September 2017 - The Chase Is On!

Riding to the hounds in southern California.

by Julie Beer

Yes! The red coats, the hounds, Tally Ho! and all that. The real deal. Interested? Read on!

The Santa Fe Hunt, established in 1969 in Rancho Santa Fe, is alive and thriving in Temecula Horse Country. Foxhunting, also known as “Riding to the Hounds,” is the foundation of today’s hunter/jumper discipline. To be clear, coyote, not fox, are dominant in this part of the country. Because coyote are both very clever and fast, it’s extremely rare for the hounds to actually catch one; thus Santa Fe Hunt considers itself a “chase,” which is also the philosophy of the Masters of Foxhounds Association that rules all recognized hunts in the US.

At the invitation of the landowners, riding locations (aka “fixtures”) are large cattle ranches that welcome foxhunters because coyotes kill the newborn calves. Chasing them off the ranch benefits both landowners and their herds. Santa Fe country is primarily in the beautiful Garner Valley and Anza areas, with occasional trips to the Tejon Ranch, and joint meets with other western hunts. The amazing places that Santa Fe rides is a powerful draw to the sport.

What exactly happens when you ride with the Santa Fe Hunt? You get a very early start and dress in the proper “show” attire – boots, light color britches and a dark coat. Why so early? Because Santa Fe hounds are scent hounds, and scent is strongest in the early morning, making for the best sport. After the necessary cup of coffee, load the trailer and you’re off to the hunt fixture. Most members own a rig or have made regular arrangements with a friend or professional who can get their horse to the meet.

Upon arrival, the routine is generally to greet friends, groom and tack up your horse, finalize your riding gear, and mount up. Helmets are mandatory and spurs, crop, and gloves are the norm. Often, there is time and a place to warm up your horse. Children and Pony Clubbers are particularly welcome and looked after. Western riders are always invited and the only requirement is a helmet.

The main players of the hunt include the Huntsman, who leads and directs the hounds; the Master, who provides field leadership; and the Whippers-In, members or professionals who ride the four points of the pack (two up front, two on drag) to keep hounds together. Sometimes, as in the case of the Santa Fe Hunt, the Master is also the Huntsman.

After mounting, everyone gathers to hear the Master’s welcome to guests, description of the day’s activities, and field leader assignments. Now it’s time to decide which field (group of riders) suits your experience and skill. Santa Fe sports three or four fields, depending on the needs of the members on any given day.

The “Fields”

First Field is the jumping field and is the fastest – mostly cantering, galloping and trotting at a brisk pace. This field is for experienced members and new riders who are comfortable jumping at least 3’. Second Field moves at a good clip but there is no jumping, instead opening and closing gates to negotiate the fence lines. It’s a good choice for a new but strong rider with a solid mount. Third Field moves at a pace that is comfortable for the group. Mostly trotting and walking, third field is a great place for riders and/or horses new to the sport, young or novice riders, and offers a respite for tired horses.

When hounds exit their “hound truck,” it seems like initial pandemonium – hounds underfoot, running every which way until the Whips gather them into a cohesive pack, and they’re off! Normally, after a bit of trotting, the Huntsman will “cast” (direct) them into a covert of vegetation where scent could be strong and the search begins! Tails are up, noses on the ground, this is serious work for these hounds that love their job. When hounds pick up a scent line, they let out a beautiful cry (howl), the Huntsman blows his horn in encouragement, and when the scent is fresh, coyote is often sighted.

The chase is on! Tally Ho!

The meet normally lasts about two hours or so, depending on a variety of factors. Santa Fe goes out twice a week – Wednesdays and Saturdays. The season runs from late October through early April. Foxhunters are a hardy bunch and anything short of a torrential downpour or adverse road conditions are about the only reasons to cancel. After the hounds return to their truck, members take turns bringing a festive meal to share in an amazing outdoor setting. It’s a perfect way to end the day’s adventure and share moments of elation and thrill with good friends and family.

Parties, hunter paces, campouts, and other events fill the year. Something is always happening. Parties are frequent and fun, and non-riders are always welcome. Clinics are held during the off-season for both new and seasoned foxhunters that want to brush up on their skills. It’s a great way to meet the members and get a “feel” for the sport before actually going out.  Membership in one hunt club is an open invitation to ride with any recognized hunt worldwide. Foxhunters are a friendly bunch and the possibilities to connect with like-minded equestrians are endless.

Last but not least – what kind of horse makes a good hunter? The one you have!  Certainly, it may take some horses a few hunts to “settle” because the herd mentality and adrenaline for both horses and riders kicks in, but most horses end up loving it. Horses that go out in groups on trail rides do well; especially ones that stay relaxed crossing water and moving “out” in groups. Lazy horses sometimes become not very lazy! There is always a field for everyone.

Foxhunting combines the best of competing with the beauty of nature at an energizing pace. But mostly, foxhunting teaches both horse and rider that they are capable of more – negotiating open and varied terrain, building stamina, trust and skill.  Kids “get it” right away – the freedom to gallop in open country with others is a tantalizing and addictive experience.

Don’t you hear the horn? The season is just around the proverbial corner. What are you waiting for? Tally HO!

To get started, please contact Clare Williams by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , phone at 760-492-4198 or visit our website at