The beasts' sweat rises in the morning chill. Their heat is tangible as sticky vapour makes the day seem like a muggy summer's midday. They are agitated, willing and wanting.
On top of their trembling backs the pensive riders assess the situation, and someone passes a flask of gin. To the uninitiated fox hunts are an enigma. Arguments for and against have been lobbied, but amidst the din the fox was lost. It became an argument between mindsets.
We have seen the photos of smart men sitting atop horses. We know there’s a bugle in there somewhere. Someone’s yelling Hi Ho! And, in our imaginations, we've seen these men stand around in a sort of circle jerk, watching rabid hounds tear limbs from helpless ginger cubs. For many people foxhunting seems like porn for sadistic rich people.
The reality of a typical hunt may be more sedate than this, but people who've not witnessed the reality can maintain this vicious vision in blissful ignorance. In the pub afterwards my friends were disgusted.
In a matter of fact tone, Sam stated: "It's savage." Al responded to the news of my day with an "Uuuuh…why?" in much the same way one might question the idea of joining a paedophile ring. Steve held the argument that by simply going along with it, I was the one who ripped off the fox's face.
My initial, lame response was that many animals are killed everyday. I don't want to kill a pig, but I'll eat the sausages. Building from my feelings of guilt, I made a sharp U-turn. "You know what? Fuck it: I take responsibility," I said. "That's right. My presence aided the slaughter of a helpless creature. What you going to do?" Met by icy stares, I could only mutter "OK... well, try anything twice."
In the right context, this argument stands up. In front of people who think their mate has just become a bloody murderer, this appears callous. In my mind at least, guilt was released. I grew up in suburbia. They don't hunt foxes in suburbia. Then I moved to the city. Although I would love to see a cavalry charge of whooping horsemen on Oxford Street, I've found that they don't hunt foxes in the city either.
When asked if I'd like to go on a fox hunt my gut reaction was "Of course." It's the enigma.
I had no idea what a fox hunt entails, and I wanted to find out. Over 60 men, women and children gathered - on horseback - in a field on a crisp Saturday in early December. Warm sausage rolls were handed out, stiff drinks were pulled, and the plum chatter of a privileged social class wafted through the air.
I didn't have much time to ponder my involvement in a killing. A few brisk words from the man in a red jacket, and It Was On. I had given the impression beforehand that I could ride a horse with confidence. I was not confident.
The last time I'd ridden was on a stoned donkey on the side of a volcano in Guatemala; as far removed as you can get from the competitive beast I sat on that morning in Wiltshire. She, Winnie, was twitchy and alert. A saving thought, at this point, struck me like a dull hoof to the head. Winnie was in control. Winnie knew the score, and all I had to do was stay on.
As the first trot turned into a gallop, blinding panic did not overtake me as I thought it might.
I took jumps in my stride. I didn't have much choice in the matter. I lent in and let Winnie take care of it. It's her stride; I just happened to be on top of her. The hunt was ordered and frantic at the same time. A five minute dash, bit of an aimless wander, a three minute chill atop steaming beasts, then some racing over farmland. I was loving it.
Notice that the fox never enters the picture. Illegal or not, if the hunt stumbles across one, they will take it down. These days, however, the hounds are supposed to chase a scent. It was a chase of sorts, for sure, but for some illusive end. I hardly ever saw the riders and the hounds at the front, and I certainly never saw a fox.
Indeed I began thinking at this point that if the killing was left out as standard, by ensuring the hounds somehow chased a scent and nothing else, then it would be much better. The hunt would still be primal and exhilarating, but with no backlash. A weird, guiltless pleasure. Mammals riding mammals chasing packs of mammals that hunt other mammals. The dinosaurs can suck it, and urban man could do a lot worse than this for a hobby.
Just imagine if the average gent got off on an existential funk every other weekend. It would be the ultimate chase. Mid-gallop, people would think to themselves, "What are we doing here?" Hell if I know, might be the reply from the guy in front. We're chasing dogs chasing a smell. Just maintain balance and hang on.
Fox hunting could be the team sport everyone would enjoy. It goes nowhere, but everyone still has a great time. As I learned, you don’t even need to bother with riding lessons. Pure chaos in a field. Hi ho!