Smartly dressed riders, some in red coats, baying hounds, well-groomed horses flying over fencing: It reads like the beginning of a “Downton Abbey” episode filmed in the English countryside. But this sight is a usual one right here in the South Sound, thanks to the dedicated members of the Woodbrook Hunt Club, who have been drag fox hunting in the area since 1911.
To start, let’s be clear: no foxes, or other animals for that matter, are harmed during a Woodbrook Hunt. It’s a drag hunt, meaning human runners drag a scent for the hounds to track. Originally used as a way to train hounds, drag hunts became a sport by the middle of the 19th century. But how did this English sport come to the South Sound, and why did it stay?
Banker Chester Thorne and his wife Anna started the hunt in 1911, but the reason why is not known. What is known is that in 1926, the Woodbrook Hunt Club was officially incorporated. “Members were local residents as well as cavalry officers from Fort Lewis,” says Melody Miller Fleckenstein, master of the foxhounds with Woodbrook Hunt Club. Melody has been hunting for over 50 years in New York, Pennsylvania and here.
Melody got her start in Pennsylvania quite by accident. “I was looking for a place to board my horse in Pennsylvania and knocked on the door of the Master of Foxhounds,” she shares, “and was hooked on my first hunt! I love watching our hounds pick up the scent and give voice, and the camaraderie during a hunt can’t be beat!”
The Woodbrook Hunt Club has always hunted on approximately the same area of lands, though their clubhouse and exact location has moved around through the decades as land was bought, sold and used by the military. “Our original location was where McChord Air Force base wanted to build its runway,” Melody says. While the original clubhouse is gone, the current one is listed on the National Historic Properties and on the Lakewood Historical Society’s list of historical properties, she adds. The current location also has a kennel for the hounds, which are American cross-bred foxhounds, and stables for the staff horses.
But while the land has changed, and even the clubhouse, the hunt itself has continued on. A Junior Hunt Club was formed in 1941 that held hunts for youth on every other Saturday. In 1946, they had bi-weekly drag hunts and started holding annual horse shows to generate revenue. The shows were held until 1964.
The Woodbrook Hunt Club Today
If you thought their numbers must be dwindling (after all, who does foxhunting other than Lady Mary?), you’d be wrong. In fact, they say participation is at an all time high! “I believe we have over 100 members, a typical hunt can have 50 or 60 riders,” Melody shares. She explains that each hunt usually has three flights (groups) of riders that are divided up by speed/challenge level. “The first flight follows on the heels of our huntsman Jennifer Hansen and will be galloping, the second flight follows cantering and the third or hilltopper flight is a walk and trotting group that takes a different path, finding strategic spots to watch all the action,” she continues. “All jumps should have go-arounds so jumping is optional.”
What’s more, they do not require you to ride in an English saddle, riders of all disciplines are welcome, as are all breeds. “We have mules, Arabians, pintos and paints, fjords and Icelandic horses that hunt,” Melody says. “No one cares what kind of horse you are riding as long as it is well-behaved.”
Apparently, it’s not hard to keep members as the sport is so fun. “As one member put it, ‘This is the most fun you can have with your pants on!’” shares Melody. “Hunting is a non-competitive sport, it’s a wonderful afternoon of riding with friends watching the hounds hunt the drag and coming back to a hot, hearty hunt breakfast served in front of a roaring fireplace. It’s an adrenaline rush that makes you want to come back for more.” The hunt breakfast is a foxhunting tradition, and although it’s called a breakfast, it’s actually served around 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., after the hunt is through.
Even if you don’t have a horse, you can still enjoy a day of foxhunting. Melody says they try to have a car caravan for people to ride in and follow the hunt. And of course, for those more athletically inclined, they always need footrunners, the people that are laying the scent. “We have two main runners, Eric Stiemert and Simon Chapman who run, and we are always looking for runners that want to try their hand at laying the drag for us. Come join us,” Melody adds. The club is active year-round, though hunts can get cancelled due to weather. In addition to hunts at the club location on JBLM, they also do a hunt in Zillah every year followed by winery rides. The club members plan other activities, like beach rides, clinics and trail rides. Held annually, they have their Hunter Paces, a team timed event, a Hunter Trials Horse Show and the Hunt Ball. They have detailed information about joining in on a hunt at the Woodbrook Hunt Club website. News and other information can also be found by following the Woodbrook Hunt Club Facebook Page.