NORTH SALEM, N.Y. — The red-coated masters of the Golden’s Bridge Hounds sat high on horseback surrounded by a pack of hyperactive hounds. They were all poised to head out on a fox hunt in the still-misty fields in this affluent town in northern Westchester County.
“We’d like to welcome you all to the lovely foggy morning — we hope it helps with the scent,” said Eugene Colley, 89, senior master of what is one of the oldest fox-hunting clubs in the country and one of a handful remaining in the New York region.
Founded in 1924, the club seems like an anachronism today, full of arcane etiquette, dress and pageantry. It has managed to survive in the suburbs of New York City despite challenges that include the region’s dwindling open land, increasing development and criticism from animal-cruelty groups.
But all that seemed to matter as the club kicked off its 93rd season of the hunt last Saturday was that somewhere out there was a wily fox to be chased.
The scene resembled a 19th century oil painting of the English countryside, with foxhunters in leather boots, tan breeches and black helmets or top hats. No one carries weapons. Members — men in scarlet hunt coats, women in black ones — rode formidable horses with braided manes, ranging from thoroughbreds to drafts to European warmbloods that had been brought by trailer to the site.
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Dozens of residents gathered at a rugged parcel of open land known as the old Racetrack to watch the hunt begin and many wandered the local roads watching the chase unfold.
The Rev. Timothy Wagner, the pastor of the nearby Croton Falls Community Church, handled the traditional blessing of the hounds by asking the Lord to bless the horses, the hounds, the riders, spectators — and, not least of all, to confer blessings “upon the humble fox, this day, who makes it all possible.”
This amounted to an optimistic prediction that the hunters would encounter one of the handful of red and brown foxes that call this area home.
The huntsman — the title of the person who trains and works the hounds who in this case was Cody Hayes, a 25-year-old woman — sounded the horn and the hounds were off seeking a scent. Ms. Hayes trailed them closely. Riders known as whips flanked the hounds and carried leather whips to crack loudly and gain the attention of the hounds.
Then came the club’s masters and the riders, with the more capable hunters closer to the front. The field master controlled the riders as they galloped after the hounds over rugged terrain, across pastures, along wooded paths and over creeks and stone walls.
The day was fine for tracking fox “because it’s so dry and the humidity in the grass has kept a bit of the scent,” said Ed Kelly, 81, a master with the club.
Ms. Hayes directed the hounds with horn blasts, as she steered them into wooded areas and underbrush to seek a scent.
The hounds were Penn-Marydels, a type that is bred and trained to track a scent. There were about 40 hounds this day — or 20 couples, since they are traditionally counted in couples — and they sniffed the ground until they hit upon a scent prompting their “song,” or barking.
The traditional cry of “Tallyho!” went up from the hunters and the chase was on.
A bushy-tailed quarry led the chase across Baxter Road and toward the expansive property of David Letterman, one of North Salem’s many prominent residents. New York City’s former mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, also owns a home here, and Paul Newman once owned a prominent horse center here.
“The scenting is not perfect this morning, so they lose him and then pick up the scent again, then lose him, then pick it up again,” said Richard Knowlton, who, as the hunt’s road whip, follows by car and helps keep road crossings safe.
His wife, Yolanda Knowlton, a club master who was whipping on horseback, said nicknames are bestowed upon local foxes, and that the first quarry was known as the Creekside fox.
“He gives us a great time and he’s smart as a whip,” she said.
He led the chase past the kennels where the hounds have been kept since 1940s, and he finally went “to ground” and eluded capture by disappearing into a drainage pipe.
Peter Kamenstein, a hunt master who rode a thoroughbred named Max, said the point of the hunt, despite its name, is not to kill the fox, but rather chase it into its den or some other refuge it seeks to lose the hounds.
Members said that perhaps one or two foxes or coyotes per year might be killed during a hunt and often because they are old or sick.
Killing them is “obviously not desirable in any way shape or form — it’s self-defeating,” Mr. Kamenstein said. “We want them to get away — the sport is having the hounds find and follow a line of scent.”
Club members said that most foxes seem to toy with the hounds on the chase, and even wait for them at times.
But not everyone believes that hunting foxes, or even chasing them, is good sport. Animal rights groups have criticized the group over the years.
Elinor Molbegott, legal counsel for the Humane Society of New York, said the private nature of most hunts allow them to escape scrutiny and make it hard to verify how many animals were killed.
“Whether or not the animal gets killed, chasing wildlife for sport is cruel,” she said. “Chasing and taunting them for fun is not a good thing. One has to wonder why anyone has to get a kick out of tormenting animals and participating in something that’s cruel and unnecessary.”
On one hand, the Golden’s Bridge Hounds, unlike some other clubs, forbids the practice of keeping Jack Russell terriers to pull the foxes out of their holes. On the other hand, the club has not transitioned to “drag” hunting — using the scent of fox urine instead of hunting live animals — as some clubs have, including the Smithtown Hunt on Long Island.
The Golden’s Bridge club is one of 151 registered across North America with the Masters of Foxhounds Association. It has about 45 hunting members and its formal season runs from October to April. Hunts are held twice a week, at different locations.
The hunt has managed to survive in North Salem largely because of the town’s horse-friendly nature. The town features bucolic and immaculately kept properties bordered by stone fences.
Horses still have the right of way on roadways and there are more than 1,000 acres of protected land and more than 100 miles of bridle trails that wind through the area.
There are several active boarding and training stables, but no supermarkets, bars, theaters, chain stores or strip malls.
The residential properties are expansive and many homeowners are horse owners with their own stables.
Many allow the hunt to stray onto their property and some parcels have easements from the previous owners stating that the hunt will always be allowed to go through the property.
“The hunt is part of the spirit of cooperation between horse owners here,” said Petra Wiederhorn, who keeps horses on her property on Vail Lane. “It helps keep the land open, gives us a sense of community and keeps the rural character of the town.”