Memberships of Privilege: The Thrill of the Hunt
The first thing they are likely to tell you at the Radnor Hunt in Malvern, Pa., is that foxhunting is misunderstood. “It really shouldn’t even be called ‘foxhunting,’ ” says Samuel Griffin, the club’s immediate past president. “Instead, it should be called ‘fox-chasing.’ By the time the hounds get onto a scent, the fox has laid down a trail across the countryside, and he’s back in his lair, laughing at us.”
But that is fine with the foxhunters, who do not really want to catch the fox; they prefer that he escape to be hunted another day. While this may sound like an exercise in futility, there is no denying the social cachet that accrues to membership in Radnor, which was founded in 1883 and is one of the most tradition-laden and prestigious clubs in the country. Its grounds—with a clubhouse, stable, kennel, and 100 acres of land—are a popular and picturesque backdrop throughout the year for such events as steeplechase races, hound shows, and charity auctions. The actual foxhunting begins in September and runs through the end of March, with three hunts a week and participants numbering from 20 to 75.
If you have to ask why anyone would risk his neck galloping across the countryside in pursuit of prey he does not really want to capture, then you probably have never been on a foxhunt. “We say there are people who ride to hunt and people who hunt to ride,” says Griffin. For the former, the allure is the opportunity to watch the hounds obey the commands of the huntsman, seeing how well they work as a team. For the latter, the enjoyment lies in the ride, jumping fences and galloping across 1,000 acres of surrounding farmland. “It’s a wonderful way to be outdoors and commune with nature,” says Griffin. More timorous souls, however, are advised to enjoy the great outdoors while bird-watching. “There is an element of danger,” Griffin allows. “That’s part of the thrill of the hunt.”
So, too, is the opportunity to don hunting attire: jodhpurs, riding boots, and red hunting jacket (known as a “pink” in hunt club parlance). “Frankly, it’s a great look,” Griffin confides. As one might expect of a pastime that behooves its male participants to wear a top hat, a strict protocol prevails.
Once the hunt is under way, the ultimate authority is the master of foxhounds, whose word is law. He or she is usually assisted by two field masters, who oversee the riders. Passing any of the masters is a severe breach of etiquette. A professional huntsman, who lives on the club’s grounds, supervises the hounds from horseback. He is abetted by the whippers-in, club members who ride out on the flanks and crack hunting whips to keep the hounds on course.
At Radnor, riders not wearing the club’s colors—a strip of pale gray across the back collar—must give way to those who do, and anyone whose horse refuses a jump at a fence must go to the back of the field. Conversation is minimal during the hunt to allow the field to listen to the hounds, the sounds of the whips, and, should a fox be sighted, the cry of “Tallyho!”
Joining the club
Radnor Hunt membership is by invitation only. Typically, a member will propose a candidate for membership, with other members providing seconding letters. If accepted, the candidate faces a two-year wait before becoming an active member, when he must pay an initiation fee of $5,000 and annual dues of $1,500. An annual hunt subscription costs an additional $1,000. Riding as a guest requires only the permission of the field master and a $50 “capping” fee.