Dashing over hill and dale,
Go hunters and their hounds.
Horses leap to keep the pace,
Hoofing through the haze.
And riders hear the distance sounds
Of huntsman’s horn ablaze.
The hunt is poetry in motion. A scene fit for “Downton,” our local verse is set on the rolling terrain of North Salem where the historic Golden’s Bridge Hounds practice and preserve the elegant tradition of foxhunting.
“It’s very beautiful,” Dr. Elizabeth Almeyda says. “There are two photographers that follow our hunts regularly because they like to take pictures of us and the hounds and the horses and everything.”
A renowned plastic surgeon with a nearly 30-year Manhattan practice, Almeyda has hunted with Golden’s Bridge Hounds for a decade. With her trusty steed, Smokehouse Blues, she’s galloped the open land for a hunt steeped in grandeur, ceremony and, of course, its share of hunting mayhem.
“It’s like anarchy,” she says with a laugh. “It’s crazy, like controlled chaos. When you first start hunting all you’re concerned about is staying alive on your horse.”
Start with the pack of hounds numbering at least “20 couple” – that’s 40 in hunt-speak – with top hounds in the front and stragglers in the back. (Saying top “dogs” would speak only of the males in the bunch.) On the heels of the hounds, a dozen or more hunters on their horses whizz by branches, with hounds doubling back under-hoof, zigzagging the “field” (the mounted lot) or leading the field over fallen trees and fences.
“It’s a relatively dangerous sport,” says Almeyda. “You’re galloping over hill and dale, over terrain that might have holes, and then you’re going to the woods and there might be downed trees and branches in the way. So there’s got to be someone who’s a designated leader and you follow that guy.”
That guy is the master, identified by his or her scarlet (or “pink”) coat. Golden’s Bridge Hounds’ original master was founder John McEntee Bowman, the famed hotelier who established the club in 1924, just two years after he established the Westchester Country Club (where Almeyda is also a member). Austine Hearst, who with her husband owned a stud of purebred Arabians, was another Golden’s Bridge master.
Masters manage all aspects of the hunt and lead the hunt’s first “flight” – the more senior members who know their stuff – with a second and perhaps third flight following.
“I generally ride in the first flight,” says Almeyda. “I like to be up where the action is.”
The hierarchy – just one rule in the canon of hunting etiquette – dictates hunters who have earned their “colors” (indicated by a scarlet collar like Almeyda’s) ride in front with others not permitted to pass. All riders yield to the master; the huntsman, the hounds’ alpha dog; and his whippers-in, the huntsman helpers who watch and wrangle the dogs as they hunt – and stop traffic on Route 121 for hound crossing.
The rules of the field exist to ensure safety but also to allow riders to optimize their hunting experience. Once the hounds start making music (a hunting hound’s howl) or the huntsman’s horn makes a high-pitched staccato signaling he has had a view of the prey, riders will fly in his direction to catch a glimpse. Vets of the hunt will even try to stay a step ahead.
“You try to figure out where the hounds are going to go,” Almeyda says, her voice quickening as if in pursuit of its own words. “Are we going to see the prey? Are we going to circle back? Are we going to have a view? And then if you do, you go, ‘Tallyho!’”
It’s enough for a hunter’s heart to skip a beat.
“It’s thrilling, because you know your hounds are doing what they’re supposed to do – what they’re bred to do,” she says.
Golden’s Bridge Hounds are bred for their keen scent, obedience, stamina and drive, tracking foxes sometimes for hours until the hunt ends with the fox “going to ground” (escaping to its den) or the pack losing the scent. (The hunt does not end in a kill.) So a tallyho – an 18th-century phrase from the French taïaut, used to excite hounds on a deer hunt – means you’re actually witness to an age-old chase. And for a moment, you’ve outfoxed the fox.
“They are wily, they are smart, and they hear us come a mile away,” says Almeyda. “Their faculties and their senses are much more honed than ours, so it is so difficult to find them, and if they hear you, they disappear in the brush. So just to see them is thrilling.”
The tallyho, of course, is just part of the lure of the hunt, says Almeyda, who is also an avid golfer and fencer. As with other sporting clubs, she says, hunting has a stimulating social circle with its own rules and vernacular. (Covert, riot, brush, thong and lark do not mean what you think they mean.) The group shares hunt breakfasts, which can be casual or entirely grand. Almeyda’s was catered and featured a live band. From October through March, they hunt Saturdays and Tuesdays. They hunt Thanksgiving morning and then eat lots of turkey. They hunt in wind, rain and snow.
“The people who hunt, we’re sort of addicted to it,” Almeyda says.
Her home in North Salem is in fact a second home she bought to be closer to her hunting grounds. Its walls are painted in hunting history.
“The entire living room walls are an oil painting of the hunt,” says Almeyda, who considers herself entrusted to preserve the mural.
The home formerly belonged to a master of the hunt, a testimony to how hunters, like their hounds, seem to travel in well-bred packs. But to join the pack neither a hotelier nor news mogul nor plastic surgeon you need be. Local riders with horses are welcome, says Almeyda, who will host a pace Nov. 17 in North Salem where riders can compete on a course similar to a hunt.
So saddle up, if you’ve got a horse. It’s never too early to practice your tallyho.
For questions or to enter the pace Nov. 17, contact Elizabeth Almeyda at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Golden’s Bridge Hounds, visit goldensbridgehounds.org.