Willie White wakes up early every morning and drives his blue, two door pick-up truck down narrow and pothole-filled roads to his job.
Since before he could walk, White has been around horses, riding and taking care of them. Whatever had to do with horses, White was involved. It was only natural that after college he would return home to live in “horse country” as he calls it and train the very creatures he has always loved.
White is an active member of Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club. He rents a room at the clubhouse and takes advantage of a short commute to the barn where he works as a horse trainer. His main focus this fall is to season the novice horses to meet their potential. The horses that White trains will eventually be sold with the purpose to partner with an experienced fox hunter seeking the perfect horse.
He steps into the barn and walks over to two large tin trashcans. Taking the lids off of one, he grabs a plastic container, fills it with grain or also known as sweet feed and walks over to a stall. He dumps the grain in the feed bins in each of the eight stalls.
After placing the lid back on the trashcan, he reaches for four halters and lead ropes that are hanging off a large hook that is connected to a ceiling beam of the aged barn.
Wearing his hunter green Hunter brand boots, he steps out of the barn and onto the early morning dew filled grass. He has eight horses to bring in and chooses to grab four at a time.
The horses meet White at the gate. They know what his presence means. The first four become rowdy kicking, jumping, and even rearing to get in front of one another in fear that one will miss out on the grain in their feed bin.
White handles the horses with ease but is stern to let them know he will not tolerate this misbehavior. After leading the first four into the barn and locking the stalls behind them, he goes to bring in the next four.
“I forgot how dirty these guys can get,” White said after a brushing off the dirt from his white and already torn baggy jeans.
The barn is filled with loud noises of horses biting their stalls, kicking the walls, and banging their faces into their buckets wishing there was more.
Mark Griffiths, better known as “Stix” enters the barn for a day of training. The two men light up a cigarette while they discuss their plans for the morning.
The eight horses they train regularly stay at the barn but are not owned by White or Griffiths. All but one of the horses belong to the owner of the farm, Marshall Elkins. The other horse, Striker, belongs to Justin Batoff, who boards him there to be kept in shape. Griffiths and White have made a career out of training these horses for fox hunts.
* * *
These horses participate in tri-weekly foxhunts hosted at Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club in Monkton. The fox hunt season spreads from September to March.
Foxhunting is not your typical sport. Even if you’ve seen it in passing you might not realize the intensity of it. They cover ground that you’ll never see from a road. The fox eludes the hounds as long as possible, or finds a hole to run into and wait for safety, but as the fox streams across the deep countryside at 25 miles per hour the hounds do their best to track and keep up, while the horses follow close behind.
The catch: wherever the fox goes, so does everyone else. This may seem simple, just galloping across a field. However, often the hunt will have to cross stone walls, streams or rivers, high fences, ditches, roads and fallen trees. This is very unsettling for the average rider but to the members of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club it is a perfect fit.
The club was historically founded as The Baltimore Fox Hunting Club in 1793. In 1878, The Elkridge Fox Hunting Club, a descendent of the Baltimore Fox Hunting Club became one and kept the name of the Elkridge Club.
At this time the club had 50 members. The club traveled all around Baltimore city and surrounding areas such as Reisterstown, Randallstown, Cockeysville, Homeland, Charles Street and Hydes Station for meets.
However, a rivalry began between the Elkridge Club and the Green Spring Valley Hounds, another club that shared the same areas. Both clubs agreed to a race to settle the dispute. This was the start of a race that still exists today, Maryland Hunt Cup.
Since the Elkridge club was stationed in the city, the development of that time encroached on the clubs property. In 1919 the club bought 307 acres in Timonium known as “Long Quarter”.
The farm was located at Dulaney Valley and Pot Springs Roads. Dulaney Valley Rd. was not yet paved and the Loch Raven reservoir had not been created at this time.
The Harford Hunt Club was incorporated in 1915. The hounds at this time were kept at John Rush Street’s farm. Street, one of the two original directors of the club, owned a farm called “Farmington.” This 411 acres property was purchased by the club in 1927 and is now the present location of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club.
Because of population growth and continual development in the area, the Elkridge club voted to unite with the Harford Club. The Elkridge-Harford Club was officially recognized in 1934.
The club property and buildings still remain the same today. After a prevalent fire in 1938, some reconstruction did occur. However, the main farmhouse is still the central location for most of the activities of the club.
Just down the road from where the club is located, Griffiths and White put their training plans into action.
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The men each lead their horses, who have now digested their breakfasts, out of their stalls and out into the open air. White walks over to an old cattle trough and steps up onto it, guiding his horse toward him. As the horse gets into perfect position, White hops onto his back effortlessly and they walk off. Right behind them, Griffiths does the same with his horse, Badger.
The horse is named after the YouTube sensation “Honey-Badger Don’t Care,” because of his relaxed and quiet temperament. As the horses move forward, the men get their boots in their stirrups and adjust their reins.
In order for a horse to become a great fox hunter it is vital to train them regularly. Many people do not train their own horses. Instead, they purchase horses from trainers like White and Griffiths.
Griffiths says, “We’ll be back in about 20 or 30 minutes,” and they slowly disappear over the hillside. Logan, Griffith’s yellow Labrador, trails behind the horses wagging his tail, his nose high in the air.
They return shortly after, horses hot and sweaty, their veins pulsing. The men quickly get the horses untacked and take them over to the hose for a bath and a drink.
“Before we ride the next ones, we have to cool these two down,” White says.
Badger stretches his long dappled grey neck out for the hose, and lets the water rain over his face. Griffiths runs his hands down Badger’s muscular chest to scrape of the excess water, and then leads him back to his stall. White does the same with his horse and then they begin tacking up the next two.
As they lead the two fresh horses out of the barn, they check over the tack, tightening the girth (the strap that goes under the horse’s belly to hold the saddle securely in place) and pull their stirrups down to the right length
“This time we’ll be working them down in the schooling area by the pond,” says Griffiths. “Schooling” is a term used for the process of teaching horses to jump and improve jumping. Fox hunters need to be able to get over just about anything during a hunt, like a down tree, a post-and-rail fence or a coop.
The men ride down to a secluded field where they have set up an area with all different kinds of jumps that they could come across hunting. They practice over a few small jumps first and then progress over to a sequence of large logs.
Logan wades into the nearby stream crossing, but keeps a steady eye on the men. White takes his horse over a small jump, at least seven times.
“He is only six, that horse,” Griffiths says, as he observes the horse from the side. “He has a lot of learning still but practice makes perfect.” He says that six years old is young for a fox hunter.
“Take him over that one in the middle once more Willie, and that’ll do,” he yells out to White.
White finishes the jump and then they move to the other part of the schooling area with the logs. They let the horses walk up to the logs and check them out before they ask them to jump.
“This is how you get them comfortable with jumps, they need to check them out and decide for themselves that they’re safe to go over,” Griffiths says. “Or else they might dump you when they slam on the breaks before a jump they aren’t sure about.”
The men turn the horses around and go to the start of the log sequence, Griffiths gives the command to his horse and the pair floats elegantly over each jump. White’s horse, the youngster, follows close behind, and dodges out of the last log- the biggest one.
White reprimands the horse and regains control. They repeat. This time the horse jumps the last log, but a little awkwardly. They repeat. Finally, White’s horse glides beautifully over the last log.
“I told you,” Griffiths says, “practice makes perfect.”
Maryland is not the only place where fox hunting is popular. However, within the United States, it is one of the states that is most involved with the historic sport, and it is known to be the state that the sport landed in when it was brought from overseas. The sport originated in England in the 15th Century, and has evolved over the years. Then, in the 19th century, foxhunting became more prevalent among the upper classes and more modernized.
The equestrian sport spread into North America during the colonial days, and according to the Masters of Foxhounds Association and Foundation, “The earliest record of the importation of hounds to this country was on June 30, 1650, when Robert Brooke arrived in Maryland with his family and hounds.”
By the 1700’s foxhunting was quickly spreading throughout Maryland and Virginia. Today, there are at least 165 organized clubs in North America and Canada, and organized member hunts in 37 states, according to the MFHA.
Maryland has seven organized clubs, two of which are in Baltimore County. The Green Spring Valley Hounds cover the west side of the county while Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club covers the east side.
Griffiths explains, “Foxhunting is a little bit different everywhere. In England, where I’m from, there are no main roads, no harsh winters, and no real predators of the foxes, so we had to kill them over there. They are vermin. Here, we don’t kill them, unless they have rabies or something.”
Griffiths moved to the states from England when he was in his teens, to be an apprentice jockey, as many jockeys do. Now, he has been retired from racing for seven years and trains horses to become great foxhunters four days of the week, and joins Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club to hunt on the other three days.
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A steady line of trucks, towing horse trailers, pulls into a gravel entrance to a field of tall grass, covered in cool morning dew. As the sun inches up in the sky and begins to warm up the ground, riders bring their horses out of their trailers and finish preparing them for the hunt.
The fox hunt is the time for the horses to perform. When White and Griffiths bring a horse to a hunt, others in the club may be perspective buyers, which makes it important for the horses to showcase their potential. All of the training previous to the fox hunts pays off when a hunt goes smoothly and the horses exhibit what they have been taught. On the hunt White and Griffiths also discover areas that can be improved for the horses.
The bustling meet starts to warm up, like a hive of bees waking-up and warming their wings before they fly. Some riders walk their horses around to get their blood flowing before they send off, and some catch up with others, making small talk.
Though most members of the club choose to trailer their horses to the meet, White and Griffiths chose to “hack over,” or ride to the meet from their barn a few miles away. They come into view from across the road and ride up to the meet on their two horses, “Speedy” and “Baby.” White lights up a pre-hunt cigarette and they chat with other members.
The men are finely dressed in their hunt coats and tall leather riding boots, much different from the t-shirts and Wellington boots, or “wellies,” they wear for training the horses on off days. Their horses are also dressed to impress. Instead of the bridles used for training, the horses are wearing oiled leather bridles and spotless saddles and saddle pads.
A man rides past Griffiths and White on a gleaming chestnut horse, carrying a long whip.
“He’s in charge of the hounds,” Griffiths says, “After he warms up his horse he’ll let them out of the trailer.”
White’s horse, the younger one, takes in his surroundings. His ears madly swiveling to catch all of the sounds around him, the hounds crying, trailer brakes squealing, and people chattering. As the steam rises off their bodies, the two horses stand patiently side by side, anticipating the rest of their morning.
“Since he’s a baby we’ve been easing him into the sport,” Griffiths explains. “It’s important that he comes to hunt with an older, more experienced horse, like Baby here, to teach him how to go.”
White gives Speedy an encouraging pat on the neck, as if to calm him and reassure him in the midst of the stressful hustle and bustle of the meet. The horse’s coat is already moist with sweat, and his nostrils flaring.
“He’s excited,” White says, “It’s hard for them to stand still once they get warmed up for the hunt.”
The hounds are released from the trailer and they pile out. They spread out and then within five minutes they are tightly swarmed around the “huntsman,” Geoff Hyde, who controls the hounds and leads the hunt with the help of his “whips,” a couple of other men carrying whips to keep the hounds together in case one strays too far.
Hyde sharply barks a quick command and the hounds take off with him, the rest of the hunt following in a beautiful procession. It takes the entire hunt about five minutes to finish crossing the road, and the little bit of early Saturday morning traffic stopped. The hunt disappears over the hillcrest, and they’re off.
Guests and visitors are allowed to attend the hunts with the invite from a club member and permission from a hunt master. For more information, click here.