Written by David Greisman
On a crisp autumn morning in Carroll County, near the old Shriver farm off Route 31, a cacophony of yelps breaks the quiet, echoing through the forest for almost a minute before the silence returns.
Intermittent barking again pierces the silence. Finally, a full canine symphony invades the stand of trees.
A red-shirted man on a thoroughbred sits poised atop a hill, lingering on the lookout for the pack of 31 hounds. Joining him in the morning are his fellow riders of the Carrollton Hounds, a Carroll County-based group dedicated to the tradition of fox hunting and the thrill of the chase.
Seventy years after Harry Strauss founded the Carrollton Hounds – and nearly 30 years after Bub Smith, Donald Thackery and Everett Wagner resurrected the group – more than 40 people belong to a club devoted to the hunt as their hounds track and chase foxes in a figurative dance over the countryside.
“It’s enjoyable, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you work with a pack of hounds and see their performance improve as you go along,” said Bob Shirley, 71, of Westminster, one of two masters of foxhounds in charge of the hunt.
“For those of us who are in it to hunt, it’s the hound work that really keeps us going,” he said. “There are [also] people who are in it for a nice ride or for the wonderful company.”
Opening day is at the end of October; twice-weekly fox hunts run through March. On opening day and throughout the season, riders wear more formal attire: staff wear scarlet jackets known as “pinks,” white breeches, canary vests, white ties, and black boots with brown tops; the rest wear a mix of black and blue coats and white breeches. The ceremonial day begins with a toast and a clergyman’s blessing of the approximately three-dozen hounds.
Then the hunt begins.
The hounds chase reynard through woods, cornfields and farmland until the latter escapes into a hole, tree or other hiding place. The huntsman then directs the pack toward finding another fox.
“Foxes are very tricky,” said Dulany Noble, 57, of Upperco, the group’s other master of foxhounds and the huntsman (the titles do not change with the gender of their holder) in charge of the hounds. “They’ll cross their scent with the scent of a deer to confuse the hounds. They’ll get away, but they’re playing a game. We figure the foxes kind of enjoy it.”
By contrast with fox hunting in the United Kingdom – where the sport has an added benefit of controlling the fox population – groups in the United States are generally more content with tracking their quarry instead of killing it.
“We’re just interested in having a nice chase and keeping those hounds on that scent for as long as the fox stays above ground,” Shirley said. “Next month when we come back we want that guy to give us another good run, so we don’t want to do him in.”
The Carrollton Hounds’ hunts take place on about a dozen “fixtures” (the hunt culture’s name for a course) around and near Carroll County, where they chase foxes over the grounds of local farmers. Hunters take care not to damage the farmland with either their horses or the trucks used to transport them, and thus do not typically hunt in wet weather.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we do take good care of the land we hunt over,” Shirley said. “Without landowners who let us come in and hunt, we’d be in real bad shape.”
On occasion, a landowner – like Alice Davis and her son Joshua – will accompany the hunt around their property and adjacent land. Although Joshua, 9, has been riding horses for years, he only recently took part in his first fox hunt.
“He was so excited to be able to go; he was chomping at the bit, wanting to go through the jumps,” said Alice Davis, 49, of Westminster. “We have a love for the sport, and the hunters are very colorful to watch.”
Whether a person is experienced with horses or new to saddling up, Carrollton Hounds gives its members and guests an opportunity to enjoy the hunt. Riders are separated into two fields: the first field rides faster, makes jumps and is closer to the huntsman while the second field is slower, does not jump and eventually works its way toward the front.
“If you show up and you’re a decent rider and you’re comfortable, they’ll put you in the first field,” said Linda Nickel, of White Hall in Harford County, the group’s field secretary.
Riders, though, are not the only ones who may need to adjust to the dynamics of the chase.
“It’s a lot for the horses to take,” Nickel said. “The calmest horse in the world can come in and realize, ÔMy God, that’s a lot of hounds.’ They make a lot of noise.”
Although Lori Brunnen has ridden with the Carrollton Hounds for four years, her mount, Ozzy the Wonder Horse, is far less experienced.
“He’s pretty new to this,” said Brunnen, 50, of Mount Airy. “He’s done very well É He’s going to make it more fun. It’s hard to enjoy it when you worry about dying, but he’s a good boy.”
Riders interested in joining the Carrollton Hounds must hunt four times as a guest before applying for one of the various memberships, which specify rates for one person, families and students.
One morning – years after another group she hunted with disbanded – Colleen Callahan was on her third ride as a guest, saddled atop Basil, an old racehorse.
“I love to ride; I hunt to ride because riding is my passion,” said Callahan, 40, of Freeland in Baltimore County. “I enjoy being in the open and I enjoy the sport. I love watching the hounds work.”
As huntsman, Dulany Noble leads the hounds and chooses where they hunt, but she rarely is able to see the dogs chase the foxes once the pack is sent into the cover of trees or cornfields. Nevertheless, she communicates with the dogs with her voice and with a horn, and she listens to the hounds’ yelps as they hunt.
“You can hear them like that,” Noble said. “We call it making musicÉ. The sounds they make when they’re on a fox, the full cry can give you goose bumps. It’s so primeval and just what they’re bred to do. It’s magic.”
Young dogs get their training in the fields during the Carrollton Hounds’ cubbing season of September and October, the first two months of hunts. The new dogs wear orange collars to distinguish them from the veterans.
“They start getting it after they’ve been out half a dozen times,” Noble said. “The older hounds do what they’re supposed to and the younger hounds go along with it. It’s going to take them a couple of years to really get it, [but] at the end of the season, they’ve basically got it.”
Bob Shirley said that while opening day attendance is higher, the number of riders tends to drop with the temperature.
“Everybody who comes out is very enthusiastic about the sport,” Noble said. “When you’re on a horse that can keep up and stay with them and jump fences, it gets your adrenaline pumping. I can’t think of a more exciting sport that involves so many different aspects.”