Photos by Jim Graham
By Mamie Duff
For her 85th birthday, Phoebe Driscoll’s children joined her in a day’s hunting with Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds in Chester County, Pennsylvania. “Oh, that was such a great surprise!” she said, since four of them live scattered across the continent, and most don’t ride on a regular basis anymore. The event was coordinated by her daughter Phoebe Fisher, now a Joint Master at the Cheshire, who organized all the borrowed kit and horses her siblings needed to accompany their mother for the big day.
That was five years ago. Driscoll, now 90, is still hunting with Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds several times a week, sometimes putting in as much as 3 or 4 hours on her trusty horse Easy Does It, aka Doozy.
It helps that Fisher provides her mom with a very exclusive livery service—horses chosen carefully for comfort and safety and produced at the meet ready to go. Even so, horses will be horses, and hunting is unpredictable. “At the last meet, we were coming down a hill at the end of the day and Doozy just lay down in the field to have a nice roll!” Driscoll said. “I couldn’t get the cord unhooked on my air vest in time, so it exploded. Doozy didn’t make any commotion about it, though. Oh, it was so funny!”
Driscoll began foxhunting in about 1942 after her family bought a farm from well-known fox hunters Dean and Louise Bedford in Elkridge Harford country. “What made my parents want to become farmers is a mystery,” she said. “Dad had been a chemist and we lived in the Baltimore suburbs when I was little. Then, they learned to ride and the next thing you know, Dad quit his job and bought a farm. I wish I had asked why.”
The family raised purebred Herefords and champion pigs and acquired a string of “odds and ends” of horses pulled from the field in August and put to hunting without any particular preparation. Tack was just a saddle, girth and snaffle bridle. Nobody dreamed of legging horses up or using breastplates, martingales, or saddle pads. Nor, for that matter, helmets—bowlers were the required headgear.
Driscoll remembers rising pre-dawn much of the year to prepare horses and ride to meets an hour or more away. In those days, it was all about going fast and jumping high—and staying out all day. During her high school years, “I once got on at 9 a.m. and didn’t get off until 7 p.m.,” she recalled. Another hunt rolled on so long that as she rode uphill to her home farm, “hanging in the sky was this big, fantastic harvest moon that encompassed the whole hay barracks.”
She kept hunting with Elkridge through college when she could get back home from Bryn Mawr, and she went beagling in every weather at Ardrossan, the Montgomery Scott estate on Philadelphia’s Main Line.
In her 20s, her racing-mad brother persuaded her to ride one of his timber horses in the Maryland Hunt Cup Powder Puff. “I wasn’t up to racing,” she ruefully remembers the resulting crash. Her brother’s caliente cap saved her head, but a crushed vertebra threatened her ability to walk again and she spent 10 weeks on her back reading books using a pair of 90-degree glasses.
She was still in a back brace when she met her husband, Lee, a war veteran. They were engaged within four weeks and married in six months. The Driscolls bought a little farm in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and decided to find a horse for Lee so that they could ride together. One dusk, seeing some horses in a field nearby, Lee negotiated hard for one he was assured was a trained jumper and 10 years old. The horse—they called him Traveller—turned out to be more like 14 and gave no signs of ever having been pointed at a jump in its life. But Huntingdon Valley master Fulmer Miller told Lee he was going hunting in a week and needed to learn. Gamely, Lee rolled back 100 yards, galloped towards a coop—and flew over it by himself while Traveller looked on. Despite this inauspicious start, Traveller and Lee became a solid pair over time and hunted with both Elkridge and Huntingdon.
Then five children followed in just as many years. Hunting was put on hold, but riding was not. Weekly Sunday rides were a tradition. “We could take the four children on ponies, plus two dogs, and safely ride across Route 202 in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania, back then,” said Phoebe, about an area long since built up with highways, developments, a major mall and strips of retail that eventually made it impractical to ride. Except for excursions to Fisher’s farm, Driscoll mostly didn’t ride much for a while, focusing instead on work in conservation and land preservation.
Long before she was a member at Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Foxhounds, Driscoll was trailering her teen daughter Phoebe (not yet Fisher) to hunt there on her Connemara named Connie. “Mrs. Hannum, the Master, was so sweet to her and told her to ride in her pocket,” she remembers.
Driscoll started fox hunting again in 2000, driving the 50 miles from her home to her daughter’s farm in the Cheshire country and back several times a week. By 2002, she minded Fisher’s twin 5-year-old grandchildren in the third field while Fisher rode on in first. Nowadays, it’s time for the grandchildren to mind Driscoll, occasionally dropping back from the first field to third to check on her or just keep company with her for a while.
These days, “It’s a whole new world of hunting,” says Driscoll. “I ride next to Third Field Master Judy Jefferis, and she tells me everything—what the hounds are doing, which way the scent is blowing, where to expect to see the fox. I am learning so much that I never knew before!”
She still stays out until the very end most days (even if the moon isn’t on the rise yet). “Well, if I go back to the meet, there’s just the trailer waiting there,” she said. “The rest of my family is still out hunting. So, I might just as well keep riding!”