Monday, February 28, 2011

Riding for Life | 9/28/11

Senior Foxhunters in Aiken 

By Amber Heintzberger, Photography by Gary Knoll 


Mel Haas
As a sport steeped in tradition,foxhunting is bound to have a few senior citizens among its ranks. Although the masters of several of Aiken's hunts say that the average age in the hunt field is getting younger, there are still plenty of old-timers out there showing newcomers the ropes.

There is no shortage of hunting in the Aiken area: the four local clubs include the venerable Aiken Hounds, Whiskey Road Fox Hounds, Why Worry Hounds and Edisto River Hounds. Some Aiken hunt enthusiasts also frequent the Belle Meade Hunt in nearby Thomson, Georgia or venture further afield to ride with the Lowcountry Hunt near Charleston, or the Camden Hunt in Camden. With so many options, those who have the time and are so inclined might hunt as often as five days a week.

Larry Byers, 72, and his wife Pat have lived in Aiken for six years. He is whipper-in for the Aiken Hounds and Why Worry Hounds, and hunts four to five days a week. Larry is a former Master of Foxhounds at the Santa Fe Hunt, located in Temecula in southern California, and has been involved in the sport since he was a young man. Over the years, he has been active in showing and eventing, and has been a dedicated volunteer with the United States Pony Club, serving as the organization's president from 2001 to 2004. Byers is retired from a career as an aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps and as the finance director of a water district in California.

Dr. Mel Haas, who will be 71 years old in March and lives in Edgefield County, is a semiretired neurosurgeon who hunts three or four times a week with Whiskey Road and Why Worry and occasionally with the Aiken Hounds. Mel has been hunting since he was in his 20s living in Baltimore. During his residency in medical school in Boston, he hunted with the Norfolk Hounds and later moved to Aiken after taking a job in Augusta. Though he is not on staff at present, he is Master Emeritus of Whiskey Road and was MFH for 27 years. He was also the huntsman for 13 years and the field master for 14 years.

David Smith, 68 of Aiken, has been hunting for more than 40 years. Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, he received his colors in Camden in 1970, and then hunted in Tennessee and Kentucky, earning his colors at the Mells Fox Hounds in Tennessee in 1986, where he served as whipper-in. He has been a Master at Whiskey Road since 2004 and was whipping-in to WRFH for eight years prior to that. He and his wife, Lynn, are currently joint Masters of Whiskey Road. David also started playing polo in 1970, and is a member of the Aiken Polo Club.

Why Keep Hunting?

David Smith
Getting up early in the morning, trailering to a meet, riding over rough terrain in all sorts of weather…what is it that keeps people coming back for more, year after year, decade after decade?

"Hunting is fun," says Mel Haas. "I see my friends, I like the horses and I like to get out. I was mostly a drag hunter in my early years and I'll never forget the first time the hounds broke line and went after live prey; there’s something primeval about it."

Larry Byers says, "Foxhunting gets us together with the horse, outside in God's beauty, and there's no competition. The only competition that exists is between hounds and quarry. With the riders, it's just camaraderie. I used to event and do those things, but in hunting you don't get that terrible pang in your stomach like when you go in the start box."

Riding is widely accepted to be a high-risk sport and hunting increases that risk with horses and riders traveling at speed in a pack. Haas acknowledges that he has had his share of wrecks, quoting the legendary Aiken horseman Billy Haggard. "Billy said 'If you ride horses you'll get broke up, and if you ride long enough you’ll get broke up bad.' I've broken my back and had a few concussions, but I'll retire when it's not fun."

Mel and Joyce Haas
Although he may have had a few broken bones, Dr. Haas says that the stress relief outweighs the risks. My father died in his 50s and had a very stressful job," he says. "When I was a resident in Boston I’d go out at night and the barn manager would plow up a track for me – no matter how stressed I was, if I could get out there and gallop, the riding relieved it. The riding sort of saved me."

Hunting enthusiasts often get hooked on watching the hounds work just as much as on the adrenaline rush of the action or the social aspect of hunting. "Watching the hounds work and solve the problem, and seeing how the fox can 'outfox' the hounds, is amazing," says Byers. "We have grey foxes here and they can actually go up a tree, so it's amazing to watch them take hounds to a swamp and run them around and try to get them to lose the scent."


Hunting in Aiken

With several hunt clubs to choose from, a generally agreeable climate and loamy soil that stays good in most conditions, Aiken is a veritable foxhunter's paradise. Noting the social aspect, Smith says that he has a lot of friends who've been hunting for a long time. "We have so many members now who are snowbirds, they come in for a month or three, and it's really nice to get back with all of these people," he explains. "It's the same with the steeplechase people, the polo people – they're all involved in the same thing."
Byers agrees, "Aiken is really unique, it's a very welcoming community horse-wise and the people involved in horses here are supportive of each other. Eventers support foxhunters, foxhunters support polo people – it's a very open equine community."

The joint Master of the Edisto River Hounds, D.K. Newell, who admits that at 64 is 'no spring chicken', says the diversity of Aiken’s hunts is also a major attraction. The Edisto hunt provides a less strenuous experience for foxhunters that might appeal to older riders. "We specialize in a kinder, gentler kind of hunt and enjoy our older members and children," she says. "They both need the same sort of pace so they don't fall off and break anything. Our hunt is graduated with first flight and second flight, so you can walk and trot if you like. There are no jumps in our hunt country, no ditches or water crossings, so it's a very comfortable environment for beginners."

A popular draw for foxhunters in Aiken is Hunt Week, which starts at the beginning of February. "As usual, people will be coming into town the week before – usually they don't go home!" says David Smith. "We have five hunts for our guests during the week. There's also a hunt ball. Hunt Week really goes on almost two weeks with something to do every minute. They have to start getting fit around Christmas to keep up!"


Staying Young

Larry Byers takes an active part in the care
 of the hounds at Aiken Hounds.
Whether it is helping to exercise them or
cleaning their kennels, Larry loves
to be with the hounds.

Hunting can be good exercise, and senior foxhunters say that riding to hounds keeps them fit and feeling young. Dr. Haas says he goes to an athletic center three mornings a week to work on core body strength and also does some of the barn and yard work, but most of his fitness comes from riding. During Hunt Week, he says that so many hunters in their late 70s and early 80s join the fields that he feels downright middle-aged.
Larry Byers says he had a blood pressure problem when he was a working man, but that hunting has relieved that stress. "It keeps you from being a wuss, too!" he jokes. "You have to believe in your horse and yourself when you're galloping down to a jump in the hunt field and if you get into trouble you just have to kick on. That's what has kept me going all these years. It most definitely keeps me happy and a really lucky person to be outside enjoying all of this."



A Sport for All Ages

Foxhunting has many faces: from the more formal Aiken Hounds to the easy-going and aptly named Why Worry, there's something for everyone. There are drag hunts and live hunts and, as MFH of the Aiken Hounds, Linda Knox McLean points out, those who don't ride can participate socially, joining at the hunt breakfast after the hunt comes home. The hunts attract riders of all ages, from small children to seniors.
 D.K. Newell says that Edisto River is as popular with the younger generation as it is with its older members. "We have a number of members from Auburn University, including my son Walter Cheatham who is joint Master now," she says. "He just graduated in December and plans to go back to do his master's degree, but he loves hunting. He grew up on the back of a horse and has been hunting with Edisto River since we started up 16 years ago. He's excellent with the hounds – it felt wonderful as his mother when he was 12 years old and asked if he could whip in on his own for the first time. I think that having younger members inspires the older people, who get to see the young, vibrant kids out there keeping up with the hounds and hunting in a proper manner."
"We meet more kids out there now, though a lot of the boys don't seem to get keen about riding," observes Dr. Haas, whose own three daughters grew up hunting. "There are more young ladies than boys. The boys need to realize it's not a prissy sport – you get out there in the hunt field and it can be all you can do to keep up with everybody! You can start as a child and go all the way through until late in life. Just yesterday we had a 71st birthday party for my friend Leo Benjamin – we hunted from his farm and then had birthday cake at the hunt breakfast. He came back from a major injury five years ago and now he hunts first flight and plays polo."

Leo, who broke his neck and had a major brain injury in a foxhunting accident, explains that Dr. Haas is the one who found him in a ditch and put him on the helicopter when he was injured. "It's a dangerous sport but we enjoy it – it's kind of an addiction." For Leo, who has been hunting for 40 years, the thrill of the sport is all about the animals. "I like the horse end of it. I played polo for 35 years, I rode jumpers. It’s the horses that draw me to it. It's also really enjoyable to watch the hounds. It's amazing what a talented huntsman can do with 30 or 40 hounds. It's a hell of a skill."

Leo doesn't know how long he will keep hunting, but he certainly has no plans to quit. "I'll keep foxhunting as long as I can stay on a horse," he says.

There is no upper age limit on foxhunting, after all. Mel Haas points out that 82-year-old Gus Schickedanz, who winters in Aiken, has had a couple of strokes and is still hunting. "I do it because I like it, but Gus made me promise I won't stop until I'm as old as he is," says Haas. "Since he's still hunting, I can probably never quit!" he laughs.

"Foxhunting goes back hundreds of years and I think one reason it's lasted is it's a sport you can do your entire life," continues Haas. "As long as somebody can throw you on a horse, you can get out there. I think the oldest fellow I've known was Marion Smoak, who hunted until his 92nd year. He didn't jump any more but he hunted three or four hours and was mentally intact. He'd always been active and so he kept going. There aren't a whole lot of sports you can do until your 80s or 90s."

Haas says that Belle Meade has the "three score and ten club," and the "four score club."
"I've joined the first one, I'll try to make the second one too," he says.


Keeping the Sport Alive

"I think foxhunting exists today because we've kept traditions alive," says Larry Byers. "The biggest thing is respect for horses and others and having plain, basic good manners. That's all the traditions of foxhunting really are. It's just good manners and respect for one another. In the field, giving way to the hounds and respecting the staff are essential. We live in a society where sometimes we forget good manners, especially when we hear all this vitriol going on today. In foxhunting, polite manners are the basis of comradeship."
He adds that the horse is paramount in that equation: "No foxhunter will go to breakfast without first taking care of their horses," he says. "Also, horses love to hunt! God didn't give the horse antlers or claws – he gave them speed and the safety of the herd. They get to use those things going out hunting with a bunch of other horses."

Passing knowledge down is part of the tradition, too. David Smith says that as a young man he learned a lot from old-timers like Joe Bates who were legends in the hunt field.

"He trained one of his last polo ponies at 76!" says Smith admiringly. "Frank Hampton in Columbia, who I knew in junior high school, had a lot to do with my early impressions of horses and animals. My grandfather, as well, who was around 'til almost 100 – everything to do with a horse or a hound, he did it, no matter what time, day or night – they'd go coon hunting, fox hunting – it was a 24-hour a day thing with them. It was pretty incredible. Many a day I've slept on the drive home from hunting. It was a wonderful childhood…and it still is."

For young and old, foxhunting brings riders closer to nature, their horses and the equestrian community. It is a way to stay active and sociable at nearly any age, and Aiken is an ideal place for this. Byers, who is proud to be considered a “senior”, says, "Both of my kids are wonderful adults; they're very independent, self confident and successful at what they do and I attribute that to them growing up with horses. It’s been a wonderful way of life."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.