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Rural Missouri Magazine
The thrill of the chase
It's a sport of hound and prey as the members of New Melle's Bridlespur club ride to hunt

by Bob McEowen

Eleanor 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.

It’s early 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.

A 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.

“The point 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.

Hounds take to the chase during a foxhunt at Bridlespur Hunt Club near New Melle.

“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 taste blood.
“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 chase.”

Bridlespur’s 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 their colors.”

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.

“It’s 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.

Bridlespur master 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.

“Bridlespur 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.

“There’s 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.

Besides maintaining an air of formality, the clothes serve a purpose. Most notably, the scarlet coat provides instant visibility for whippers-in, masters and the huntsman.

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 says.

Eleanor Hartwell exercises the hounds on the grounds of Bridlespur Hunt. A paid employee of the club, Hartwell cares for a pack of 60 Foxhounds.

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.

Currently, Bridlespur 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 Ayers.

Foxhunter and 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.

Still, membership 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.

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.”

Werner 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 sport.

“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 that’s thrilling.”

For more information about Bridlespur Hunt Club, call (314) 302-5747 or log onto www.bridlespur.com.

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