by Colin Dangaard
Streaking through the thick under-brush is a small, terrified animal running as fast as its four legs will carry it. Not far behind, two dozen hounds are giving chase -- the wind whips the saliva from their mouths, and their ears flap behind them like pennants in a stiff breeze. Their mournful yelping seems muffled by the early-morning mist.
The huntsman`s horn cuts through the air, and somebody yells, "Tallyho!" Horses and riders plunged headlong down a steep hill, the horses desperately leaping and planting their feet. Their prey has sought cover in a heavily timbered ditch a mile away at the bottom of the hill. Branches lash the red coats of the riders. The tall grass slaps at their high, polished boots, and the ditch is suddenly there yawning before them like the Grand Canyon. The horses stop short and bunch up. One rider falls, then another; their mounts gallop up the other side of the hill, reins flying, saddles askew.
Finally, at the top, the huntsman's horn calls off the hounds. The quarry, a coyote -- the scourge of ranchers, farmers and small-pet owners everywhere -- has outrun them again. No blood will be drawn today.
The master of the field sends a rider to round up the runaway horses, and another rider is ordered down into the ditch to check on the bold and the fallen. The stragglers in the "second field" now join the main group as flasks are pulled from leather cases and strong spirits passed around. The "thrusters," the best and most daring riders, congratulate one another, and all agree that it was a nasty ditch -- "easy to buy real estate" in such a chasm. Cell phones are fished from breast pockets. Word filters through that, on this occasion, no paramedics or rescue helicopters are needed, so the phones are put away. A few yards away, on a balcony at the edge of a West Hills subdivision, a man sips his Saturday-morning coffee and looks quizzically at the conglomeration.
"Hey!" he yells. "Is this a movie or something?"
No this is one of the twice-weekly meeting of west Hills Hunt, a nearly 50-year-old organization that exists solely to nurture a distinctly Southern California version of that most British of blood sports: foxhunting.
Since 1949, this ritual of hunting the hounds in the hills surrounding Los Angeles has been practiced mostly by the adventurously affluent. In the politically correct '90s, the club has gone largely underground. The exact locations of all its hunts -- held mainly in the Antelope Valley near Gorman and in the hills east of Chatsworth -- kept secret. Hunters have been run off hitherto friendly ranches after animal-rights advocates were tipped off to their plans and raised a ruckus with landowners. In fact, the ruling hierarchy of the hunt allowed its members to talk to Los Angeles on one condition: that none of their favorite locations be revealed.
Members of West Hills Hunt feel absolutely no compunction about terrorizing and possibly killing an animal considered by some a noble predator and by many others a disgusting pest. "We're like garbage collectors," says David Wendler, a lifelong horseman and the only paid employee of the club. "All we pick up are the sick and injured that would otherwise die long, painful deaths."
In fact, many hunters claim that the coyotes actually enjoy being hunted. "They're all part of the canine family," says Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, the international body that governs 177 U.S. hunt clubs. "Chasing each other is something dogs love to do. I've seen coyotes being chased, and they've actually stopped for a minute to munch on some ground rats. When they're tired of it all, they just flip on the afterburner, and then no hounds can catch them."
Foster says coyotes run only as fast as they must to stay ahead of the hounds, and they're faster, and more clever, than foxes. He reports with some admiration that coyotes will often team up and run relays in a pattern of large circles, confusing the hounds and leaving them exhausted.
Judy Mora, who has ridden for more than a decade with West Hills and who earns her living working with horses in Hollywood, believes that killing is simply a normal part of the sporting life.
"It just doesn't happen very often in California," says Mora, one of the few female hunters to have earned "full colors" -- special collars that mark a rider as a master of the sport. "I have no problem with saving some animal from a long and lingering death. I love animals. They are my life."
Though Foster insists that "at least 80 percent of hunters in America are middle class," the roster at West Hills reflects disposable dollars. Well-heeled divorce attorney Mitch Jacobs rides "for the pure rush of adrenaline," and Santa Barbara tack store owner Si Jenkins talks about "going to the edge," adding: "You're galloping along, hoping not to hit a hole, and you think of Christopher Reeve." Jenkins missed most of last season with a head injury.
Most members of the hunt are about what you might expect when you envision scarlet-coated riders charging across the greensward -- in other words, they're Southern California aristocracy. The highlight of each season is the formal-dress Hunt Ball (featuring an open bar, dining, dancing and the always exciting whip-cracking competition) at a Beverly Hills hotel. Over the last half century, celebrities who have ridden with West Hills include Ronald Reagan, Randolph Scott, John Huston, Spencer Tracy, Burgess Meredith, Joan Fontaine and Jose Ferrer.
Every so often, a member troubled by controversy or conscience will break ranks. It happened to Juanita Kempe, who wrote in a letter in March 1994: "I no longer feel comfortable telling people I belong to a hunt club and go to a hunt ball. I now feel the money would be better spent by sending it to animal-rights groups."
Which would thrill state senator Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who tried to push a bill prohibiting such activities through the Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee last year. It needed five votes to pass but received four.
Lobbying hard against the bill was Century City attorney Scott J. Tepper, a former leader of West Hills Hunt. "The real goal of the animal-rights movement," says Tepper, "is the elimination of the relationship that's existed between people and animals for the last several million years. First trapping, now hunting with hounds, then shooting, fishing and, finally, pet ownership -- are all to be eliminated in their turn. What's at stake is the very right to own cats and dogs and to protect them from wildlife."
One of the earliest depictions of hunting with horses features Userbet, secretary to Pharaoh Amenophis II. In his tomb, he is shown standing in a chariot powered by two galloping horses, his bow drawn, while gazelles, hares and hyenas flee before him. The year was 1450 B.C.
The Egyptians also used hunting dogs -- slender, long-legged greyhounds. Alfred the Great was credited with popularizing hunting among the nobility in the ninth century. Foxhunting came to America with the colonists, becoming an important part of the social fabric in America when it was formalized in 1747 by Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, who claimed an inheritance of five million acres in northern Virginia. Today, the Blue Ridge Hunt rides over much of his old land.
George Washington rode with Lord Fairfax and was so excited by the sport that he created his own pack of hounds. While Congress was in session, a foxhunter ran Washington's hounds by the Capitol, and congressmen ran outside to watch. Some even jumped on horses and joined the chase.
Even then, a foxhunting ethos unique to America was being established, one that ranked the chase above the kill. Dennis Foster says that some clubs have gone 30 years without a kill. The code of hunting in both England and America emphasizes that foxes and coyotes must be tracked "in their wild and natural state" and strictly forbids "any practice that does not give an animal a sporting chance."
Other traditions have also endured. Modern fields are run much as they were in England hundreds of years ago -- in a quasi-military style, with much attention to rank and protocol. In fact, entire countries have been invaded with fewer rules than those that apply to foxhunting.
The master of the hunt is the top-ranking officer. He wears a "pink coat scarlet," is addressed as "master" and may not be passed by other riders.
Next is the huntsman, who is in charge of the hounds. The huntsman is assisted by "whippers-in," who dash hither and yon encouraging the hounds to do the huntsman's bidding.
The other riders are ranked by their colors -- women earn a blue collar after three years' riding, and full colors, when merited, are awarded after five years. At West Hills Hunt, the women's full colors include a dark blue coat with a royal blue collar and brass buttons, patent-leather tops on black boots and a canary waistcoat with brass buttons. Breeches are white, gloves are white or tan. Similar dress codes define the rank of male riders, with the exception that men of full colors wear a scarlet coat. Unranked hunters wear a black coat with plain buttons, brown or beige breeches and black boots.
All riders wear a "stock" tie, a long, white, scarflike cloth fixed in place with a regulation knot and a gold safety pin. The tie "can substitute for a bandage for man or horse in case of an accident," according to the hunting code.
Safe riding is encouraged, if not rigorously practiced. While the rules on the hunt field are extensive, they are discarded as soon as the hounds jump a coyote and there is a "gone away." Then, there are no rules, and riders may pass anybody they like. There can be up to three "fields." The first field has had a good day when it has kept the hounds in sight on a gone away. The second and third fields have had a good day when they've kept the first field in sight.
After a morning on the hunt, riders untack their horses, water them and then gather around a punch bowl for "breakfast." All falls are carefully recorded. Anyone witnessed "taking soil samples" is in debt one bottle of champagne.
West hills hunt was founded soon after world war II by a group of mustered-out cavalry officers from Fort Riley, Kansas, and formalized by MGM song-and-dance star Dan Dailey, who kept his stable of show-jumping horses in a 10-acre compound on Winnetka Avenue. To amuse guests, he started to "hunt to hounds" using a "drag" scent supplied by stuntwoman Audrey Scott, who borrowed a trained bear from a movie studio and briskly walked it by hand a few minutes ahead of the hounds.
In 1953, Dailey hired young David Wendler, who grew up on a farm in Collinsvile, Illinois, to oversee his stables. Wendler was already earning pocket money hunting wild game with his own pack of big-game hounds, and Dailey immediately put Wendler in charge of his "drag" hunts. To sharpen the hunting skills of Dailey's hounds, Wendler had them track coyotes. That soon became an end in itself -- hunting live prey proved to be much more exciting than following a leashed bear trundling through the underbrush.
West Hills Hunt grew rapidly in stature and membership. Today, it is considered one of the fastest-growing -- and most challenging -- clubs in the United States. In all, there are 177 U.S. hunt clubs with a combined membership of nearly 20,000.
As Wendler says, "They come here from Europe and back east to ride with us. A lot of them are good. We've had steeplechase jockeys, professional horsemen from the show circuit, royalty from Europe. They ride with us one time, and then they never see us again. They just don't believe the rough terrain we go down and over at the gallop."
At Misty Hollow Ranch, his home base in Brown's Canyon, Wendler, now 62, leans on his cane and admits that he hasn't always reached the far side of the ditch either. He is recuperating from a dislocated pelvis caused by a 1,400-pound horse failing off a mountain on top of him. Over the years, Wendler has broken his left collarbone three times and his right collarbone twice. He has broken so many thumbs and fingers that he's lost count. Once, he jumped a barbed-wire fence to retrieve his hounds from Highway 118. On another occasion, attempting to save the hounds from live fire on a rifle range, Wendler didn't clear a five-foot-high steel gate.
"Pilot error," he says of that incident, after which he was helicoptered out. He then recalls the day he tried three times to jump a 10-foot ditch. The rest of the club members looked on and made side bets. He didn't make it.
Under Wendler's leadership, West Hills Hunt has not lacked for members or money in anyone's memory. One of the most expensive hunts on the West Coast, it charges a yearly membership fee of $2,400 for full privileges, including the right to vote at the annual meeting. Lesser memberships are available for "social members," who can ride on occasion for a $50-per-day "capping fee."
Also flourishing is L.A.'s coyote population. "Coyotes have adapted very well to an urban lifestyle," says Chanelle Davis, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. Peter Persic of L.A.'s Animal Services says he records between 130 and 250 calls a year from San Fernando Valley residents reporting coyote sightings.
Meanwhile in the ancient game of chase or be chased, the hunters have become the hunted. Recently, West Hills Hunt was hounded off one of its favorite hunting grounds, Ahmanson Ranch in Calabasas. Animal-rights activists found support among residents of nearby Hidden Hills, who put pressure on the landowners.
But the wily hunters are far from being cornered. On another recent Saturday morning, somewhere outside Palmdale, doctors, lawyers and CEOs pulled $5,000 horses from a $60,000 trailer, and a silver tray bearing a bottle of port and some shot glasses was placed on the hood of a Mercedes. A light drizzle fell, and hunters who never drink early made an exception to ward off the cold.
The huntsman blew his horn, and the hounds scrambled from their trailer. The master warned the field that the countryside could be "trippy," but the hills were alive with coyotes, and 35 riders, each impeccably dressed and shod and handling a familiar mixture of fear and anticipation, moved off. In a while, two coyotes broke cover and started running for their lives.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group