Upon the huntsman's command, the hounds sprinted out ahead, followed closely by riders galloping across a farm field on a clear, crisp morning. The entourage -- about 40 crossbred hounds leading 25 horsemen -- raced over rolling hills spread across four farms in Harford and Baltimore counties, a spectacle of action focused on pursuit of a single, diminutive yet tricky creature: a fox.
For more than two hours, the pack weaved through a series of cornfields, where the hounds' movement was discernible only by the sway of the cornstalks.
But after the hounds spent most of the hunt scouring one cornfield after another, the fox was nowhere to be found, and the huntsman called off pursuit.
At least on this day, the fox triumphs.
"Fox-hunting is about the chase, about a love of hounds, a love of horses, and a love of wild animals," said Jay Young, president of the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club, whose members mounted the hunt on a recent Monday morning.
Fox-hunting has a long and colorful tradition in rural Maryland. Yet, in recent years, the sport's participants have had to adjust to growing populations in formerly remote areas, including Harford County. As the club recently saddled up for its 129th fox-hunting season, its members faced challenges old and new, including misconceptions about the sport, safety concerns that stem from shrinking space and increased traffic, and threats to the fox population.
"Fox-hunting isn't like other equestrian events that occur on a single site," said Young, a 48-year-old attorney who lives in Monkton. "We have to have miles and miles of land because, in the course of a hunt, we go over thousands of acres and many farms.
"We have to have the cooperation of the land-owners and the community to make it work," he said.
Organized in 1878, the Elkridge-Harford Hunt Club, the second-oldest hunt club in the United States, has about 175 members. Each year, the club, based in Monkton, holds about 100 hunts from September to April. About 70 members hunt regularly, he said.
The club owns about 100 hounds that are bred and trained by the club's huntsman.
"Everyone who belongs to the club has a love of the country," Young said.
The sport has been in existence in North America since Colonial days, said Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America.
"Fox-hunting is etched throughout our nation's history," said Foster, whose Millwood, Va.-based organization started in 1907 to oversee fox-hunting operations. "To participate in fox-hunting, you have to have a love of animals, and a love of Mother Nature. It's a sport where you watch two adversaries -- a fox and a hound -- and you never see the same thing twice."
Today there are about 15,000 members in 170 hunt clubs in 35 states and four Canadian provinces, he said.
The hunts begin at 7 a.m. at the start of the season, 8 a.m. as winter nears, and 11 a.m. in the winter months.
Even the uninitiated are familiar with the traditional image of the fox hunter. They don formal riding attire that includes a coat, black hat, white shirt and leather boots.
The purpose of the formal attire is to dress respectably when hunting on someone else's land, Young said.
"We're a guest on their property," he said. "When you go to dinner at someone's house, you don't wear cutoffs."
The attire encourages the misconception that the sport is the domain of the affluent, a perception club members work to dispel. Still, a participant needs a horse, clothing and gear, in addition to $200 to $2,000 for annual dues in various clubs, Young said.
The riders follow the huntsman and the hounds to a covert, a wooded area grown high with underbrush or a stream, where a fox typically can be found.
Whippers-in ride ahead of the group, stopping at roadways to alert drivers of the approach of the group, said Maryanna Skowronski, one of several whippers-in for the club.
"When a pack of hounds crosses the road, they're moving at a high speed," said Skowronski, a Bel Air resident. "We go out in front of the hounds to stop traffic or slow it down."
The fox's movements are unpredictable, while the hounds' pursuit can be relentless -- sometimes they give chase until they drop.
The objective of a fox hunt is commonly misunderstood, club members say. The goal is to chase the fox into its hole, Young said. Occasionally, however, a fox does die in the hunt.
Getting permission to cross private property often can be a challenge, Young said. Most clubs have a "master of foxhounds," who visits landowners to gain approval before the hunts.
But one of the biggest threats to the sport is the growing presence of coyotes, a predator of the fox. In many parts of the country, coyotes are killing off the fox population, forcing the hunters to chase coyotes, Foster said.
Although coyotes haven't been a problem in Harford, they can be found in every state and province in North America, according to a report compiled by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
"Coyotes are taking over North America," Foster said. "And the problem is that coyotes run faster, and for a longer distance, so they are more difficult to track."
The sport's enthusiasts say that hunt clubs play an important role in land preservation. Because fox-hunting requires miles of open land, clubs work with other groups to maintain open space, Foster said.
"The Green Spring and Elkridge-Harford Hunt clubs in Maryland are icons for land preservation," Foster said. "The people in those communities wouldn't have nearly the open space they have without fox-hunting."