Fox Hunting in Oklahoma, Past and Present
By Doris Degner-Foster
On Sept. 29, I joined Jayne Detton, assistant director of the Marland Mansions, in delivering a presentation on fox hunting at Marland’s Grand Home in Ponca City. Jayne first spoke of E.W. Marland’s history and his hunt before I spoke about hunting in Oklahoma. As a charter member of Harvard Fox Hounds of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was dressed in our hunt club’s formal hunting attire and brought my saddle and other accoutrements of the hunt for visual aids. The following is my presentation where I explained the history of the sport, which dates back to ancient Egyptian times, and the state of hunting today in the U.S. and England.
When thinking of hunting with hounds in Oklahoma, it’s easy to picture hunting with Coon Hounds, like in the movie filmed in Oklahoma, “Where the Red Fern Grows,” but not necessarily English style fox hunting. Also, since foxes are not plentiful in the rocky plains of Osage County in Oklahoma, it doesn’t seem to be the likely site for a fox hunt.
But former Oklahoma Governor and oilman Ernest Whitworth Marland changed all that and many other things when he came to Oklahoma in the early 1900s. He struck oil and became extremely wealthy and spread his wealth to his employees, providing higher wages than the norm and other benefits such as healthcare—unheard of in the 1920s—for his employees. The town of Ponca City, on the line of Osage and Kay Counties in Oklahoma, where his home and business was located, also flourished with his philanthropy.
Among the things Marland sponsored were polo and fox hunting for his employees and neighbors in Ponca City. Marland bred and refined his hounds to be able to run faster after the agile foxes on the flatter Osage County plains. He even sent some of his hounds to Ft. Sill’s Artillery Hunt further south as Army officers there were putting together their own hunt in 1928. Fixture cards for the locations of Marland’s scheduled hunts indicated that all were welcome, and farmers on whose land the hunts crossed were very accommodating of the hunt club, placing wood panels over their barbed wire fences so the riders could jump across.
To build his pack of hounds, Marland imported foxhounds from Kentucky and foxes from Pennsylvania, breeding the red foxes to provide quarry for the chase. Before each hunt, a fox was released for the hounds and group of riders to give chase, and the ones that got away have thrived in Ponca City. Residents delight in their sightings of various families of foxes to this day.
History and Controversy
The practice of using dogs with a keen sense of smell to track prey has been traced back to ancient Egypt and many Greek and Roman-influenced countries. However, it is believed that the custom for a fox to be tracked, chased and often killed by trained hunting hounds began from a farmer’s attempt to catch a fox using farm dogs in 1534.
Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax in 1747 in England, has been credited with organizing a hunt for a group. Lord Fairfax’s family lived in the beautiful Leeds Castle, and participants were of the titled elite, setting a precedent for clashes between the classes in England.
Today’s English horsemen consider hunting to be a part of rural culture and pest control as well as having a part in conservation, while opponents say that it is cruel and unnecessary. In February 2005, a law banning fox hunting in England and Wales came into effect, but many hunts are still active in England, using a scent trail dragged on the ground for the hounds to trail and chase.
According to the Masters of Foxhounds Association of America, Englishman and eventual Governor of Maryland Robert Brooke was the first to import hunting hounds to America, bringing his pack of foxhounds to Maryland in 1650 along with his horses. Also around this time, numbers of European red foxes were introduced into the Eastern seaboard of North America specifically for hunting. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both kept packs of fox hounds and hunted before and after the Revolutionary War.
Today’s Oklahoma Hunt
For Harvard Fox Hounds hunt club in Tulsa, chasing is a more accurate description of the activity, since we rarely catch foxes or coyotes on the Delaware County location where we hunt. Coyotes are plentiful on Oklahoma cattle ranches, and I have actually seen one at a large cattle ranch leave the cover of brush and trot up the hill to sit down and watch. When the hounds found his line of scent, he waited until the pack organized itself and came toward him before he casually ran to safety, leaving the pack in the dust.
For 22 years, the Harvard Fox Hounds hunt club has held Opening Hunt—the first formal hunt of the year—where the traditional Blessing of the Hounds by a member of the clergy is performed. Prayers are offered for the riders, the hounds and the quarry, with thanks for the privilege of being among nature and God’s creatures.
As a charter member of the hunt, I have attended every Opening Hunt, sometimes acting as Field Master where I led the group of riders in the chase. I remember riding my Thoroughbred who understood the hunting procedures so well that when the hounds would find the scent and bay, or “sing out,” he would listen with head up and nostrils flared. I could see the effects of his heart pounding with excitement as his mane moved with each heartbeat while he waited obediently for my signal to join the chase. The thrill of sailing over the jumps at full gallop and my whoop of joy piercing the cool, morning air is something I will always remember—even when I am 102 and driving ponies in my little cart.
At each Opening Hunt the story of St. Hubert is told, and the story never grows old in the telling. St. Hubert was born about 656, the son of the Duke of Aquitaine, in France. In his grief after his wife died in childbirth, Hubert retreated to the outdoors and the hunt. On Good Friday, Hubert was hunting instead of attending church and had a vision of a cross in the horns of a stag. Hubert made a religious conversion and later became a bishop in the Catholic Church. Hubert also taught fair hunting practices and conservation. The legacy of Hubert’s philosophies are still taught and held in high regard in the extensive and rigorous German and Austrian hunter education courses.
His philosophy has been adopted as the fox hunter’s: to be a good steward of the land and of the animals involved in the hunt, which are our horses and hounds as well as the quarry we chase.
New members at Harvard Fox Hounds are presented with a St. Hubert’s medal—which we wear on the pins we use to hold our traditional neck wear called stock ties—as protection when hunting and riding, although some are initially concerned to see that the back side of the medal says: “Pray for Us,” like all saints’ medals. All of that trepidation is forgotten at the Hunt Breakfast after the hunt, when toasts are made and plates are piled high as we relive the excitement of the day.
Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she is not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport. Soon to be available is her middle-grade mystery series where teens ride horses and solve mysteries. She is also working on a murder mystery novel where a horse strangely appears in different people’s lives to help them through crises.