thrill of the chase
It's a sport of hound and prey as the members
of New Melle's Bridlespur club ride to hunt
Hartwell, huntsman of the Bridlespur Hunt Club, keeps her eyes
on the pack as she leads a foxhunt by a county road near New Melle.
In response to decreasing access to hunting ground the club will
soon relocate to a 1,400-acre parcel in Lincoln County.
Thanksgiving morning and a pack of 28 hounds meanders across a frozen
field. Their noses busily search the ground while a group of riders
on horseback follow closely. Several of the riders are dressed in bright
scarlet jackets. Others wear black coats with collars of blue. All
are attired in riding breeches and topped with velvet hunt caps.
One of the scarlet-clad
riders lags behind to study the field from a ridge. When a lone coyote
emerges from a thicket, the rider, called a “whipper-in,” hollers
to the other hunters. Soon, the hounds return in a blur of white, tan
and black. The riders are fast on their heels.
The chase is on and
an 80-year-old tradition at the Bridlespur Hunt Club continues. The
sport is English-style foxhunting, though in America the prey tends
to be coyotes. In Missouri it’s practiced only by this one organization,
currently based near New Melle in St. Charles County.
group of “hilltoppers” enters a pasture following
the main field of riders. Hilltoppers follow at a distance, not
joining the main chase. Some people join the hilltoppers because
they are too young, too old or lack experience for strenuous
riding. Others are introducing a new horse to the sport or simply
enjoy the vantage point.
“When the hounds
get on, it will give you goosebumps,” says Leslie Ayers, a 21-year
veteran of the Bridlespur Hunt. “To see a pack of hounds get
on their quarry and give voice, it is phenomenal to watch.”
On this cold holiday
morning, a small group of hardy riders turns out in hopes of several
hours of strenuous pursuit over rugged terrain. Instead, gusty winds
thwart the hounds’ normally keen sense of smell and the hunt
becomes a pre-feast trail ride. On other days, the action is fast and
furious as riders jump fences and race through woods and fields just
to keep the hounds in sight.
is to keep up with the hounds as best you can,” says Eleanor
Hartwell, Bridlespur’s huntsman, an employee of the club who
tends a pack of nearly 60 Foxhounds and manages the hunts.
to the chase during a foxhunt at Bridlespur Hunt Club near New
“If they go
fast you’ve just got to press down your hat and go. You do things
that you would never do on a normal ride,” she says. “It
can be a bit like a roller coaster ride. For the most part you know
you’re perfectly safe but it’s pretty thrilling, too.”
Although riders are
required to hold Missouri hunting permits, the hounds are the true
hunters. The riders are merely spectators. The only guns on the hunt
are loaded with blanks to scare hounds from roads.
Contrary to a popular
perception, captive prey is not released. The hounds only pursue animals
found in the wild. While the hounds often stir up game, they rarely
“In the 21 years that I’ve been hunting we’ve had one, maybe
two kills. That’s all,” says Ayers, a member of Cuivre River Electric
Cooperative. “None of us want to see a kill. It’s the thrill of the
huntsman, Eleanor Hartwell, calls wayward Foxhounds back to the
pack with a toot on a copper and nickel “banded Beaufort” horn.
The traditional scarlet jacket of the foxhunter is an indication
that a rider is a member of the hunt staff or has “earned
In Europe, foxhunting
developed to rid farm land of predators. In America, the goal is to
ride long and hard until the prey goes to ground, burrowing itself
in a hole, at which point the hounds are called off. “You ‘give
him best,’ it’s called,” says Hartwell, also a Cuivre
River Electric member.
This stands in contrast
to foxhunting in Europe, where terriers are sometimes used to flush
burrowed foxes. In 2005, England’s Parliament banned foxhunting,
bowing to pressure from animal rights activists. Although American
foxhunting clubs have not escaped the ire of such groups, members of
Bridlespur Hunt say their sport is not cruel.
not a blood sport,” says Gene Deutsch, one of Bridlespur’s “masters,” senior
club members who oversee the organization’s operation. “You’re
on an animal watching two animals at play,”
“A coyote will
only stay as far in front of the hounds as he needs to keep his tail,” says
Hartwell, who moved to Missouri three years ago from Millbrook, New
York, where her mother was huntsman at a prestigious hunt for 28 years.
Gene Deutsch gets a hand with his riding scarf from fellow master
Jill Wagenknecht. Foxhunters at the club keep the traditions of
the sport, including traditional English attire.
While the prey escapes
the fate of their English relatives, the riders at Bridlespur do follow
the example of European foxhunters in other ways. Participants dress
in traditional riding clothes and adhere to an established order, with
the huntsman and masters leading the field and the remaining riders
deferring to them.
has always been a very traditional club, and we still maintain those
kinds of standards,” says Ayers, a member of the club’s
board of directors. “The same thing you see in the old hunt prints
is the way that we’re typically dressed. Our horses are well
groomed and our members are well turned out. We are known for that.
just something elegant and Old World about it,” she says.
Riders must “earn
their colors” at Bridlespur by regular participation in hunts,
proven ability on horseback and general involvement with the club organization.
Men with colors wear the scarlet coat during hunts, as do female masters
and members of the hunt staff. Women with colors are allowed robin’s
egg-blue collars on their black or dark blue jackets.
an air of formality, the clothes serve a purpose. Most notably, the
scarlet coat provides instant visibility for whippers-in, masters and
For some, though,
tradition is an end to itself. Lil Lewis, 80, is the oldest member
of the club who still hunts. She’s belonged to Bridlespur Hunt
since the early 1960s and works to maintain the pageantry of English-style
foxhunting. “They call me the tradition police but I feel strongly
about it and it’s kind of been my life’s endeavor,” she
Hartwell exercises the hounds on the grounds of Bridlespur Hunt.
A paid employee of the club, Hartwell cares for a pack of 60
Lewis has witnessed
Bridlespur’s transformation from an important social venue for
the glitterati of St. Louis, to a refuge for diehard foxhunters, increasingly
threatened by urban sprawl.
Bridlespur was founded
in 1925 by brewing magnate August Busch, Jr. The club, then located
in west St. Louis County, began a tradition of twice-weekly hunts that
continues today from October through March. Encroaching suburbs eventually
made hunting there impossible. In 1957, the club moved to its present
location near New Melle.
Previously, two other
sanctioned foxhunts operated in Missouri. A Kansas City-area club relocated
to Kansas and the Meramec Valley Hunt, another St. Louis-area club,
merged with Bridlespur in 2001.
holds hunts on its own property and across farms of willing adjoining
landowners. Other “fixtures,” as hunt locations are called,
include nearby parcels, the August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area
near Weldon Spring and large tracts in Illinois. In recent years, the
club has struggled with reduced access to land near New Melle, which
has experienced phenomenal growth. “We hunt by the grace of landowners
around us. But it’s gotten so closed in, we can’t do anything,” says
Bridlespur board member Leslie Ayers congratulates her horse after
a day of hunting.
After nearly 50 years
in its present location, Bridlespur is moving again. The club has purchased
nearly 1,400 acres in Lincoln County to the north.
A remaining challenge
for the club is a general decline of interest in foxhunting, in part
fueled by the perception that it is only practiced by society’s
elite. While some clubs still cater to bluebloods, that is not the
case with Bridlespur which, Hartwell says, encourages interested horse
enthusiasts to try foxhunting.
at Bridlespur has been relatively stagnant over recent years with a
core group of about 30 dedicated hunters and a like number of social
Members say that
it is not exclusivity or cost that keeps new riders away but constraints
on time and the dedication required to participate. Those who enter
the sport discover a non-competitive activity that promises challenging
horsemanship with the excitement of hunting.
Tom Neese, a Ralls
County Electric Cooperative member from Frankford, is beginning his
third season foxhunting after 30 years as a horseman. Neese has competed
in three-day-long “eventing” equestrian triathlons but
says he now prefers foxhunting.
“If I had to
choose one thing to do between showing horses, eventing or hunting,
I would choose hunting — no ifs, ands or buts,” he says. “It’s
just a hoot. It’s just an absolute rush when the hounds catch
a scent, the huntswoman takes off and away we go after her — uphill,
downhill, whatever terrain.”
Kugler, one of Bridlespur's "masters" directs the field
of hunters to where a coyote was last spotted.
An old adage in the
sport is that some foxhunters ride to hunt while others hunt to ride.
The saying reflects the varied motivations participants bring to the
“For many people
it’s definitely the chase and the hounds. For some people it’s
the riding that they like — the speed and the jumps,” Hartwell
says. “Some people just like to be out on a pretty day.
“For me, it’s
the hounds. It’s a very primal thing,” she says. “You
have 30, 40 hounds out there all speaking at once on a coyote. Either
you find it interesting or you don’t. For me, it’s something
For more information
about Bridlespur Hunt Club, call (314) 302-5747 or log onto www.bridlespur.com.