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Fox Hunting in the Sandhills

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Bob Grier wrote a story called Horses and Hounds in the 1994 April issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine. Twenty years later, I’m revisiting the same subject, except this time, I will be telling the story and photographing from horseback. My story on Nebraska fox hunting is still a work in progress, but since our bloggers here love to write about themselves, I guess this is a perfect opportunity for me to do the same. If there is one thing I love to do and talk about, it’s horseback riding. Most our staff at Game and Parks get their jollies from hunting and fishing, I get mine from riding. To me, there is no better way to see the world than being on top of a horse.

What is it about girls and horses? I don’t know, but I was definitely one of those girls. But real life hit me when I was 10, when it dawned on me that my parents had no money and could not afford to give me riding lessons, let alone buy me a pony– Santa never came through for me neither. Alas, I didn’t start riding until I was 19, when I left home to go to college. I got a part-time job at a cafe on campus, and still fiercely adamant in desire to learn how to ride, I spent all my money and weekends on a horse. I was at the barn every chance I got, always coming home with mud on my boots and hay in my hair. And when I could afford it, I went trail riding. My parents could not understand it. I think I amused them mostly. Considering my past failures as a violinist, kung-fu fighter, swimmer and tennis player, they probably thought that it was just something that I needed to get out of system.

But this was different. Horseback riding was something that I paid for on my own. It was something that I did for myself and it was an experience that was all mine, with no pressure and expectations from anyone else. Without sounding too cheesy, horseback riding provided me an outlet that I never had before. The same feelings of joy, belonging and wonder that hunters and fishermen experience out in the field, I got from being around horses. I learned a lot of about myself and my role and responsibility in relation to animals– though not in a weird, creepy PETA way.

I rode western and even spent one summer running around barrels and poles. Busy with more difficult courses, I rode on and off during the last half of college, and with other priorities in the way, I stopped riding altogether between senior year, graduation, unemployment and moving out to Nebraska to join NEBRASKAland Magazine.

No one knows how I truly felt when I moved out here in January of 2013. It was hard– not that I didn’t like Nebraska. I have actually come to love this state, but it’s an entirely different experience when you’re 22 and from SoCal, and you decide to plant yourself somewhere that is so far away from everything you have ever known. I was on my own in the northeast corner of the state, and tired of the ringing void that was growing in my mind, I found my way back to riding, which became something familiar that I could hold onto and think about when I was not working. The difference this time was that I traded in the western saddle for the English saddle, which brings us back to the subject of fox hunting.

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Coops are built over wire fences to allow horses and hounds to jump from one property to the next without having to open and close gates while on a chase, provided that the Hunt gets landowner(s) permission first.

Horse people always have a way of finding each other. I met my friend April through her husband Aaron, a dog trainer and hunt guide at Pheasant Bonanza in Tekamah. After a photo shoot, April and I got to talking and she told me that she used to ride with the North Hills Hunt, which I later realized was the same hunt club Bob Grier wrote about 20 years earlier. The idea of hunting and horseback riding immediately intrigued me. April introduced me to my now instructor and friend Carine Stava at The Farm at Butterflat Creek, Field Master of the North Hills Hunt (and who was also crazy enough to ride the entire Cowboy Trail by bike with me last spring– heads up, we’re thinking of doing the Cowboy Trail by horseback sometime next year). Anyway, after I jumped my first “X” in Carine’s outdoor arena, I was hooked. Wanting to go fox hunting with Carine, I moved from riding western to English; unlike a western saddle, the lighter and more simple English saddle allows you and your horse the freedom to comfortably jump over coops across property lines when chasing after hounds, hopefully hot on the trail of a fox or in the case of hunting in the Midwest, a coyote.

NHH Burwell Cubbing-119I went on my second hunt with Carine this past weekend in Burwell. Great sunrises and the physical activity of getting the horses loaded, groomed and tacked up made the oddly chilly mornings bearable. (We actually had to scrape Carine’s windshield Saturday!) It was “cubbing season,” more casual hunts before the formal hunt season that allows young, inexperienced hounds to be introduced to the chase. If you’re wondering why no one is wearing the traditional blue, black or red hunt coat with stock tie, it’s because the formal hunt season has not started. In order to take photos, I had to find a way to strap a $3,000 camera to my side without it getting in the way of my riding, falling off when I jumped or uncomfortably hitting me, the horse or the saddle at the trot. I was able to make a make-shift harness that I crudely sewed together hours before, and I am happy to report that I did not break anything on this outing. The camera stayed cinched to my side as I took it over the coops– I jumped my first coops this weekend, and it was the most heart pounding and exhilarating thing I have ever done. I’m bummed that I didn’t get more action shots. But being only my second hunt, I was more worried about taking care of myself and Josie (horse I rode) and not doing anything stupid.

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The land boils as far as your eyes can see. We galloped and moved across the plains in a dreamlike manner, behind the heels of hounds, up, down and along the rolling dimples that make up the Sandhills, an unearthly sand-dune prairie that is unlike any other.  All is quiet except the wind, the occasional groaning of cattle and the beating of equine hooves that thunder up and down the hills. The expanse of sky above and the land below consumes you, and it is in this surrender that you truly feel the magic of what surrounds you.

Did we catch a coyote or fox? No. But that was never what this experience is about.

About Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

NEBRASKAland Associate Editor Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, and moved to the United States with her parents in 1992. She graduated from Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove, California, in 2008 and completed her bachelor’s degree at UCLA in 2012. Wheatley was editor-in-chief for her high school newspaper and continued to write in college, freelancing for various publications, the Tiger Woods Foundation and writing for her blog FoodForHunters.com. After graduating college, she moved to Nebraska in early 2013 to join the Commission as Regional Editor at NEBRASKAland Magazine. She then became associate editor in 2015. Wheatley enjoys hiking, camping, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and wild game cooking.

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