Woman leads hunt for the first time
Toronto and North York Hunt, although still heavily steeped in the traditions of English foxhunting, has for the first time in its long history, hired a female huntsman.
The hunt’s 42 hounds, or 21 couple of hounds as it is said, and five staff horses are now in the charge of Rosslyn Balding, the first female huntsman in the hunt’s 174-year history and the second woman in all of Canada to hunt a live pack of hounds.
Before being promoted to huntsman, Balding was whipper-in for many years, assistant to the huntsman (two of those at the Toronto and North York Hunt in Mulmur), helping to care for the animals and manage the property.
As huntsman, Balding leads the hounds and riders as they ride to hounds, an activity that is demonstrated every Thanksgiving weekend in Creemore when members of the hunt parade through the village on Saturday morning to the delight of spectators. The parade has become a favourite fall tradition and is followed by a meet-and-greet with the hounds. During the hunt, the dogs chase fox and coyote but the dogs aren’t vicious animals. They love people and are more than willing to slobber on anyone who wants to say hello. In fact, Balding believes in socializing the dogs and is looking for people to foster this year’s puppies until they turn one year old and are ready to hunt. Keeping with tradition, the hunt’s foxhounds are never bought or sold, they are bred between clubs to ensure good genes.
The huntsman and whips command the dogs using horns and voice commands. Blading said they carry whips but they are mostly for show and visual cues.
In formal attire, the men wear red jackets and the women wear black, all with the blue collar of the Toronto and North York Hunt, but breaking with tradition, as huntsman, Balding will be out front in red, her professional whip Teresa Robinson, a Mulmur resident, by her side, along with joint master Janet and Carl Feairs.
Balding became interested in horses as a teenager and has worked in hunt service her whole life. She said it is a male dominated world with very few women.
“That is slowly changing,” said Balding. “Not in England but more so over here, for women to whipper in.”
Originally from Scotland, Balding was married to a huntsman in England. Sadly, he died of cancer and later, Balding took an opportunity to move to Canada with her two teenage children James and Laura, who are also volunteer whips with the hunt. Traditionally, there is no formal education for a huntsman but Balding is working towards a certification in the Master of Foxhounds Association of America’s Professional Development Program, which only accepts six candidates each year.
During the spring and fall seasons, members of the hunt ride out in groups of varying skill and endurance levels on parcels of land where they have gained permission to ride, near Creemore, Singhampton, Maxwell and Thornbury.
Although they maintain many foxhunting traditions, they are looking to maintain the viability of the club by shedding the image of being exclusive.
“All the tradition is great but you have to move with the times, to make it fun and accessible,” said Balding.
To be more inclusive, they allow Western attire and tack, and a newcomer day is planned for the Monday of Thanksgiving weekend, to encourage people to try riding to hounds.
“It gives people a chance to ride in this beautiful country with beautiful views,” said Balding, adding that there is also a strong social component to the club.
Her duties also include liaising with landowners to “open up new country”, making sure there are places to ride. Balding said they are always respectful of crops and livestock.
“The whole thing is done in a very controlled manner,” she said, adding that no guns are used in foxhunting.
“It is important to see the involvement of the local community,” said Balding. “Without the generosity of the landowners, we wouldn’t have a hunt.”
Founded in 1843 by Lady Eaton, Toronto and North York Hunt is the second oldest foxhunt in North America.
To see the hunt on parade through the village, in the English tradition of riders meeting in a village with their horses and hounds before going off to hunt, be on Mill Street this Saturday, Oct. 7 by 11 a.m. A blessing of the hounds will be held afterwards in the Gordon Feed and Seed property across from Foodland.
For information about Toronto and North York Hunt, visit www.tnyh.horse or call 705-466-6499.
Cat Davey photo