It’s the stuff of framed prints in law offices everywhere: grown adults in tight breeches and silly hats careening around the countryside on big, powerful horses, tooting horns and chasing a pack of dogs that’s in hot pursuit of some shifty little fox. Maybe there’s an ivy-covered stone wall, and they’re sailing effortlessly over it. Or….
“No!” A collective gasp goes up from the foxhunters who have assembled at the top of a knoll to observe, with a mixture of amusement and horror, the drama that’s fast unfolding. A gentleman on horseback is galloping away from the group with his sights clearly set on a nearby fence line. He thumps his heels against his horse’s side and flaps his elbows with apparent enthusiasm, but his balking, weaving horse appears significantly less ambitious than its rider. They approach the fence and, as if on cue, the horse slams to a halt, catapulting its rider overhead. He does a half-somersault in the air before smacking into the grass.
“Oh,” everyone groans, but nobody’s really surprised. These things happen almost every year at Tennessee Valley Hunt’s opening meet, courtesy of its traditional mid-ride champagne intermission. Invariably, someone who’s had one too many flutes of bubbly gets the bright idea to run off and do something stupid, and the horse usually winds up getting the better end of the deal. This year, at least, it’s all’s well that ends well. After a few tense seconds, the felled rider leaps to his feet, eliciting a relieved cheer and a toast from the crowd. There’s an old huntsman’s adage that, sometimes, you have to throw your heart over the fence and hope your body catches up. The reality is—and this is the one that doesn’t make it onto hunt-print Christmas cards—sometimes your body doesn’t quite make it.
Earlier in the morning, I’d shuddered at the blunt wording on the hunt’s liability release form. “Risk of serious bodily injury… death….” At some point in my life, of course, I might’ve scoffed at the suggestion of either. My sisters and I grew up foxhunting, and our perceived self-invincibility was fueled by a combination of youth and bombproof mounts; I would’ve trusted my pony, a dapple-gray Arabian named Mischka, with my life—and I did multiple times. While his clipped, bouncy gallop was no match for the ground-eating strides of the adults’ lanky thoroughbreds, he always managed to keep up with the field. He’d jump anything I pointed him at, and at checks, he stood motionless with ears pricked, listening for the hounds. It was as though he somehow understood the game, the nuances of this anachronistic, goose-less wild goose chase.
Eventually, however, I outgrew Mischka and “upgraded” to something a little fancier: a spitfire ex-racehorse from Texas with a reputation for chucking anybody who sat on him several feet into the air. I was in the market for a challenge at the time, so I shipped him to Tennessee and renamed him Rowdy, an adjective that doubled as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost immediately, Rowdy disqualified himself from the sport of foxhunting via a series of increasingly disturbing fits of misbehavior, mostly stemming from the fact that he had an impressive engine but dangerously little in the way of brakes.
So, when I decided to attend opening hunt this year, I was at a loss for a mount. Rowdy, who’d finally settled into his niche as a show horse, was definitely out. Mischka had long since found greener pastures with a young, new owner in Maryville. In a gesture of kindness, House Mountain Farm owner and longtime TVH member Liz Green offered to let me borrow her old hunt horse, Sam, a tall, muscular gelding with liquid-brown eyes. He was getting on in his years—nowadays, his joints were a little creaky and his copper-colored forelock was peppered with tufts of gray hair—but if I didn’t take him, it’d be the first hunt he’d missed in, by Liz’s best estimates, 13 years. “Don’t forget to whisper in his ear,” Liz said, to which I nodded my head solemnly.
With a hot bath, a whisker trim and a mane full of braids, Sam cleaned up decidedly well. Me, on the other hand, not so much. All of my old hunting attire seemed to have shrunk a size or two since last I’d worn it; the knee-high leather boots that fit like a glove when I was 19 now threatened to cut off circulation in my calves, and my old woolen hunt coat left no room for an extra layer of long underwear. I breathed a sigh of relief, at least, upon discovery that a four-leaf clover I’d pinned inside my velvet-covered hardhat some years ago was still intact.
The hunt’s kennels, where today’s festivities would take place, are located on the Holston River in New Market, a short drive east of Knoxville. By the time I got there at around 8:30 a.m., the frozen grounds were already buzzing with riders, unloading carefully blanketed horses from their trailers. Clusters of spectators, who would later follow the hunt in trucks or horse-drawn carriages, were sipping wassail by the bonfire or nosing around the English Auto Society’s display of swanky Jaguars and BMWs.
An hour later, my own Cadillac, Sam, was saddled up. I heaved myself aboard and joined the group, a sea of 50 or so black and red hunt coats and fidgety horses. There was a bagpiper, to heighten the transcontinental atmosphere, and a priest, who blessed the hounds, and a toast of port, to loosen our nerves, and then we were off, hurtling full-speed ahead toward a destination that was not yet clear.
What was clear, however, was that Sam had temporarily lost track of how old he was. Without abandoning his stately composure, he tossed his head and chomped playfully at the bit. I took to whispering sweet nothings in his ear—partly in an effort to remind him I was back there, and partly because hovering close to his neck was the best way to avoid the clods of red clay mud that were being kicked up by the horse in front of us. As the centerpiece in a flying wedge of horseflesh, Sam sturdily thundered us up and down frostbitten hills, through shadowy woods and across the sun-glittering river, our path dictated by the baying hounds’ keen sense of smell. It’s important to note here that catching up with the fox, which rarely happens, is beside the point. Unlike hunts in Britain, which were recently banned upon the protest of animal rights groups and the class-minded House of Commons, foxhunting in the United States is about the chase, not the kill. In fact, of all the years, I’ve hunted, I’ve only seen a handful of foxes—a phantasmal sight upon which it’s customary to yell, “Tally ho!”
As we race around the perimeter of a large island in the river, a determined-looking young girl on a bay pony catches my eye. Looking no more than 10 years old, she’s up at the front of the field, galloping ahead with a confidence that is evidently scaring her mother, a longtime member of the hunt, to death. Unconcerned with her own safety, the mother yells at her daughter anxiously: “Heels down, Morgan! Steady up!” The girl, either because she’s having too much fun or because there’s wind in her ears, pays no heed.
I think back to my own mother’s reaction to my childhood equestrian pursuits—the way she’d shriek into the camcorder during my jumping rounds at horse shows and make me promise I wouldn’t fall off every time I rode off with the hunt. The daughter on the bay pony, it strikes me, reminds me of myself at that age. Back when hitting the ground never seemed like an option, when my trust in both horses and my ability to ride them was unshakably intact.
What is it that changes in us as we grow older, that aggravates our instincts for self-preservation and causes us to develop fears and, in response, defenses? Whether it’s a horse that runs away with us, or a lover who breaks our heart, the purest confidences are always the most difficult to win back. But standing at the top of the knoll a few moments later, the sight of this brave-by-way-of-champagne gentleman picking himself up after a spill moves me to give Sam a hearty pat on his sweat-steaming neck, and he swivels an ear in my direction. Maybe it’s all just a matter of putting yourself in right hands, or on the backs of the right horses, and remembering to take the occasional, stupid risk.