Greg Thompson wakes early for the hunt.
His club gathers around 10 am on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, dressed in 19th-century regalia of wool coats and stock Ties.
Thompson is huntsman of the Wicomico Hunt Club—its leader—and responsible for the dozen or so foxhounds that will be the club members’ partners today. When he approaches the animals’ cages, they leap and bark in excitement. “They know what they’re going to do,” he says.
Fox hunting goes back centuries to England, where riders on horseback followed hounds as they sniffed out and chased down foxes across the countryside. “It’s inspired a lot of great art, a great deal of literature,” says Barclay Rives, a member of the Keswick Hunt Club, outside Charlottesville. “Shakespeare talks about it at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The modern American version is similar but rarely results in a killed fox. Rather, the prey “goes to ground,” meaning it finds a foxhole to hide in and the pursuit ends.
For Cindy Wood, the appeal hasn’t ever been in capturing an animal—it’s always been about watching the hounds do what they love to do. “It’s instinct for them to follow a scent,” she says. “They’re having a blast.” Wood is a fieldmaster in the Wicomico Hunt Club, where she leads a group of riders as they follow Thompson, who directs the hounds. The club uses a breed of foxhound called a Penn-Marydel, whose nose is better equipped for the Mid-Atlantic’s sandy soil and relatively dry climate. On a good day, the hunt can last hours.
“Fox hunters can debate with mushers in Alaska over which canine breed works harder, the sled dog or the foxhound,” Rives says. “But I think fox hunters would have a good argument.”
Others do it for a love of nature—and the unpredictability. Keswick’s Jennifer Nesbit recalls her father walking her and her sister to a hunt meet for their first ride: “I was so scared because I had absolutely no control. Now it’s an adrenaline rush. You’ve got all types of terrain, and you don’t necessarily know what you’re coming up on, like groundhog holes or jumps.”
“It attracts people who are risk takers,” says the Keswick club’s Nancy Wiley. “You could run into some wild turkeys and spook your horse; you could run into a pack of bees. And that’s the joy of it.”