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Amwell Valley Hunt keeps fox hunting tradition alive
by Regina Young
Riders arrive for the opening day at Unionville Vineyards.
The howling of 30 dogs may not sound like a symphony to some, but to members of Amwell Valley Hunt, it is music to their ears.
It’s the soundtrack to an adventure through dewy grounds and brisk air, which gives thrill seekers – carried on the sinuous strides of their horses – arguably the best seat for seeing breathtaking views of Hunterdon County, N.J.
The adventure is the historic tradition of fox hunting and since the 1960s, Amwell club members have relished in what this pastime offers: camaraderie, excitement and a unique way to enjoy nature.
What originated as a form of pest control and later became a sign of wealth and nobility, fox hunting has become a sport treasured by those who respect the great outdoors and are invigorated by miles-long journeys through open space.
“There’s nothing like seeing the county on the back of a horse,” said Joanne Possumato. In fox hunting, trained hounds pick up the scent of a fox and track it, while a group of riders – without getting in the hounds’ way – follow behind. On the hunt, riders may encounter fences to jump or they have the option to go around.
Jeanne Sharp and Grenock
Joint Masters Joanne Passumato and Dr.
Ralph Reilly toast the opening of the season.
Amwell’s formal fox hunting season runs from October to March. Hunts, which can last for a few hours, take place in the morning. “The moisture causes the scent to be retained in the ground,” explained Amwell member Jay Carter, who said he gets a rush of adrenaline when he rides his thoroughbred through the plethora of pastoral properties at the club’s disposal.
Because nature is never predictable, each hunt comes with the promise of a new adventure.
“The beauty about the sport is no one knows what is going to happen. It’s never the same the next day,” said Amwell Valley Huntsman Stephen Farrin, whose responsibility is to train and tend to the club’s prize-winning English foxhounds. A native of England, Farrin was “literally born and bred into fox hunting.” His father was a 30-year huntsman
Though ancient civilizations often utilized hounds to capture prey, British farmers were the first known group to use hounds specifically to hunt foxes more than 500 years ago. Eventually, fox hunting grew to become a sign of nobility, a gentleman’s sport often captured in art.
Fox hunters may still don traditional garb – breeches, boots and black or scarlet jackets – but that doesn’t mean members have to be English aristocrats to enjoy a romp on horseback. Amwell club members – from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – come from a myriad of backgrounds. Their commonality has nothing to do with class, but rather a love of nature, dogs and horses.
“You develop such a bond going cross-country,” said Possumato, who is one of the masters of fox hounds (MFH). Dr. Ralph Reilly is the other.
“Fox hunting is for all walks of life. It shouldn’t be recognized as a class sport,” said Farrin.
While it has been contended that the fox hunting helps with pest control and is an important cultural institution, fox hunting has also come *under fire by opponents who believe it is cruel and unnecessary.
However, Amwell members argue that foxhunting is neither. Nowadays, fox hunting is also referred to as “fox chasing” because the goal is to track the fox until it goes “to ground” in a den or until the hounds lose the scent.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100 the fox gets away,” said Farrin, “and the very rare time they get a fox, it’s usually sick.”
Fox hunters consider the sport to be valuable environmental practice and Amwell club members believe no differently. In fact, they act as stewards of the 8,000 acres of public and private farmland they are permitted to traverse. It’s a privilege that members do not take lightly.
If their eyes aren’t taking in panoramic views of Hunterdon’s rolling fields, they are scouring fields and pastures for any potential problems – like broken rails - which they report back to property owners.
“Fox chasing is a very good ecological thing. If we see something amiss, we tell the game commission,” said longtime Amwell member and honorary MFH Tiffany Teeter, who was one of the 20 people who founded the club in Hunterdon more than 40 years ago.
Today, Amwell has about 30 supporters in addition to the 40 riding members.
“I like to ride cross-country and fox hunting is a nice, organized way to do that,” said club member Mary Pat Gallagher. “To see the hounds work and do their job is the real interesting part.”
It takes year-round training on Farrin’s part to get the hounds ready for a hunt.
“If you take 30 to 40 hounds out, they have to be in total control or else it’s total mayhem. The training is constant,” said Farrin.
But it’s all worth it when the soundtrack to fox hunting rings through the crisp air.
“I get a huge adrenaline rush,” said Farrin, “when the hounds are in full cry.”
For information on the club, visit avhounds.com.