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Originally published Monday, April 11, 2011 at 1:08 AM

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Riding the open range with America's fox hunters

It's a pastime, participants will tell you, that's as American as apple pie: one played in the great outdoors, on real grass, with lots of running and jumping and zig zagging all over the place.

Associated Press

GORMAN, Calif. —

It's a pastime, participants will tell you, that's as American as apple pie: one played in the great outdoors, on real grass, with lots of running and jumping and zig zagging all over the place.

And, no, it's not football or baseball, although a horsehide is tangentially involved.

We're talking fox hunting here, a sport so American it has been pursued by presidents, Hollywood celebrities and just plain folks from all walks of life, from the green, rolling hills of Virginia to the sagebrush-dotted high desert of California.

"You may or may not know that George Washington was a fox hunter. He kept a pack of hounds," Mitchell Jacobs says of the first president as he pulls on his black, knee-length boots in preparation for a day of charging up and down canyons, across ridges and over creeks at the base of the snow-capped Tehachapi Mountains, 75 miles north of Los Angeles.

In truth, it's a sport of European origins, but it's been practiced here for centuries. And in a Western twist, the prey is no longer a fox.

Here, the hounds chase coyotes. There aren't many red foxes in this part of the country, so the animal's distant cousin, the coyote, stands in. As the fox once was to England, coyotes are livestock-killing varmints to ranchers, who don't mind inviting hunters onto their property to chase them down.

Jacobs, a family law attorney, is an avid fox hunter, as are the dozen or so fellow riders who have gathered on this wind-whipped morning of teeth-chattering, 38-degree weather.

If all goes as the riders hope, one will soon shout "Tally ho!" That means they pray has been spotted.

Don't feel too badly for the coyote, however. Able to run as fast as 40 mph for a sustained distance, change direction on a dime and seemingly much smarter than most of the foxhounds, the wily coyote usually wins.

"We haven't caught a coyote all season," chuckles Jacobs, one of the co-masters of West Hills Hounds, the venerable Los Angeles fox-hunting club. Founded in 1947, the group's members have included such luminaries as Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and another American president, Ronald Reagan.

"He was a very good horseman but he wasn't much of a fox hunter," David Wendler, who served as the club's huntsman for 55 years, says of Reagan.

Wendler still rides with West Hills but these days the huntsman duties fall on Scott Neill, a 40-year-old native New Zealander who has been riding since he was 7.

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"I'll be tooting the horn," Neill says, describing that funny looking little brass instrument he'll use to direct the foxhounds. He might also shout "Tally ho," but only if he actually sees a coyote. The horn and the sighting call are among the sport's myriad rules.

"The first time, the first thing I said was, `Do I have to wear those silly tight pants and all that other stuff?'" recalls Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds of America, the 104-year-old, Virginia-based organization that oversees some 170 foxhunting clubs in 36 states and across Canada.

Yes, he was told, he did.

Hundreds of fox hunts later, Foster has come to appreciate the tradition carried to the United States from England in the 1600s.

Although often seen by outsiders as playtime for the wealthy, Foster and others say that in the U.S. the sport has become solidly middle-class, with participants including a range of people from doctors and lawyers to teachers and construction contractors.

And while horses often don't come cheap, Jacobs says many riders in his group get theirs through adopt-a-horse programs that feature thoroughbred racehorses that weren't quite fast enough.

In all, Foster estimates, there are about 15,000 fox hunters in the U.S. Some fox hunters prefer not to broadcast that number too loudly, however, not wanting to draw the attention of animal rights groups. While activists didn't get fox hunting banned in England, as is sometimes reported, they did force the sport to stop letting the dogs kill the foxes.

As Jacobs dons his distinctive red riding coat, he's not too concerned about his hounds actually catching a coyote. But he would like to see one. He notes that it rained the day before, which has cleared the air, making it easier for the hounds to pick up the scent.

(Not every fox hunter, by the way, gets to wear that bright red coat. It's an honor reserved for only the finest horsemen, akin to being awarded a black belt in a martial art.)

Finally, coats of various colors donned, horses saddled, riders fortified with coffee (and maybe a hit of tequila here and there), it's time to go.

As another veteran West Hills fox hunter, artist Lizi Ruch, opens the gate to a trailer holding more than a dozen American foxhounds, Neill orders the dogs, "Pack in, boys. Pack in."

He's attempting to hold them in place briefly so a photographer can take their picture.

But the hounds have already smelled coyote, and it's off they go, racing across grass and sagebrush. Horses and riders gallop close behind.

And behind that pack are a few kids on ponies, including 11-year-old Rebekah Bond of the Portuguese Bend Pony Club of Los Angeles.

"This is my first time riding in one," the shy pre-teen says of a fox hunt. "My club watched one in February and it looked really fun."

For a time it looks like the hounds may actually trap a coyote by chasing it down a dead-end draw that ends abruptly by a canal. But then the pack makes an abrupt left turn and races toward a fence.

Anticipating the coyote will scoot under that barrier, Jacobs and fellow West Hills master Michael Zacha gracefully jump their steeds right over it and wait on the other side.

But then the coyote, if there actually is one, heads north toward the hills, scattering a pack of pronghorn antelope along the way and losing the riders and hounds.

"We never did see a coyote," Jacobs acknowledges after the hunt ends some three hours later. He's sure, though, that the hounds did. Why else would they be running at breakneck speed all over the place?

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