By Dominique DeVito | email@example.com
If you’re going to get to know Millbrook, NY, you’re going to get to know The Millbrook Hunt. It’s been a part of the place since 1889, though its formal recognition didn’t come until 1907. Still, that’s over 100 years ago. And if the tradition of foxhunting seems out of place in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, it’s a pleasure and a relief to know that it is as entrenched as ever in the rolling countryside a mere 88 miles from Manhattan.
Foxhunting as a sport
Foxhunting is a sport with origins in the English sporting life, and it goes way back. Many of this country’s founding fathers were avid foxhunters, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s simple in its purpose, which is to train a pack of hounds to use their noses to find the trail of a fox, their voices to alert to the trail, and their stamina to stay on the trail. Foxes are fast and elusive, and hounds are challenged to stay on their scent through terrain that can be varied and challenging. When in pursuit of the quarry, the hounds can be lost quickly, which is why they’re managed by a team on horseback – a huntsman, who is ultimately in charge; at least a pair of whippers-in, who scout the periphery of the area to be hunted to watch for stray hounds and to alert the huntsman to a sighting of the fox; and Masters of the “field,” the folks who ride to the hounds during the hunt. If the field rides too close to the hounds, there’s a risk that they will turn the fox or even ride over its scent trail. If the field falls too far behind, they will miss the action. It is the Master’s job to be alert to what’s happening with the hounds while ensuring the full participation of the riders in the field. To this end, foxhunting is a team sport.
This sport has uniforms, too. They’re the stuff of paintings and iconic photos – men in scarlet riding coats and men, women, and children in black with different colors on their collars, all in the riding pants known as jodphurs, usually with black riding boots. The garb is rooted in historical and practical roots harkening to military days. Jodphurs are tailored for comfort over long hours in the saddle. The scarlet coats (called “pinks”) are so that key staff are clearly visible. Black coats are the uniform of the field, showing respect by all for the traditions. Different hunts have different “colors,” and these are represented by a felt band on the collar of the coats of select longtime members. Many hunts also offer buttons for hunting coats engraved with the hunt’s logo. The stockties that are wrapped around people’s necks and secured with pins can come in handy should someone be injured.
A feel for the field
To learn more about The Millbrook Hunt, I was directed to Parker Gentry, a longtime Master and a foxhunter for most of her life. She explains the long history of the hunt in Millbrook this way: “We’re bringing a whole community of people together – neighbors, families, older people, younger people – and we’re sharing a great adventure, which is foxhunting.” She continues, “When the hounds are running and we’re off, it’s dangerous and exciting, and all of us involved are helping each other with every aspect.” This includes galloping across fields, maneuvering winding paths in the woods, jumping post-and-rail fences or chicken coops, going flat-out one minute and pulling up to listen and possibly change course the next.
“The median age of the riders in the field is about 50,” she says. “Our membership is fairly evenly divided among men and women, and we have riders ranging in age from seven to 75. On a Saturday hunt meet, we can have about 65 people participating. At our largest gathering, the season’s Opening Meet, there might be close to 100 people out.” That’s a lot of people to watch out for, and they’re on horses, large and powerful animals that can be unpredictable. “Every outing is a new adventure,” Parker muses, “and we’re all looking at each other and grinning, sharing the day and looking out for each other.”
I found this great description of the foxhunting experience in a piece published in 2015 in the English paper The Telegraph, by James Delingpole:
“Hunting is so brilliant because it combines so many of the things that make life worth living: the matchless beauty of our countryside; the camaraderie of shared danger; the glamour of a mobile cocktail party; the spirit of a warehouse rave; the application of hard-won skills; the escapist joy of living purely in the moment; the thrill of the chase; dressing up in fabulous costumes…. Of all these, what I’ve come to enjoy most is the relationship you have with your horse. I don’t come from a riding background; I used to dislike horsey people. Once you’ve been out hunting, though, you get it totally. Your survival – it’s quite a dangerous sport – depends almost entirely on the wildly unpredictable, almost uncontrollably powerful beast between your legs. The bond between you during the four or five hours of a hunt is so intense it’s like becoming one united creature: no longer human and horse; more like a centaur.”
Hounds are the heartbeat
There’s the connection with the hounds, too, without which there would be no sport. “Every hound is precious to me,” Parker shares. As a Master, she is involved on a daily basis with huntsman Donald Philhower’s program of raising and training the pack. “I watch them from the time they’re born, grow up, be trained, and then work in the field. We walk the pack every day, weather permitting.”
Donald Philhower has been huntsman for The Millbrook Hunt for 15 years, and he’s put together a pack that has earned accolades in the highest circles of the sport, including Best Pack in 2013 and 2014 at the prestigious Bryn Mawr Hound Show in Pennsylvania. “Breeding fox hounds is a combination of science, art, and luck,” he says. “Good hounds have to have voice, nose, speed, and drive.” Fox hounds are friendly and want to do what they were bred to do, which is to detect the scent of a fox or other suitable quarry and follow it to its end. From puppyhood they’re trained to work together, and to respond to the huntsman’s calls, which are made with his voice and with his hunting horn. In their enthusiasm and pack mentality, however, listening can become selective, and it is only by building trust that a Huntsman can expect anything from his hounds. Too permissive and the pack takes over; too heavy-handed and the hounds are wary rather than engaged in their work. His understanding of the “science, art, and luck” to produce a successful pack through many years earned Donald Philhower the 2018 Ian Milne Award. This is as high an honor as there is, and is given to a huntsman “of sound character who has made outstanding contributions to the sport of foxhunting.”
There aren’t too many sports whose teammates range in age from seven to 75, as Parker cited, and that’s another amazing thing about foxhunting. Children are a welcome part of the field. Many start as pony clubbers or come to the hunt through a trainer they’re working with. Often a child’s interest will lead to the parents getting involved, though it works the other way, too. One of Parker’s favorite days of the foxhunting season is the annual Junior Meet held on Labor Day. That’s when the kids are paired with the hunt staff, allowed to break away from their place in the regular field and ride alongside the Masters, or the whips, or even the huntsman. “It’s a joyous occasion,” Parker admits. “I just love it.”
Not everyone in the field wants to ride at the same intensity, and that’s allowed, too. There are different “flights” in the field on any given meet. The first flight is for riders who want the all-out experience, including any jumps that come along. The second flight is made up of riders who want to take it a bit easier, going around some or all of the fences, and laying back a bit. There’s another level called “hilltoppers,” whose pace will be more laid back. They’re typically led by longtime Millbrook Hunt member Pat Ike, who is also a wealth of information on the land, the habits of the foxes and coyotes that are chased, and all things foxhunting. “Hilltopping is wildly popular,” Parker admits, “and it’s perfect for those just getting started.” Riders can move between fields as they desire on any given day.
Again, I like the way Delingpole put it in his article in The Telegraph:
“If, on occasion – whoops! – the hounds do chase a fox, things get rather exciting. When you learn to ride there are all sorts of sensible rules about safety you follow: don’t jump when it’s too muddy or hard; don’t gallop round tight bends. But following fast-moving hounds gives you licence to ignore them all. Afterwards, it feels a bit like it must do when you’ve survived a battle. Everyone’s amazed to be in one piece; you feel an extraordinary bond with those who have shared the experience. People who were strangers an hour before now feel like your oldest, most intimate friends.”
And by the way, foxhunters do say “Tally-Ho.” It’s what’s cried out by anyone who spies the fox on the move. Said to evolve from the French word taiaut, which was shouted to excite hounds on the scent of stags, it’s a cry that now excites riders in the saddle of hunts across the country and around the world.
This is what keeps foxhunters coming back, and what keeps new generations involved, often for a lifetime. There’s excitement, there’s sport, there’s the horses and the hounds, there’s the etiquette and pageantry, and there’s something else: land. If it wasn’t for the permission of the landowners, the hunt would whither. “We are SO respectful of any property owners here in Millbrook and the area,” Parker tells me. “We have an annual barbeque for all the landowners who allow us to ride over their properties, and we make sure anyone who participates in the hunt understands the rules: stay to the edge of planted fields; close gates; keep fences repaired; and more. Foxhunters often inform landowners about things they might not see or know about. We really learn about the countryside,” Parker shares. “The goal is to keep the land open and to appreciate its beauty. We work closely with Dutchess Land
Conservancy, too,” she adds. “Without land, hunting is not sustainable.” And what about the fox (or coyote), also without which there would be no sport? Rest assured The Millbrook Hunt is a foxhunt based on the chase. When the fox goes to ground or a coyote goes out of range, the hounds are called off the scent and led to new country. Foxhunters know best the populations of foxes, and this is critical for their long-term health. The sport is a sport, and the chase is its game plan.
A Pride of the community
Agriculture is the primary industry of Millbrook, and nearly everyone in the area has ties to it, whether as a farmer for generations or a gentleman farmer or champion of the land. The Hunt is part of the area’s land-centered economy, so much so that on Millbrook Community Day, Don Philhower brings the pack through town with the other groups on parade. “There’s a definite pride and excitement about the Hunt in our community,” Parker relays, “and we’re grateful for it.”
The Millbrook Hunt meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from mid-August through February, weather permitting. Foxhunters gather at a particular farm and set off from there. Hunts typically last three to five hours, ending back at the farm. Hounds are walked out of the hunt club kennels on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If it interests you, you’re welcome to accompany the Huntsman and others on the walks. You can also follow the hunt from your car, starting at the meet and staying with the people who know where to go for the best views. As for riding in the hunt, there are several ways to get involved. There’s full membership for those who want to enjoy many hunts through the season (and other special events held by the hunt club), or, if you want to join the field for a day, there’s a capping fee. Parker can recommend stables that rent horses for those who want to dip their toes into the world of foxhunting. She can also provide all other information about meets, schedules, and other Hunt events. Contact her at Parker Gentry, MFH, at PO Box 1022, Millbrook, NY 12545. Learn more at www.themillbrookhunt.com, and get a great feel for the hunt by watching Marion deVogel’s beautiful video at https://vimeo.com/118505069.