One of my favorite things about living in Virginia is the deeply rooted connection to equestrian sports. You can drive down most any country road and find horses and a rich culture of working, showing, and fox hunting.
I recently visited the Caroline Hunt in Caroline County, Virginia, for its Opening Hunt, the season’s first formal day of fox hunting. Originating in Virginia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fox hunting has deep roots in the Commonwealth, continuing today through many active hunts. According to the Masters of Foxhound Association, the oldest continuing hunt in the United States is the Piedmont Hunt of Virginia, established in 1840. As the MFHA points out, fox hunting in North America has evolved to focus on the chase, rather than the kill. Most hunts are no-kill hunts, ultimately trying to ensure safe passage for the fox.
With most hunts starting early in the day, you often wake up before the sun has even considered getting out of bed. Although you have likely bathed, groomed, and prepped your horse the day before, you will still need to get everything together, being sure you haven’t forgotten something important (like boots, cap, or flask!).
Arriving at the day’s fixture, or location of the meet, can be a social affair, seeing old friends and tacking up your horse for the day’s ride. Stirrup cup, or a nip of something to warm the bones on a cold morning, is a fun way to loosen up those tight muscles – and nerves! Depending on the day, stirrup cup can be more or less formal.
Above: An informal stirrup cup and snacks from an earlier fall hunt. Photo by Paige Riordan.
The group then convenes for a blessing of the hounds that is performed each year at Opening Hunt. It is also an opportunity to thank the landowners for their contributions and generosity of allowing passage through their land and along their fields.
Now the group and hounds are ready to hunt. Riders in the field follow a leader as part of a flight. First flight is fastest, includes jumps, and is for experienced riders, while second flight is for those wishing a somewhat slower pace and no, or less, jumping. In Virginia, the terrain can be a mix of hills, wooded lands, open spaces, and jumps such as logs and fences. It’s very common to pass through working farms and planted fields.
Above: Riders at the Caroline Hunt. Photo credit unknown. Above: Riders in the field follow through the woods. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
While it’s a very social event, there is a technical side that drives the day. The hounds are well equipped and trained to identify the scent and track the fox long distances across the varied terrain. The Huntsman and hounds maintain the trail while hunt staff hold perimeters to ensure safety of the hounds. In a modern landscape, roads, railroad tracks, and other potential dangers are never too far away. When the hounds are gone “away” on a trail, the route can be a fun and exciting journey for riders in the field.
Above: The Hounds are working hard. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
Above: Tony Gammell, former Huntsman at Keswick, after Opening Hunt in Caroline County. Photo by Patrick Heffernan.
After a long day in the field, there is nothing better than coming back for the Hunt Breakfast, a time to share delicious food and drink with members and guests. The nourishing power of a home-cooked meal and a welcoming community of people committed to the land and nature warms even the coldest of winter days. Thank you to the Caroline Hunt for always being welcoming and hospitable.
For more information about fox hunting, visit the Masters of Foxhound Association website. Also, check out the video below demonstrating riders and hounds of the Caroline Hunt in 2012.