John Tabatchka affectionately pats his horse, Will, and flips the switch on the Electro-Groom. He begins to methodically vacuum Will’s flanks.
“It’s designed to groom show cattle, horses, etc,” Tabatchka said over the roar of the machine. Will shudders his flesh as if shooing a fly. “He’s a little ticklish.”
Tabatchka is the huntsman for the Sewickley Hunt Club, one of two remaining foxhunting clubs in Western Pennsylvania. Instead of chasing a live fox, Sewickley organizes a drag hunt, in which members chase a fox’s scent through the woods. But Tabatchka’s job remains the same.
“My job is to breed, raise, train and then hunt the hounds on a hunting day,” he said.
Foxhunting came west over the Alleghenies with the region’s earliest European settlers and took root in the region. George Washington himself spent as much time as possible on the back of a horse. The sport is a direct link to the past, Tabatchka said.
“It’s full of tradition," he said. "And the job [huntsman] itself hasn’t changed a whole lot. It’s still up in the morning, take care of the animals; hounds have always needed to eat, trails have needed to be cleared.”
If the appearance and comportment of foxhunts haven’t changed much, the physical landscape has, said Andy Komer, joint master of the Sewickley Hunt.
“We’re losing land for development,” he said. “So without landowners [allowing the hunt to use their land] you couldn’t have a hunt.”
The Sewickley Hunt Club can be found astride their horses on Wednesdays and Saturdays from August through Jan. 1, following a scent as vulnerable to the passage of time as the hunt itself.
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