and the tray of port just arrived to take the chill off, things suddenly start to get a little screwy.
One might have expected the tweedy, booted folks arriving at the Oak Ridge Ranch headquarters of the Santa Fe Hunt Club to disembark from their Corniches with studied nonchalance, accept crystal glasses from a silver tray, sip the port gingerly, order their grooms to prepare their mounts, greet Reggie or Bitsy or Her Serene Highness with their best Locust Valley lockjaw (“How ah you, my deah?”), swing gracefully into the saddle and, for the next three hours, fix on their patrician faces a look of studied boredom.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Larry Francis, a puckish obstetrician and gynecologist from Fallbrook, spotted an arriving pal and whooped: “Hey, mon! Que pasa? “
The day merrily continued with the port getting swigged out of paper cups, the riders preparing their own horses and saying “howdy,” a little more port, the riders swinging gracefully into the saddle and, for the next three hours, everyone trying valiantly to manage the collective adrenalin rush that comes from galloping after a coyote.
That’s fox hunting, Southern California style. And it happens every weekend from September through April, with a unique combination of British stiff upper lip and California laissez faire. And, yes, with a coyote, since they are more plentiful than foxes in these parts.
On this particular gorgeous Saturday it was a joint hunt for members of the only two hunt clubs in Southern California recognized by the national Masters of Foxhounds Assn.--the Santa Fe Hunt Club and the West Hills Hunt Club, which is headquartered in Chatsworth. About half of the membership in the West Hills club is from Orange County; in Santa Fe, Orange County residents account for somewhat less than a third. The relaxed merrymaking notwithstanding, both clubs observed a 700-year-old heritage of rigid rules, traditions, modes of dress, signs, countersigns, codes of formality and points of etiquette.
For the first-timer, the rules are fairly basic: Try to stay close to the other riders; try not to distract the hounds; try to control your horse; try not to fall off, and never, never ride in front of the master of foxhounds or the huntsman.
Each club has a master and a huntsman, a pair of field generals whom one rider compared to quarterbacks on a football team. It’s the huntsman’s job to train the hounds and direct them in the field, in effect to control the chase. The master oversees the riders and the whippers-in (the staff riders who shepherd the hounds and keep them hunting as a group).
The master, huntsman and whippers-in wear the traditional scarlet hunting coat and white breeches--known as “colors” or the “pink coat"--that signify their expertise and high rank in the club. Colors are awarded by a peer vote of the club members. Others in the hunt wear a black coat or, in some cases with women, a dark blue one, which is the female equivalent of the scarlet coat. The scarlet hunting coat generally is not worn by women as a concession to hundreds of years of hidebound tradition. However, in other hunts around the country women have been awarded the scarlet coat when they have attained the title of master of foxhounds, or other high ranks, although such awards are a rarity.
If the sight of all that color flashing around the green hills is striking in the early morning sun, it’s no fashion show. All riders know that when they are astride a large, powerful horse, crashing through brush, leaping fences, drumming their way up and down wickedly steep hills--caught up in a kind of controlled frenzy--it is serious business.
“This is suicide riding. I ride, but there’s no way I’d do this,” said Nethe Stevenson, who was, in effect, along for the ride on the morning’s hunt. Riding in the back of a stake bed “hilltopping” truck driven by Larry Francis, she and a small group of observers followed the hunt as closely as the roads and fire breaks on the hilly ranch land would permit. Occasionally Stevenson peered through a video camera at her husband Bob, a Tustin urologist who was riding with the West Hills club in one of the two “fields” of riders.
Suddenly, from an adjacent hillside, rose the sound of many barking dogs. An animal had been scented and several riders wheeled around to follow. The chase was sporadic and short, however, and Stevenson speculated that the pack had lost the scent or had been mistakenly tracking a deer.
“Incidentally,” she said with mock seriousness, “they’re not dogs. They’re hounds. And they don’t bark. They speak.”
Francis leaned out of the truck cab below.
“Actually, they don’t even speak,” he said, grinning. “What they do is ‘give tongue.’ ”
There’s a distinct parlance to hunting, born of hundreds of years of British tradition. For instance, to call the friendly, energetic crossbreed of English and American foxhound a mere dog is, well, an insult to the animal. Also, that scarf around everyone’s neck isn’t a scarf, it’s a stock tie.
John Brake of Temecula, Santa Fe’s veteran huntsman, rotund and jolly in his scarlet coat with the gold collar tabs signifying the Santa Fe club, started out the day looking and acting the part of a sandy-haired Santa Claus, greeting each arriving rider with a drawly--yet traditional--"top of the morning!” Later, however, every inch the man in control, he exhorted the hounds over the hills with sharp, raspy shouts. And the hounds obeyed.
So, for the most part, did the riders. While they acknowledged that a field of hunters after a coyote at full gallop could look a lot like a cavalry charge gone amok, Brian Gwartz, an anesthesiologist from Orange and a first-year member of both the West Hills and Santa Fe clubs, said it never ceases to be a coordinated effort.
“It’s a team sport, really,” he said. “Everyone has to work together. It’s not just a herd of wild riders going around terrorizing people.”
If there is terror during the hunt, it can materialize in the heart of a rider atop a fast horse in rough country, said Pete Hotchkiss, a health-care administrator from Orange and a veteran member of both Santa Fe and West Hills.
“It’s one of the most dangerous sports you can take part in,” he said. “It requires just heavy, heavy concentration all the time. It’s a constant challenge to take care of both yourself and your horse. It’s such an adrenalin rush. But the reward is to watch the hounds work . . . and to survive.”
Not exactly a canter in the park. But every member rolls out of bed at 4 a.m. on Saturday, often drives more than 100 miles with a horse and trailer in tow, endures about five hours in the saddle (no fair dismounting for a break), and finishes the day sometimes covered with trail dust and smelling like a sweaty horse.
Nevertheless, a veteran horseman and former jockey such as Eddie Milligan, owner of the Huntington Beach Equestrian Center, nearly bubbled over after his first hunt.
“It’s so exciting,” he enthused. “There are so many people out there enjoying it, just every Tom, Dick and Harry from every walk of life. And the country these people are riding. . . . I’ll tell you, pal, it takes a hell of a cowboy to go down those hills. Our good show horses could not do this. Going over the rocks like this, it’s just thrilling.”
A thrill, yes, but not a cheap one. Hunt members maintain that you don’t have to be rich to hunt every week but it helps.
The initial outlay for equipment, including a horse, can easily total $10,000 during the first year of hunting and roughly $3,500 each year thereafter for the horse’s board, farrier and veterinary bills. Family membership in a hunt club runs around $650.
Jan Ruetz of Orange Park Acres, membership chairwoman for both clubs, said, however, that less expensive tack can be had by buying it used, and one hunt member is proud of the fact that his mount--although somewhat less beautiful than some of the magnificent thoroughbreds on the hunt--had cost him only $1,000.
“It doesn’t take a fancy show horse to take part in fox hunting,” Ruetz said. “They’re out there doing what they were born to do and that’s run in a group. You don’t have to be wealthy to hunt. Compared to horse showing, it’s relatively inexpensive.”
And far more athletic. The horses, Ruetz said, must be capable of sustained speed over rough terrain--rocks, trenches, fences, steep hills.
Ruetz said that maintaining such a mount “takes the kind of dedication keeping a racehorse would take. It takes up a lot of time. During the season, friends that don’t ride with us don’t even call us.”
Riders, too, must be in shape. “It’s not something you can do if you’re not conditioned for it,” Ruetz said.
Hunting in California is unusually demanding because of the nature of the animal being pursued. A coyote is faster and more wily than a fox, and several hunt members said it is rare for the hounds to actually catch one.
“A coyote will play with the hounds until they get tired,” said Al Senall, an investment consultant from Bonsall and a member of the Santa Fe club, “and he’ll know it. Then he’ll just look at them, turn and flat out run away.”
If the hounds do catch the coyote, however, Bob Stevenson said, the kill is quick.
“It’s over like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Members said the fact that hunting is a blood sport has brought them criticism from animal rights groups and others. However, the sport was born as a way for landowners to band together with friends to rid their land of predators. And, said Gwartz, that motivation remains, at least in California.
“We think of ourselves as the people who are out chasing the coyote that ate your cat or your pet poodle or that bit your kid,” he said. “We’re basically people who love animals. Actually, I distinguish hunting from catching. We don’t do much catching. The sport is really the chase.”
In the front line, of course, are the hounds that are well-trained and friendly and that, apart from the hunt, offer a basis for socializing, which is among the prime motivations for some members. Periodically, a hunt club will hold what is known as a puppy auction, during which foxhound puppies are bid upon by members at a social event. Sometimes the young hounds will go for as little as $200 or as much as $3,000, “depending on how hyper people get,” Bob Stevenson said.
The winning bidders don’t take the hound home, however. The animal is quartered at the hunt’s kennel and trained by the huntsman. The bidders are allowed only the privilege of naming the puppy.
For some hunt members, the best fun comes about half an hour after the hunt. After the horses are hosed down, the hounds fed and the tack put away, many of the members shed their formal hunt coats, don the less formal jackets and head for the punch bowl.
The punch bowl is both a literal and figurative term for hunters. It generally refers to the party, or hunt breakfast, after the hunt, but there always seems to be an actual punch bowl amid all the food and drink.
On this particular morning, no coyote was caught and there were no sustained gallops, but the riders returned happy, a little tired and ready for the meat pies, cole slaw and brownies laid out under a tree near the kennels. The gathering was informal and, helped by the punch, was soon loose, relaxed and funny.
Replays of the day’s riding incidents became brisker and more animated as riders indicated jumps with their hands in much the same way fighter pilots indicated dogfights. Casual hats appeared, and Gwartz lit up a cigar so huge it nearly obscured his face.
Talk remained on the hunt, on the coming formal hunt balls and on a handful of hound puppies scampering through the grass, with an occasional digression in reference to Gwartz’s cigar.
“There’s no snobbishness here,” Gwartz said. “We don’t think of ourselves as A-list versus B-list. It’s not like that at all.”
“We bury the stuffy ones out in the hills,” said Bob Stevenson with a grin.
Still, with all the trappings of the sport, there’s no mistaking the real passion of the riders for their favorite pastime.
“It’s just a religion,” Senall said. “My wife and I came from Maryland, and I started hunting just four years ago. But when we moved to California, my wife said she wouldn’t follow me out here until I could find a way for her to hunt. It was that important to her.”