In the Vermont countryside, riders keep the fox hunt tradition alive, without the fox
CHARLOTTE, Vt. — Clutching a plastic squeeze bottle in her right hand Betsy Cartland disappears into a thick tangle of brush. Her route winds from woods to open pasture and through a wet marsh pockmarked with puddles and full of head-high reeds as she tries her best to think like a fox. Every 25 yards or so she dispenses a few drops of the mixture she carries: water, glycerin, and anisette and then veers again as if a pack of hounds were on her tail.
Back in the parking lot, riders unload their horses from their trailers, tack up and slip on their riding coats. The Green Mountain Hounds do not hunt live foxes here in Vermont; the dogs track the scent through woods and fields. But many of the old hunting traditions still remain. Fall is considered the formal season and riders are required to dress accordingly: black riding coat, a stock tie, light breeches, and a yellow vest.
The iconic red jackets are reserved for those who help to control the hunt — the Huntsman, Field Masters, and Whippers-in, who among other things will chase down stray hounds or keep them from jumping on the scent of a nearby deer. The clothes evoke England, where the tradition began in the 1500s. And with a line of horses galloping across a pasture, the Green Mountains shimmering in the distance, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been transported to a different time. Look a little closer though, and the GPS collars the hounds wear snap you back to 2018.
Kate Selby, the Green Mountain Hounds Huntsman, procures a small horn from her riding coat and with a few short blasts casts the hounds. She rides close to the pack, keeping a tight watch on them as they barrel through the underbrush following the scent. The first field of riders follows behind her, led by their Field Master in single-file. Fox hunts are peppered with quick stops and obstacles that can require some serious skill to keep up with, and because of that each hunt is broken up into fields. The first field riders don’t hold back and take all of the jumps that come their way. The second field is a little more mellow and jumping is optional. The Hilltoppers, meanwhile, will take it all in at a far more leisurely pace.
There is a communal feel to the hunts, which all end with a potluck “breakfast” regardless of what time of day it is. Flasks are tucked away into pockets to ward off the cold and reappear when the hounds find the end of the line, where “the fox” awaits with a bag full of treats.