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To the hunt

Club marks Thanksgiving with ritual dating to its founding in 1880s

By Robert G. Pushkar
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2009

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IPSWICH - Tradition and legacy are hallmarks of the New England character. Here is where the nation was forged, suitably commemorated at Thanksgiving, and where its places and practices are remembered with earnest devotion.

In the fields and hills of Appleton Farms yesterday, voices of hounds in full cry rang out through the gray overcast as 90 hunters participated in the annual holiday fox hunt, complete with 17 dogs, the master of the foxhounds, a huntsman, and a whipper-in, impeccably dressed in formal attire - velvet caps, hunting coats, ascots, breeches, and black dress boots.

Promptly at 10 a.m., Donald V. Little, the master, summoned the hunters to the “meet.’’ A hearty “hip, hip, hooray!’’ rang out over the wooded pasture, painted in November brown. Huntsman Richard Emmott blasted his horn, signaling the hounds to the chase.

Then, hounds and riders moved out to the predetermined trail laid down at dawn by Little and Emmott, using a drag-line scent, a doctored anisette in a small leather pouch, which the hounds have been trained to follow instead of a fox.

Organized by the Myopia Hunt Club in nearby Hamilton, the event has been held almost every year since its founding in the 1880s, except for a pause during World War II.

Little has been riding since age 3. His mother and sister hunted at Myopia. “I’m part of that tradition and try to keep it going,’’ he said in an interview this week.

“It’s harder as land gets developed and broken up. But we’re fortunate on the North Shore to still have some large tracts of land that are privately owned, as well as land with conservation easements over private property and public land like Bradley Palmer State Park and Willowdale State Forest, which are open to us to hunt.’’

Little owns six horses for hunting and for polo and two show horses in addition to race horses. “I guess I’m part horse,’’ he joked.

There are more than 100 members in the club, whose size has tripled since 1999, when he took over. No live quarry has been hunted at Myopia in more than 50 years. The practice was stopped after a fox ran into the library, according to Mary Ann Esdaile, who’s knowledgeable in club history. “You never know where the fox will go,’’ she said. “The drag-hunting is really the kindest, safest, and most pleasurable way to enjoy the sport.’’

Myopia Hunt has its roots in Winchester, where four brothers named Prince formed a baseball club. All the brothers, including other founding team members, were nearsighted, thus the name Myopia. In their memory, there’s a Myopia Hill at Winchester Country Club.

They eventually embraced the sport of fox hunting. They imported a pack of hounds from Lord Whilloughby de Broke’s Hunt in Warwickshire, England, and rented space to house their dogs at the Gibney family farm in Hamilton. Later, they purchased the farm and built a kennel and stables on the current site of Myopia Country Club, home to Myopia Hunt and Myopia Polo Club.

The foxhounds are specially bred, cared for, and trained by Emmott, now in his second full year as huntsman at the club. He moved from Yorkshire, England, with 22 years of hunt service on his résumé.

His greatest satisfaction comes from “watching me hounds work,’’ he said.

Emmott worked his way up from kennelman to whipper-in (a huntsman’s assistant who rides near the hounds and slows or turns the hounds toward the scent), then advanced to huntsman at several locations in England after deciding at age 19 that this would be his career. He came to America “looking for different opportunities’’ and seized the day after a photographer friend gave him a heads-up on the Myopia position.

The current pack at Myopia consists of 16 couple - or 32 hounds. Among them, eight couple have English bloodlines, 10 couple are crossbred, and one couple is Penn-Marydel, a deep-voiced American breed. At the 2009 New England Hunts’ Hound Show, Myopia’s hounds won seven blue ribbons plus three major awards, including Best Couple. Don Little said of the prizes, “It’s the best year we’ve had yet.’’

Hounds’ instincts naturally compel them to hunt for live quarry. This makes for a serious challenge for Emmott: He must instill in them the ability to override their normal inclination and follow an artificial scent.

“We don’t necessarily reward them,’’ he said. “I use praise. Hounds are receptive to praise of the voice. At the end of the day they’re still a pack animal. They treat me as leader of the pack. That’s basically what I am. I’m the top dog.’’

The horses may be of any size or breed. Some are leaders and some are followers, much like humans. As master, Little rides a leader. “Leadership results partly from training, but a certain amount of bravery is needed,’’ he said. “A lead horse has to be the alpha fox, if you will.’’

Hunt field protocol is steeped in tradition also, and every rider knows the rules, which are designed to promote safety and respect to the landowners on whose ample and tidy land the hunts take place. Also, they aid the dedicated volunteers who help make successful hunts.

“The hunt is my celebration of life,’’ said Esdaile. “It is a great joy to be out in the country on your horse and experience all the seasons and all the sites and to do it with a group of like-minded friends. And it is a great joy to watch the hounds work.’’