What Are They Hunting?

The East Anglian Bloodhounds, photographed Valentine's Day 2010

I indulged myself with a subscription to Horse & Hound last year, and have just renewed it as I’ve become dependent on my weekly fix of fantasy horse shopping and articles on fathomless equine diseases and complicated cross-country riding techniques.

One of my favourite features is the hunt report. The magazine still hosts real, old-fashioned hunt reporters who travel the land like Mr Sponge to all sorts of meets from the Quorn to a Scottish Borders collective who head out on quad bikes and leave their horses at home. There’s always something about the best home-brew found in a hip flash (sloe vodkas and all manner of berry gins) and who’s a young thruster or who rode sidesaddle and whose horse loves hounds but hates people and so on. Each week it takes me a couple of run ups to understand some of the sentences. Granted, I know very little about the lingo of hunting, but often the reports have entire passages in a kind of breezy run of figures of speech which aren’t technical but take a lot of untangling.

It took me a good five minutes to work out one episode in the last issue. The reporter was faced with a choice between a gate and some rails. She dithered, and then a field master (the person in charge of the ‘field’ of riders who follow the hounds) flew over the rails and she took decisive action, concluding, ‘Captain quickly [demonstrated] that he’s not the sort of horse you waste on gates.’

What was so bad about jumping a gate, I thought? Is it bad form? Why were the rails better? Eventually the penny dropped – you open gates and go through them. You leap rails. ACH SO!

The thing is, though, there’s a bigger mystery at the heart of the H&H hunt reports. What are they hunting and how are they doing it? It’s clear enough when a draghunt or bloodhounds are featured. But what about the fox hounds and the harriers and the stag hounds? The reports are full of descriptions of scent caught and followed by hounds and sometimes lost, but otherwise a veil is drawn. Is the prey shot? Set upon by birds of prey? Nonexistent?

It’s like reading some kind of postmodern short story: gentle realism with a deliberate hole left in the plot for surrealism’s sake. Or one of those Magic Eye drawings which will make sense if you just tilt it the right way. It’s as though the elephant in the corner of the room really is invisible. Odd.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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