Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of the Fox
Join me for a raucous taste of the “sport of kings” as yelping hounds chase the scent of the fox in George’s cherished Shenandoah stomping grounds.
I had been waiting several months to make my first real foray into the strange world of American foxhunting. It still felt awkward. My first real job out of college had been working as an advertising manager for a trade publication, Fur World, on New York’s Fashion Avenue. I had sold space to Greek and Jewish furriers and offered them photog- raphers and sometimes my own girlfriend to sport their mink, sables, and fox hair coats. I was haunted still whenever I saw a taxidermist’s work on display. After New York, live foxes kept showing up in my life at strange moments. On the eighteenth hole in Cairo, I had a friendly encounter with an adolescent fox that ran off with my golf ball, and a lovely red fox occasionally sprinted across my front lawn in Virginia. In Afghanistan, one day my armed guard jumped out of his car with a Kalashnikov and fired repeating rounds up the slope of a mountain at a sleek gray fox. I have to admit that I rooted quietly for the prey to get away. I came to think, rightly or wrongly, of foxes as friendly, even noble creatures.
Then in mid-December word came from the executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America: “You’ll be a guest of Hunt Master Linda Armbrust and you’ll be riding Cory,” wrote Lt. Col. Dennis Foster, who advised me to report early for duty. I had come to think of Dennis as the 007 of American foxhunting, a gentleman and officer who had worked in espionage for the US army during the Cold War. We had a few war zones in common, and so we became friends. He had ridden camelback in Afghanistan and Iraq and ridden to the hounds on four continents and in eleven countries, chasing stag, wild pigs, and foxes galore. He was also considered an expert in “animal rights tactics”—which is to say he is an advocate for foxhunters. But his job is as an inspector or judge of foxhunts across America with the goal to make sure hunting includes care for the countryside, horses, hounds, and fair sportsmanship in regard to the fox. Some hunt clubs get spooked when he shows up unexpectedly to lay down the law.
Dennis informed me that this would be an official hunt, so I wouldn’t be able to get by in blue jeans and a cowboy hat. He had already provided me with a few tips on hunt etiquette, and I was trying hard to digest them. I still hoped that I might be better at foxhunting, George Washington’s favorite sport, than I had proven at his other pastimes: ballroom dancing, fencing, and gambling for money. The prestigious Blue Ridge Hunt, with whom I would ride, also stressed a few rules to keep in mind. Some sounded logical, like “Never gallop through livestock.” Since I don’t drive my car through livestock, I thought, surely I would not gallop through a herd of cows. Other rules were more obscure, and I was sure I would need Dennis’s help when push came to shove. For instance, I would not easily “learn the difference between hay fields such as alfalfa and permanent pasture.” But it was a special point of protocol that concerned me even more: “When hunting, do not get sloppy with your appearance. Clothes should be neat, your horse well groomed, and your tack clean.” I was pretty sure that, with those rules, no cowherds would be allowed to hunt foxes in Virginia. My Afghan buzkashi-playing attire, stashed away in mothballs and consisting of a mangy fur cap and a sheepskin jacket, just wouldn’t suffice. These folks wouldn’t be barreling into each other, hurling the carcass of a goat. Foxhunting was a royal sport.
For the Blue Ridge Hunt, “in season” you were not to wear “ratcatcher” or any assortment of expensive-looking tweeds. These were only acceptable for informal hunts. Fine, I thought. I was after an authentic look, mostly because I didn’t want to draw attention. I also knew I wouldn’t be able to just pick up what I needed in an hour at Macy’s in the Polo Ralph Lauren department. That was the faux look. No, my hunting attire required a specialty store, and Dennis knew just the place. He sent me to the Middleburg Tack Exchange to get geared up.
I lived out in Middleburg, Virginia, for several months while researching my forthcoming book, Riding with George, and I already had the impression the whole town was a bit overstocked with wan- nabe cavaliers and foxhunters afraid of what might be lurking over the next hedgerow. I was a little ashamed that I was about to add my name to the list. The kind of guy walking the streets and hanging out in the historic taverns of Middleburg is usually a bit overly posh, bordering on foppish, and—more often than not—living off a supersized trust fund. There are some other types out there, but they usually fall into the same trap. F. Scott Fitzgerald once landed seven miles farther along Route 50 in Upperville to dry out, and when his editor Max Perkins called from New York, the lady whose old Virginia family was hosting F. Scott in their manor home reassured Perkins that the author had stop drinking whiskey entirely. How was he otherwise, inquired Perkins. “Unfortunately, he is downing a case of beer a day,” she said.
Plenty of modern and somewhat hopeless romantics still plied the streets. I recalled one inebriated chap who used to stumble in and out of bars asking ladies if they wouldn’t like a ride in his horse-drawn carriage, which was waiting outside. Invariably, you could find his downcast coach driver still warming his hands at closing time.
The Tack Exchange was set back snuggly on a side street behind the Fox’s Den Tavern. I had arrived for our hunt a day early in order to thumb through the merchandise and maybe get a discount based on my threadbare look. First I needed riding pants.
“What is the difference between the white and the beige?” I inquired.
“The white is for hunt staff,” said a tall sales lady who looked like she had just dismounted from a horse.
George Washington’s step-grandson wrote that George—in his later years—would ride in a “true sporting costume, of blue coat, scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots, velvet cap, and whip with long thong.” Notably, as one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia, he had a purchasing agent in London who did most of his shopping—on very good credit.
I found a pair of riding pants, but in the fitting room I struggled mightily to pull them shut. I finally landed knee-length breeches that had inner-knee protectors and which hugged the rest of me way too tight for comfort. I found deerskin riding gloves and began rummaging through the tall black boots. They were in a musty basement, and they were, I was kindly informed, “experienced.” If I had wanted a pair of new ones, it would have run me up to $1,000. For my first real hunt, anyway, I wasn’t too proud to go in someone else’s boots. I found a pair that fit perfectly.
I was torn over whether or not to buy a new riding crop. Care of a distant relative, I had with me an antique bone handle in the shape of a monkey with a jockey’s cap on his head, and so I inquired if I could have someone in the store fit it with a strap of leather so it could serve its original purpose. “Sure, just leave it with us,” I was told. The ladies of the Tack Exchange looked pleased when I dropped them a few hundred dollars on mostly used gear. I made a mental note that foxhunting, if you added in the cost of a horse, was probably the most expensive sport on earth, with the possible exception of big game hunting in Africa, which I was averse to for both moral and financial reasons.
Now if only Dennis had a black riding cap, I would be all set with the black cashmere jacket I already owned. After a night prowling George’s old haunts in nearby Winchester, I showed up bright and early at Dennis’s farmhouse in Millwood for coffee. He greeted me with his ruddy, athletic look and firm handshake, staring me up and down. “Excellent, I won’t have to outfit you,” he said. “We’ve got an hour to kill.”
“Kill what?” I looked over on his kitchen counter at a well-crafted statue of a modern US Special Forces officer astride a prancing horse, holding not a whip but a machine gun.
I glanced up at the snarling fox heads and felt a tinge of pity thinking I would be going after their kin—hopefully not their cubs—later in the morning. If I kept my mouth shut, I thought, maybe there would be no blooding on my behalf. A blooding sometimes still takes place when a novice hunter witnesses his or her first kill, and the patrons of the hunt smear his or her face with blood. It sounded like a scene out of Lord of the Flies, and I was glad to hear from Dennis that it was not much in vogue—at least in the Shenandoah. “We don’t recommend it since in today’s society, if your nine-year-old daughter shows up for school for show-and-tell with her cheeks blushed with blood, it is hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t understand the ritual,” said Dennis. “We’ve had that happen.”
Dennis informed me that the day’s three masters of the Blue Ridge Hunt were Linda Armbrust (my sponsor), Brian Ferrell, and Anne McIntosh. “Oh, two ladies. That sounds perfect,” I remarked. Dennis told me that women were in fact a bit more levelheaded than men in keeping everyone on the scent.
“Women can handle any hunt as well as a man. I thought I knew something about horses until I met my girlfriend, Laura, some years back,” Dennis explained, referring to the young lady, who would be saddling up our mounts later. “Now, well, I realize I know next to nothing,” he deadpanned.
Dennis had picked a near perfect day for our outing. It was brisk and slightly windy, which is good for the hounds searching for a scent. As we bounced over to the neighbors, coffee splattered Den- nis’ dashboard. Our horses were still en route, but the party was already kicking off. I looked up the hill at a large stone manor with outbuildings and a wooden front portico. Our day’s hostess—looking like someone out of a Town and Country photo spread—was out on the chilly lawn in a skirt. She offered tiny Smithfield ham sandwiches, hot cider, and a couple of harder options. I noticed earlier that Dennis had packed a flask of hard stuff, so I demurred. Foxhunting is one sport, I noted, that permits serious drinking during the actual event. (Teddy Roosevelt’s brother and Eleanor Roosevelt’s ne’er-do-well father, Elliott, hunted drunk for a good part of his truncated life.)
Despite a hesitant approval earlier from Dennis on my new getup, I noticed that most of the other hunters had a few extra items that I definitely was missing. Like Dennis, they wore spurs and had crops. I asked about the spurs. “They are only necessary if you are in a tight spot or maybe if the horse gets spooked,” he told me. No one dared wear a pair of sunglasses, and there were—to my surprise—absolutely no frills worn by the hunters. Flashy jewelry and little dazzles were frowned upon. The main thing was to have “the look,” which meant looking pretty much like everyone else. If you wanted to spend lavishly, you could still do that on your horse and saddle. I soon discovered that the saddle I was sitting on was several thousand dollars’ worth of English leather. My backside, I knew, would thank Dennis for it. Laura, as lovely and no-nonsense as I had expected, met us at the bottom of a grassy knoll. She told me that I mustn’t take my video camera on the hunt. “You’ll need both hands,” she said. I nodded and reminded myself that this wasn’t a war zone but that it was surely as dangerous if I fell off my mount from a broken stirrup, as I had once done in the sands of Arabia. I was not reassured when Dennis reported to me that he had broken his back and most of his limbs across his career as a foxhunter. He was considered, after all, a master of the masters. “Courage,” I said to myself, mounting Corinthian. He was a sleek, coffee-colored horse, groomed and saddled by Julia, a recent graduate of Sweet Briar College, long known as an equestrian stronghold for Virginia’s finest.
We set off at a slow pace as the huntsmen, clad in a red coat and wielding a whip, “caste,” or ushered, the hounds down into a covert of fallen leaves, ivy, and honeysuckle. The hills, covered in sharp granite outcroppings and light brown grass, ran in quick up and down slopes. Looking out across the sunlit winter horizon, I saw endless hills in rapid succession as far as the eye could see, running north along the river and behind me and southwest toward the deeper blues of Massanutten Mountain.
George Washington referred to the Shenandoah as the Garden of America. On his first rides as a surveyor here, he wrote in his diary, “We went through most beautiful garden groves of sugar trees and spent the best part of the day admiring trees and the richness of the land.” Dennis and I were now riding side by side, sandwiched by the ladies in front and behind.
“The region is arguably the best terrain for red foxes in America.”
“Why is that?” I wondered aloud.
“Well. It is illegal now, but up until a few decades ago, you had foxhunters constantly importing red foxes from Britain.” Still, the red fox did not actually become common in the Shenandoah and its environs until the middle of the nineteenth century. Most American red foxes are, in any case, genetically distinct from their European brethren. A recent study at the University of California suggested that most of the red fox blood in America has been on the continent for at least forty thousand years. Asian and artic foxes took advantage of the Bering Strait land bridge and populated most of Alaska and Canada early on, migrating in the last several hundred years south and east across the continent. With that in mind, it sounded odd to me that Virginians had sent off to Mother England for fresh foxes. “Wouldn’t they eat chickens?”
“That wasn’t what they had in mind, Philip,” Dennis reassured me. He pointed out that the red fox of any gene is up against stiff competition across the United States in the twenty-first century. Coy- otes, often three times the body weight of a fox, are encroaching quickly on their territory.
“If the food chain for the coyote gets scarce, he will attack and kill the red fox, who competes for the same food chain,” said Dennis. “Ninety percent of the hunts across the US and Canada now hunt the coyote exclusively, as he is akin to a small wolf, bigger, faster, and tougher than the fox.”
We trotted up hills and through narrow ravines. Foxhunters, I soon gathered, only aspire to look good when they set off into the woods. The horses clomped through a stream and splashed every- one. Polished boots lost their sheen, and made-up faces were flecked with mud. Corinthian provided probably the smoothest ride I’ve ever taken, particularly given the jagged terrain. He fit the description of an excellent hunting horse: he was tireless, had good brakes, was a smooth jumper, and had a demeanor that was entirely calm—almost Zen-like. Not like some other horses I knew, he clearly enjoyed new riders, and, apart from tripping once and nearly sending me headlong into a field of what looked like alfalfa, he trotted and galloped along with not a flinch or jitter. My Sweet Briar charge reassured me that Corinthian was enjoying the ride as much as I was. I also had good advice from Dennis, who told me to keep the toe of my boot turned out going down hills. It would help with balance. That was easy enough, as I’m naturally bowlegged.
The hounds were down in a hollow nosing about until Julia’s horse got spooked and tore off at a gallop. It looked to me for a moment like she was a goner, but she reined him in. Like so many young ladies who love horses, she had extraordinary skills. “Something frightened him,” she said of her young mount.
Legend has it that there was not a horse in America back in the colonial era that George Washington couldn’t ride, which, as Dennis pointed out to me, is a rather fantastic assertion. He did actually fall off a horse, I recalled, albeit when it had been shot out from under him at Monongahela. Equines are herd animals, and—even when well trained—they are attuned to self-preservation. In other words, they run first and ask questions later, a bit like some of their human cousins. If you are a qualified horse whisperer, which I assuredly was not, none of this bothers you, and the beast usually complies with your wishes.
About an hour into our hunt, the hounds still weren’t picking up on a scent. In foxhunting lingo, this is called “drawing a blank.” They hadn’t stopped trying though; they nuzzled the earth, their noses sweeping through the leaves, pawing at this and that. It looked as though they were running around helter-skelter, but the huntsmen kept them mostly all on a line. It wasn’t always enough, and a couple of the young hounds were lost to the pack sniffing about as the others dashed up a wooded hillside and out of sight.
That is where the “whippers-in” came in. A red-coated equestrian dashed down into the woods to round up the two yelping canines and point them back to their pack. I was starting to get the method to this madness. A huntsman needed his whole pack to properly “draw a line” across the woods. To accomplish this and have all the noses attuned to the prey, you wanted to “give the hounds the wind,” making sure that, if there was a draft, which in the Shenandoah there invariably is, they are downwind. A scent will carry well in chilly wind.
Hounds have been bred for centuries to hunt the fox. Mixing it up with other animals is sometimes acceptable, but the best foxhounds want a fox almost exclusively, and, as one accomplished dog breeder suggests, “If you have a hound that likes to hunt whatever comes out of the covert, you may not want to breed that one.” Gender isn’t an issue, but this is one pastime in which it is acceptable for breeders to remind each other that the strength of their kennel “comes from the bitches.”
George Washington paid particular attention to his hounds and became an accomplished breeder. Before the Revolution, he inherited a pack from his good friend and fellow hunter Captain Posey, who appears to have surrendered his hounds out of debts that he owed George.
From his diaries, it is clear that George was on a constant mission to breed a superior hound. On February 18, 1768, he wrote in his diary, “This time a Hound Bitch Mopsey of Mr. R. Alexanders (now with me) was proud, & shut up chiefly with a black dog Taster who lind [fertilized] her several times as did Tipler once, that is known of. The little Bitch Cloe in the House was also proud at the same time—but whether lined or not cannot be known. See how long they go with Pup.”
The names for Washington’s hounds alone—Sweet Lips, Venus, Drunkard, and Truelove—suggest a special rapport between man and beast, but George was also known to personally attend his pack, particularly when the canines suffered common diseases and infections. He applied medicinal ointments himself.
Several incidents across the course of his life suggest that Washington was an animal lover. One peculiar episode after the Battle of Germantown comes shining through. Whereas, many of the legends of Washington’s wartime chivalry are hard to nail down, this one isn’t: Alexander Hamilton precisely scribbled the events in a note as they unfolded. Among other things, it is also a cautionary reminder to collar your pet.
In the wake of George’s defeat at foggy Germantown, a small dog—of an unknown breed—scampered across front lines, lost and unable to find its way home. Soldiers from the Continental Army took it into their custody, considered briefly holding it hostage, but eventually put the fate of the lost dog in the hands of their commander in chief. George quickly consulted with Hamilton and had him write, “General Washington’s compliments to General [William] Howe, does himself the pleasure to return him a Dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.” About ninety minutes into our hunt, the four of us had managed to divide ourselves from the rest of the hunt. We stood slightly bewildered near a fallen log and listened for the cry of the hounds. Nothing. Then came a long, torpid moan, which I thought might be a howl. “That’s a cow,” laughed Julie. We were lost but having fun.
Dennis to the rescue: he popped out a flask of Cognac and offered me a shot. I figured that, with his connections, it was at least a century old, and it certainly tasted that way.
“Is this my cue to start speaking French?” I asked.
We looked behind us and waited. Then we saw a few hounds dash past, and we knew the rest of the gang wasn’t long off. There is something majestic about a band of foxhunters, which makes them welcome on almost every farm in the Shenandoah. They came, hoofs pounding in red coats with whips in the lead and black jackets, all in a grand procession, charging down a hill in our direction. We followed on, lining up to leap a fallen log.
Foxhunting is a British import. English literature is flush with references, so I sidled up to Peter Cook, one of the Blue Ridge Hunt’s own imported members, to get an idea of why one Brit called the sport “a hobby which combined the buzz of class A drugs, the adrenaline rush of a Second World War dogfight,” involving, among other things, “an incredible leaping beast on the same trip as you, while totally pissed, at the most convivial and glamorous party since the Duchess of Richmond’s ball.”
“Does it have anything to do with ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’?” I asked.
“No, that is another story,” he said. “So what is the obsession?”
“Well, there were a lot of horses where I grew up,” Cook told me. “I have a twin brother, and he was good at just about everything, but I took up after my favorite uncle, a foxhunter.” Cook rode, while attending the elite boys school Harrow. “There is an old British expression that foxhunting has all the thrills of the battlefield but with only about ten percent of the danger.” Indeed, the rigors of foxhunting were once considered ideal as a test of equestrian skills and endurance—an activity that spun off into the sport of steeplechasing. It was easy to see George’s own attraction to foxhunting, as well as how the skills he acquired proved of use on a battlefield. Cook informed me that, in his view, American foxhunters are much kinder than British hunters. “From my experience in the US, if someone falls off a horse and is injured here, riders are likely to stop and help,” he said. “In the UK, they are more likely to ignore the situation and keep riding.”
“That seems a little cruel,” I replied.
We stopped again to watch the hounds rooting around in the underbrush. Dennis introduced me to Jeff Lehew, master of the Thornton Hill Fort Valley Hounds, who, when he wasn’t foxhunting, could be found floating around in his helicopter. Lehew, a sleek, handsome character, exceptionally attired, was of old French American blood. He informed me that he had only recently commissioned a painting of his ninth great-grandfather meeting up with George Washington on horseback at nearby Front Royal.
“Your people must be very good at both foxhunting and reproducing.”
“There is a lot in common,” Jeff replied.
Lehew also convinced me that foxhunting was excellent training for making split-second decisions in the high-powered world of big business. “There isn’t much time for hesitation when the fox goes one way,” he insisted.
After about three hours of trotting around the hills in search of our elusive quarry, the horn sounded. It is a beautiful instrument to listen to. Rounded like a French horn, it takes some talent to play. George’s own bugle, along with his silver spurs and other hunting paraphernalia, can be seen on display most weeks at Mount Vernon. We sallied through an open field, along the fast-moving Shenandoah, and into a small, isolated ravine.
“Tally ho!” Julie shouted, and I cranked my neck to look behind me. Dennis pointed. There on the knoll of a hill, scampering in the opposite direction of the hunt, was a small red fox. Outfoxed, I thought, admitting to myself alone that I was happy to see that fast- moving little creature escaping our hunt party as it crested the sunlit hill and disappeared.
Though I had not suspected it, there was another fox, and the canines were already in full cry. We turned in another direction. Our howling pack had surrounded a fox den or burrow at the base of a large hill.
“Gone to ground,” someone shouted.
Dennis asked the hunt master for permission to ride forward and get a better look: Yelps of joy. Earlier I had asked Julia if the huntsman could still save a fox if the dogs were on it. “Well, that is very difficult,” she replied. “Usually they take the fox, in any case.” I braced myself. To my surprise, or possibly because American foxhunters aren’t really that anxious to see fur flying and blood spilled, the huntsman called off the hounds with his bugle. Mercifully, there would be no blooding—at least on my behalf. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“They’ll be rewarded for this,” Dennis said. “In America, we never dig a fox out. We don’t have many, and we want them to get away so we can chase them another day. The only foxes that are killed are caught above ground before they reach the earth. They are usually sick, lame, or stupid: it is survival of the fittest and helps maintain healthy fox populations.”
“I see,” I said.
American foxhunting has always been more about the chase than the kill, Dennis reassured me. In his diary, Washington would carefully record the length of a chase, down to the precise minute, but in some cases, having cornered a fox, he also would not bother to kill it, as at the end of a hunting day in December 1785, when he wrote, “We then after allowing the Fox in the hole half an hour put the Dogs upon his trail & in half a Mile he took to another hollow tree and was again put out of it but he did not go 600 yards before he had recourse to the same shift—finding therefore that he was a conquered [the] Fox, we took the Dogs off, and came home to Dinner.”
Our own pack obeyed the huntsmen, and we headed back for a late hunt breakfast. I was in some serious pain; we had been chilling our bones and beating up our backsides on our steeds for nearly four hours.
As we galloped the last hundred yards, I commented to Dennis that he would go down in my book as a “very humane hunter.”
“We don’t usually like to use that word in the context of hunters,” he chuckled.
Dennis had himself written about a British hunt he had been on in his capacity as an international hunt master, commenting, “Sometimes the dead body of the fox is thrown to the hounds. This is no different than us carving up a holiday turkey.” I had weighed that unusual analogy considerably but decided I preferred the story more about how some foxhunting families had adopted fox cubs and raised them—low and behold—with their own canines.
During any hunt, the breakfast is the final reward for the hunters. As I looked about the dining room steeped with sterling plates full of pork and beef, dainty rolls, and assorted sweets, I immediately understood why. Riding on an empty stomach with only a shot or two of Cognac is a great way to build up an immense appetite.
Our hostess introduced me to Lucia Herndon, who is the Virginia vice regent for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the group of refined and astute women who bought Mount Vernon from my great- great-grandfather in 1858.
Proprietor of the nearby Chapel Hill farm, Lucia told me that she and her husband raise rare Colonial-era cows known as the Randall lineback. Like other members of the Blue Ridge Hunt, Lucia is keen to preserve George Washington’s old foxhunting grounds, including the ancient estate of his early mentor, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Sixth Baron of Cameron, whose five-million-acre Northern Neck Proprietary George helped to survey. “Greenway Court and these hills around us are some of the most important historical landmarks we have in America,” Lucia explained.
Lord Fairfax was an unusual character. Curmudgeonly and in love with Virginia, he was also obsessed over fox and stag hunting, so much so that he had his own hounds shipped to America before he met George as a fatherless youth in his teens.
“With neighbors, we raised money to save buildings at Lord Fairfax’s Greenway Court, and the Commonwealth of Virginia matched us,” Lucia continued. “People sometimes forget that George Washington had his start in life out here in the Shenandoah. He was a brilliant equestrian, and he used all his talents to craft himself into a gentleman and meet some of the most stimulating people in America.”
I glanced behind me. Dennis had polished off his Cognac and was ready to feed me to the hounds. I was certainly indebted to him for helping a downtrodden writer to hobnob with the rich and famous in the Shenandoah. I had come away with a few insights. For one, I now knew that foxhunters aren’t all rich snobs; the Blue Ridge Hunt had allowed a wretch like me to make a leap—if only for a few precious hours—into their strange world, this “sport of kings.”
That was the past, according to my magnanimous host. “Foxhunting is as egalitarian a sport as you can possibly find,” he insisted on the ride back to his farm. “In fact, it’s not about foxhunting or hunting with the hounds at all; it’s all about freedom, liberty, and livelihood.” “Yes,” I agreed with a wink. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of the fox!”