with Horse and Hound

What’s In a Word That Begins With Rat?

nmfguitar.ratcatcherAs the informal autumn foxhunting season approaches, it’s time to examine our horses’ tack for neatness and safety—bridles, reins, billet straps, girth buckles, stirrup leathers—and, of course, our informal hunting attire called ratcatcher. Say what?

Some years ago, Carol Riggs, honorary whipper-in for the Red Mountain Foxhounds (NC), asked us, “Where did the term ‘ratcatcher’ come from?” For the answer we turned to our Panel of Experts.

When it comes to etymology, Steven Price is always first person I think to consult. For Price (a member of Foxhunting Life’s Panel of Experts), words are beguiling toys on which to play, to savor, to manipulate. He is the author or editor of thirty-five books, including the Lyon’s Press Horseman’s Dictionary. Here’s what Price had to say:

“The term “ratcatcher” came from the apparel worn by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century men whose profession was vermin control: a tweed cap and coat, a collarless shirt with a neckerchief, and breeches with gaiters (much like half-chaps) to prevent rodents from running up their legs inside their trousers. They used dogs, primarily terriers, to flush out and kill rats and other rodents .

“That was also the apparel worn by grooms and agricultural workers, whose duties included the control of vermin in their grain bins. In any event, the tweed coats, shirts with ties or chokers, and brown boots that are appropriate during the cubhunting season are not a far cry from what these rat-catchers wore.”

And, for anyone interested in a refresher course in what ratcatcher attire actually is, we turn to our own website. Foxhunting Life‘s guide to correct hunting attire was prepared with reference to several sources: Foxhunting in North America by Alexander Mackay-Smith, 1985; Guidebook 1997, a publication of the Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America; Riding to Hounds in America by William P. Wadsworth, MFH (first published in 1959 and subsequently in 1962 by The Chronicle of the Horse and reprinted many times); Miller’s Catalog, 1974; and Horse Country Catalog, 1997.

A careful comparison of these, or indeed any other resources will reveal minor differences in what is deemed correct attire. The fact is, there is no universal agreement regarding every detail of attire. Therefore, the rigid term, “Correct Attire,” is a false one. However, a gentleman or lady rider who relies on this or any one of these references may confidently appear in any hunting field in the country with assurance of being correctly or, at the very least, acceptably attired.

Gentleman and Lady Members
Coat: Tweed in a muted color. Not red.
Shirt: Ratcatcher (collarless) or other light-colored shirt
Neckwear: Stock tie, plain or colored, secured by plain gold pin inserted horizontally or man’s necktie. Free ends of the stock tie should be pinned to the shirt with safety pins.
Breeches: Canary, tan, brown, buff, or rust
Boots: Plain brown dress boots or brown field boots with laces. Canvas-topped Newmarket boots or jodhpur boots are also correct. The MFHA’s Guidebook 1997 also approves of plain black dress or field boots for informal wear.
Hat: ASTM-approved safety helmet with chin-strap is recommended, covered in black or brown velvet. The ribbon should be stitched up or down in accordance with local custom. (Traditionally, ribbons down indicate professional hunt staff.) Alternatively, a black or brown velvet hunting cap or bowler may be worn.
Gloves: Brown leather or string gloves
Spurs: Of heavy pattern with moderately short neck and no rowels, worn high on the boot heel, spur arms parallel to the ground. Buckle and free end of strap should be on the outside of the foot. The straps should match the color of the boots.
Whip: Traditional hunting whip. Lash and thong may be removed while cubhunting.

Lady Member (Sidesaddle)
Coat: Buff, brown, or off-white; plain, tweed, or salt sack
Skirt: To coordinate with coat
Hat: ASTM-approved safety helmet with chin-strap is recommended, covered in black or brown velvet. The ribbon should be stitched up. Bowler or velvet hunting cap is also correct.
Veil: Not appropriate

Juniors are not expected to wear formal attire during any part of the season because they are constantly outgrowing their clothes, and the expense would be unwarranted.
Coat: Tweed in a muted color. No reds.
Neckwear: Plain or colored hunting stock secured by plain gold pin inserted horizontally. Free ends should be secured in place by vest or sweater or pinned to the shirt with safety pins. Ratcatcher shirt with neckband or collared shirt with bow-tie or man’s necktie are also correct. Turtleneck shirts may be worn by very young children.
Breeches: Canary, tan, brown, buff, or rust breeches or jodhpurs
Boots: Brown jodhpur boots
Hat: ASTM-approved safety helmet properly fastened
Hair: If long, hair should be confined or braided
Gloves: Brown leather or string gloves
Spurs: Same as above
Whip: Small traditional hunting whip, with or without thong, or riding crop

Weather: As always, the Master has the final say as to what is and what isn’t permitted in his or her hunt. In extremes of temperature it is always the prerogative of the Master to suspend the wearing of coats or to allow the wearing of parkas and rain gear. Any non-traditional clothing allowed should be of muted colors (brown, black, or dark green).

Sunglasses: Not appropriate unless prescribed or recommended by a physician. However, common sense should prevail in climates and regions of the country where intense sunlight and glare is endemic. (In Britain, from whence come most of these guidelines, bright sunlight may be a rare occurrence!)

Thus prepared, go confidently forward to a new hunting season, secure in the knowledge that you’ll be safe and socially acceptable, and able to explain the meaning of ratcatcher to bewildered newcomers! Seriously, for a moment, we are all members of a fraternity with proud traditions. When turned out safely, neatly, and properly, we create an image that reflects well upon us, and is glorious for others to see. If we love this sport, we have an obligation to represent it well. Anything less is an insult to those who went before us and taught us what was right.

Posted July 16, 2018