The Modern Art of the Chase

Deep Run Hunt Club celebrates 125 years and the future of foxhunting.

The Deep Run Hunt Club, founded in 1887 in Richmond, has mastered the art of reinvention. This year, as the second oldest hunt in Virginia celebrates its 125th anniversary, it also celebrates a cunning as wily as the fox—a survival instinct that has managed to outrun suburban sprawl and preserve the traditions, heritage and open land vital to foxhunting, a sport with a rich history in Virginia that dates to the 1700s.

The earliest records of organized foxhunting come from letters written by Lord Fairfax beginning in 1747, who hunted in Northern Virginia, and later, from the diaries of George Washington, an enthusiastic foxhunter who kept his own pack of hounds. In 1832, the Fairfax Hunt ran a fox through the Capitol, says Lt. Col. Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (M.F.H.A.), the governing body of the sport in the U.S. and Canada. When the senators and representatives heard the sound of the horn and hounds in full cry, they left Congress mid-session and jumped on their horses to join in the chase. Today, there are 165 organized hunts throughout the U.S. and Canada—Virginia is home to 28 hunts, the most in any state.

Organized by an Irishman named Mr. Blacker and others to enjoy “some sport,” Deep Run Hunt Club was named for the stream that ran through nearby Henrico County. The hounds were first kept at Blacker’s home, “Chantilly,” on Broad Street, then moved to “Rosedale Lodge” in Ginter Park in 1896. The club merged briefly with the Country Club of Virginia in 1910, but reorganized after WWI at the Old Fairgrounds on Boulevard, now the site of the Diamond. In 1923, DRHC took a lease on 49 acres at Commonwealth and Broad streets, but the club continued to move west as development continued and found its current home in Manakin-Sabot in 1950.

Though the idea of foxhunting may conjure visions of men in antiquated dress riding the slight and stylized thoroughbreds favored by English sporting artists of the 19th century, today’s foxhunter is a far cry from those stereotypes. Men, women and juniors (under 18 years of age) make up contemporary hunt fields and, in some cases, the women outnumber the men. Hunt horses today may include draft-crosses, popular for their size and even temperaments, paints and quarter horses in addition to the thoroughbreds, and the hunt field is divided into flights, which accommodate riders’ experience. In the first flight, jumping and keeping up with the hounds is paramount; in the second, riders, called “hilltoppers,” do not jump and generally maintain a slower speed. In the past, there was just one fast and furious flight, and it wasn’t uncommon to jump as many as 50 fences with four- to five-foot gates. Then, the preferred thoroughbreds’ speed and endurance made them often hot and hard to handle, but today’s sport offers something for everyone—not just the more daring.

The purpose of the chase—historically to kill the fox, which had been considered a threat to farmers’ livelihoods—has changed too. When the hounds run a fox to ground, it is customary to call them off and direct them to new coverts or brushy areas where foxes take cover during daylight hours. The hunt ends when the fox has evaded the hounds and “gone to ground.” On occasion, the hounds overtake the fox, but that is rare among a healthy fox population. Quarry has changed, too: Hunts have adapted to hunting coyote since their influx has pushed out many native foxes.

Despite its evolution, the essence of the sport remains unchanged—it is all about the thrill of riding a horse through the countryside, hooves thundering, wind blowing and hounds running. As an equestrienne, I know from my own experience that there is nothing like taking a jump in perfect stride, when the horse leaves the ground and, for a second, I have taken flight. With equal parts danger and thrill, where trust is paramount and lasting bonds are forged among riders, foxhunting is an experience for the senses.

For Molly Bance, 24, foxhunting is about adrenaline, passion and commitment. “There is no other sound that raises the hair on your neck like hounds in a full, guttural cry flying over the landscape with you trying your best to keep up with them,” says the account executive with a Charlottesville advertising, marketing and PR firm.

Bance would know. She is one of the third generation of her family to belong to the Deep Run Hunt Club. She began foxhunting when she was just eight years old. (She and her sister, Hayley, 20, then six years old, rode on ponies that were so small they couldn’t see over the jumps.) Foxhunting is often a family sport and, at Deep Run, it’s not uncommon to have multiple generations in the hunt field at once.

Molly’s grandparents, Peter and the late Betty Bance, joined the club in the 1940s when it was located at the corner of Commonwealth and Broad streets in the city of Richmond. Though the club had purchased 142 acres in Manakin-Sabot in Goochland County in 1936, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the hounds were officially moved and the new property developed. The Bances, like many other club members who were purchasing large tracts of land around the new club during the “great Goochland migration,” bought a farm just west of the club and called it Hunter’s Hill. It was there that the family’s devotion to the sport took root.

“Betty had a great hunting instinct,” says Betty’s daughter-in-law and Molly’s mother, Polly Bance, 52, Joint-Master for Deep Run, “I gleaned a lot from her. She ran a boarding stable and loved riding with people. She had a foxy sense and was incredibly attuned to where the game was and its daily rhythms.”

Betty and Peter hunted with their children, Peter Jr., now 60, and Molly’s father Teddy, now 59—beginning when they were teenagers in the ’60s. In 1970, Betty became an Honorary Whipper-in—one of the staff who assists the huntsman with hound duties at the kennel and helps control the pack while hunting. Betty whipped for Deep Run for 30 years before her death in 2000 and, says Molly, knew the hunt country like the back of her hand.

When they were 12 years old, Molly and Hayley had the opportunity to whip-in. “Whipping-in is especially rewarding because you are not just sitting back and enjoying the hunt,” says Molly. “You are working.” She adds, “This was my grandmother’s passion, and all of us feel a deep passion for whipping-in because of her.”

Molly was awarded her colors when she was only 15, a process that can take years and is rarely accomplished by a junior rider. Awarding of colors is left to the discretion of the Joint-Masters and is a great honor: It means that riders are capable and can be called on to perform tasks in an emergency. In keeping with tradition and etiquette, it is proper in the case of Deep Run for gentlemen with their colors to wear a scarlet hunt coat with brass buttons and a Confederate gray collar, buff or white breeches and black boots with brown tops; ladies wear a black melton wool frock coat with black hunt buttons and a Confederate gray collar, and black boots with patent leather tops. Attire for those with or without their colors includes white stock tie with plain gold pin fastened horizontally, canary vest, buff or canary breeches, black velvet hunt cap, buff, brown or black leather gloves and traditional hunt whip with brown leather thong.

Since 2007, Polly Bance has been a Joint-Master, or M.F.H., (Master of Foxhounds), for Deep Run, the highest honor bestowed on a foxhunter by a club’s leadership. “The Master is in charge of the day,” explains Polly. “We decide on a location, time and have spoken with the landowners to secure permission. We speak to the huntsman about the draw, the wind considerations, where we found game before and the people who will be riding in the field.” Bance says that, as a master, the goal is to strike a balance between providing good sport but also being cautious and mindful of the responsibility of leading the field of riders. “To catch a view of a red fox is unbelievable,” says Polly, “but it’s the whole experience that is special. In the truck at the end of the day, it’s a great time to share and relate memories.” Riders straight from the hunt are joined by their families and non-riding friends for the traditional hunt breakfast or tailgates in the field. In the 1960s, thanks to Deep Run members like Richard S. Reynolds Jr. (M.F.H. from 1957-1969), who had a passion for hunting and for great parties, hunt breakfasts were lavish catered affairs held outdoors on the lawn with silver service and live music for dancing. Today, hunt breakfasts, though not as extravagant, remain a tradition upheld by the club.

Maintaining their traditions has been but one part of the club’s purpose: Over the years it has also made decisions that have kept the sport viable for the future, including moving the club and kennels to stay ahead of development. (The most recent move was to Cumberland County in 1995.) This instinct, and their commitment to preserving open land through conservation easements, has proven to be the key to the club’s survival.

Red Dog Covington, M.F.H., a commercial developer in Richmond, is leading by example when it comes to conservation. In 2003, a 300-acre parcel of land was slated for development right in the middle of Deep Run’s hunting territory in Fluvanna. It took two years, but Covington managed to buy the property and put it under conservation easement, later adding more land to secure a nine-mile swath for foxhunting.

“What attracted me to conservation,” says Covington, “is the adverse thing that would happen to that piece of property if someone didn’t take action. It was something I wanted to do for me personally and for the future of foxhunting for Deep Run.” Covington, like the modern foxhunter, is at heart a conservationist and naturalist with a passion for protecting the land and natural habitat vital to the sport he loves.

Covington is not alone. “Before my grandmother died,” says Molly Bance, “I remember her telling us how proud she was that we were all hunting. She loved this sport with an unmatched passion.” Her granddaughter shares that passion—what she describes as obsession, really. But, she explains, their devotion is simple. “We love to hunt,” says Molly, “and we love to ride hard.”

Aynsley Miller Fisher is the author of “For the Love of the Sport — The Horses, Hounds, Foxes and Friends of the Deep Run Hunt Club,” a book published by the Deep Run Hunt Club in honor of its 125th anniversary.

This article originally appeared on our website Apr. 30, 2013.

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