WWU Hunter/Jumper Program participates in “following hounds”

Ashley Martin and Stephanie Fisher during a previous fox hunt.
Ashley Martin and Stephanie Fisher during a previous fox hunt.

Best-selling author Rita Mae Brown has invited William Woods University hunter/jumper students to hunt with her at the Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club of Afton, Virginia, Oct. 23-26. Twelve students, two faculty members and an alumna will travel to Tea Time Farm in Afton to participate in two days of “following hounds.”

Brown, who is the Master of Fox Hunts, invites upper class students every two years to learn about the traditions of hunting and the horsemanship required to participate.

A member of the WWU Board of Trustees and a supporter of William Woods and its equestrian program, Brown is the New York Times best-selling author of the “Mrs. Murphy” mystery series, the “Sister Janenovels and many more. She is also an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and a poet. Her book “Cat of the Century” takes place on the William Woods campus.

Participating students are Megan Shahinian, Kayla Cardinal, Kylee Elliot, Emily Spilios, Taylor Hahn, Ashley Larkins, Addie Carion, Adrienne Van Matre, Megan Graber, Louisa Geyer, Eilie Cole and Sam Riley.

Susie Ouderkirk, hunter/jumper instructor; Karen Pautz, dressage instructor; and Colleen Hertzog, a WWU alumna who remains active in equestrian circle, will accompany the students.

“We try as much as possible to expose our students to new skills, new disciplines, new cultures,” Pautz said. “Fox hunting is outside the purview of most of our equestrian students, so it’s a great way to give them new experiences, along with some memories that will last a lifetime.

“In addition, we want our students to be ambassadors for William Woods and the horse world in general, and this trip will help students develop new business contacts, and demonstrate our commitment to the welfare of horses and the horse industry. Besides, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Rita Mae Brown for a long weekend?”

Sophomore Louisa Geyer said, “This opportunity, specifically, is more or less once in a lifetime for me and to be able to go with my college friends and instructors will be a great, fun, learning experience.”

“There is nothing quite like getting out of our normal environment, a riding arena, and riding for three hours out in the Virginia countryside,” said junior Megan Graber. “It is something that is a new challenge but super exciting.”

Senior Eilie Cole said, “I think the fox hunt will be a wonderful experience because it is something that gets you out of your comfort zone. Riding and jumping on open land is such a different experience than doing courses in the ring.”

“Fox hunting is a sport made popular in Europe (specifically in Great Britain) in which riders on horses follow packs of hunting dogs as they search for and chase foxes,” said Ouderkirk.

“Fox hunting is hardly just about the fox,” Geyer said. “It’s about tradition, adrenaline and even the reflection of where being a ‘hunter’ on horseback even came from. I have been told

Angela Hurteau, Katie Chott, Laura Ward and Ashley Martin mounted up and ready to hunt.
Angela Hurteau, Katie Chott, Laura Ward and Ashley Martin mounted up and ready to hunt.

by experienced fox hunters you ride for hours with the hounds and other riders at all different speeds climbing mountains, jumping logs, fences and ditches and galloping through fields. The pure excitement stays with each individual the entire time and the fun of doing what we love, riding, and being with people we love creates an experience of a lifetime.”

“It’s important to understand that fox hunting has very little to do with hunting foxes: they’re almost never caught in this country — we should really call it “fox chasing,” Pautz said. “Avid fox hunters like Rita Mae work tirelessly to keep a tradition alive and are strong advocates for land conservancy (not to mention lovers of all animals). Rita Mae is amazingly generous with her time and talents, maintaining not only her own Tea Time Farm, but also acting as Master of Foxhounds and Huntsman for Oak Ridge Fox Hunt Club. We’re so grateful to have this time to spend with her.”

“It’s a nice break from what we normally do and escaping to just go have fun,” said Graber. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience a real hunt.”

Ouderkirk shared a short summary of the history of fox hunting. Fox hunting was important as a way to control the large numbers of predators that interfered with farming and the raising of food livestock. Fox hunting (also called field hunting) migrated to the United States in the 1700s. It has since grown to have a small but avid fan base in current day.

In fact, recognized hunts are protective of the foxes in their areas and will chase and follow the scent of the foxes rather than the animals themselves. Known for being incredibly rugged and dangerous, hunting requires advanced riding skills, bravery, and strong and athletic horses. In modern day foxhunts, the hounds only follow the scent; they do not kill.

“It is important to learn the true history and tradition of hunting so that, in my professional career, I do not lose sight of where hunter riding all began,” Geyer said. “There is no better way to learn than by doing and being able to participate on this fox hunt will give me memories and experiences that are only learned on the back of a horse, in the mountain ranges of Virginia, chasing down a fox.”

“Field hunting is the cornerstone of the hunter/jumper industry in the United States,” said Ouderkirk. “What we do every weekend at the horse shows, and what our students are planning to do for a career, comes from hunting on horses. Field hunting allows riders to experience the very core of our sport and our industry. Plus, it’s probably the most fun you can have on a horse.”

“Before I committed myself to dressage, I rode hunters, jumpers and eventers, and fox hunted for a few seasons,” Pautz said. “It’ll be fun to return to the fox hunting culture in Northern Virginia, an area that is acknowledged to be ‘fox hunt heaven.’ I’m always up for a good road trip, and Virginia is beautiful this time of year. We’ve got a great group of students going hunting this year, and it will be fun to see them immerse themselves in the sport and culture of fox hunting.”