At Devon Horse Show, cheers for hounds and hunt

Kaitlyn Link rides Betty Boop, owned by Karikuna Link. They won first prize in the Lead Line 3 & Under category.
Kaitlyn Link rides Betty Boop, owned by Karikuna Link. They won first prize in the Lead Line 3 & Under category.
Posted: May 25, 2014

Devon may be all about the horses, but on Saturday night some smaller four-legged creatures scampered into the spotlight.

The crowd laughed and clapped loudly as 18 foxhounds bounded into the ring. Ears flapping, tails aloft, they formed a pack around three horses with three red-coated riders.

One hound promptly lifted a leg on the shrubbery. Another ran sideways over a packmate. But all stayed safely clear of the hooves. They are, after all, professional hunters, trained to track foxes and lead riders to their prey.

Radnor Hunt, which bills itself as the nation's oldest continuously operating foxhunting club, has been exhibiting at the Devon Horse Show for decades. It's a smart match, since most of the racing and jumping judged at Devon arose from pastoral traditions such as foxhunting.

"It's wild. You've got a lot of obstacles: logs, trees, vines, ditches," said Crystal Crawford, 32, of Willistown, who is joining Radnor Hunt this fall after her fiancé introduced her to the sport.

Wild though it may be, modern-day foxhunting is more like fox-chasing. There is no killing of foxes.

"You find a fox, chase it around, it goes into a hole, and you do it again," said Richard Buchanan, 49, of Unionville. "It's kind of like golf that way."

For Buchanan, the hunt is a fun family tradition. He rides with his wife, their two young daughters, and, until his recent death, his father.

"The kind of bond and rapport that they build with their grandpa is something you just don't get anywhere else," Buchanan said.

Collin McNeil, one of the group's four hunt masters, said he loves the sporting challenge.

"It's been my experience that you either hunt to ride, or you ride to hunt," McNeil said. "People like me, I love the hunt. . . . It's very scientific, but also intuitive."

Barbara Hill, 56, of Bryn Mawr, said she had become addicted to foxhunting because of what it does for her horses.

In the Chester County countryside, surrounded by a dozen other horses, following the call of the hunt master's horn and the hounds' bays, Hill said, "the horses are never freer. They're safe, they're happy, they go full-out."

Most people may know foxhunting only as an aristocratic relic or a scene from Downton Abbey - the portrayal of which McNeil denounced as "a complete charade."

But the Philadelphia area is home to more foxhunting clubs than any other metropolitan area in the United States, according to NcNeil.

The Radnor group goes out three days a week during the hunting season, from August through March. The hunters typically ride for two to four hours and cover an average of 15 miles a day, McNeil said.

The hounds have no problem keeping up. On a recent outing, the dogs' GPS collars clocked 36 miles, McNeil said.

But as impressive as the hounds may be, Crawford said, "the foxes win 99 percent of the time."

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