A tradition in our country that dates back to the 17th century, foxhunting is a way to preserve history and enjoy the beautiful Virginia countryside
Written by Sarah McKay for our Jan/Feb. 2017 Issue. Thanks to the various photographers who contributed some fabulous photos for this feature.
For foxhunters in Virginia, the sport is not just a hobby or a job—it’s a lifestyle. Best described by The Masters of Fox Hounds Association and Foundation, (MFHA), the sport is the “union of humans and animals in the beauty of nature’s setting. Man is an observer mounted on a horse, the vehicle that allows him to follow and observe the hounds as they hunt the fox. The scenario unwinds before the foxhunters’ eyes and ears with the sounds of the huntsman’s hunting horn as hounds give chase.”
Virginia has a rich history of foxhunting, originally an English tradition where major landowners ran their hounds across their land in pursuit of game. Since the late 17th century, mounted foxhunting has been a part of America’s history, which many of our nation’s forefathers participated in, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who maintained his own pack at Mount Vernon. To date, the oldest continuing organized hunt in Virginia is the Piedmont Foxhounds, which was established in 1840 and is one of 155 registered and active hunts in North America.
Over the centuries, the sport of foxhunting has evolved into the modern day country pursuit, in which the goal of hunt is the chase, rather than the kill. A day of hunting begins with members gathering at the meet, the location where the hunt is to take place. The horses have been groomed, tacked up, and mounted, and after a few opening words by the Masters of the Fox Hounds, the huntsman casts the hounds to seek out a scent of fox or coyote. The huntsman is followed closely by the flights, the riders who are the observers of the chase. The first flight is comprised of horses and riders who will jump the coops, fences, and generally keep a faster pace. The second flight keeps a faster pace as well; however, no jumping is involved. The third flight, also known as “hilltoppers”, keeps a slower pace behind the rest of the hunt, observing the hounds’ work from a further distance. Field Masters lead each flight through the day of sport, determining how close the flights keep up with the Huntsman, as well as maintaining general safety and accounting for members during the hunt. Other key players in the hunt involve the Whipper-Ins, whose job is to keep the hounds out of harm’s way. They must know the names of the hounds, be able to identify the countryside, and are generally the eyes and ears of the huntsman. As the hunt progresses, flights watch for the fox and when spotted, a resounding “Tally Ho!” can be heard. Often, the fox goes to ground and after praising the hounds, the Huntsman calls the pack off, leaving the fox until another day’s chase. After a successful day of hunting, often the hunts will celebrate over a breakfast, or brunch, and trailer back home to care for their mounts and the pack.
For Boo Montgomery, professional Whipper-In for Bull Run Hunt, and her husband, Charles Montgomery, Huntsman for Bull Run Hunt, the day-to-day activities of maintaining the horses and hounds “is all about routine. It’s a labor of love, not so much a job as a lifestyle—you have to have a calling to do this.” And a calling is certainly what Boo and Charles have for foxhunting, as Charles is in his 30th season as a professional huntsman. When they aren’t hunting, their day begins with feeding the hounds and horses, washing down and cleaning kennels, and taking the hounds out on foot for their exercise. Time is also spent doing country maintenance—clearing trails and building jumps in the hunt territory. They finish off the day by getting their horses ready for hunting the next day. Between the two of them, Boo and Charles have 7 horses they care for, in addition to the pack of 30 hounds.
Fitness is key for both horse and rider, and when hunting season ends, the horses get 4-6 weeks off before getting back into routine on June 1st where they begin walk sets, usually riding one and ponying another. As the summer goes on, Boo and Charles condition the horses by adding in trot sets to get the horses to where they can trot 20 minutes, followed by a canter and gallop stretch, and then another 20 minute trot set, which develops the baseline for fitness before the hunting season. For those who want to condition their horse for foxhunting, Boo recommends working your way up to this baseline. For horses new to hunting, group trail rides are a great way to work up to hunting, “especially if you can practice having your horse stand when others trot by.” Often, the various hunts across the state do group trail rides and foxhunting workshops to introduce new riders and horses to the sport. However, it is recommended that if it is your first time hunting, that you go on an experienced horse, as green riders and green horses generally don’t mix well out in the field.
Hunting is also good for rider agility. Devon Zebrovious, of the Middleburg Hunt and Piedmont Fox Hounds, points out that hunting develops you as a rider and can improve your equitation, as you are not on a flat, level surface, and you must be aware of your surroundings at all times. She also notes that she hunts all of her show horses, as it is good for them to get out of the ring to have fun and challenges them to think in different ways.
For many, the thrill of the chase is what is so fun about foxhunting. For others, it is the time spent out in the countryside. Sally Lamb, of Keswick Hunt Club, notes that “we’re lucky here in central Virginia, that a lot of the time, you don’t see a road all day long.” Jordann Sipe, a junior member of Keswick Hunt Clubs adds that, “these days, we take so much for granted and it is incredible to take a step back and take in the breathtaking countryside. It’s important to take a moment to appreciate something that has been a part of our history.” However, Sally’s favorite part of it all is the hounds. “I’ve been hunting for 60 years, and it’s the same feeling when those hounds cry.”
This is one aspect that Sally notes has changed over time. In years past, “the key was to know the territory and hound work was more imperative than running and jumping. It’s more of a chase now.” She does note that some changes have been for the better, as helmets are worn for safety and tack has been improved. Rather than going out in full bridles, many riders opt for less when it comes to their bit choices, being kinder to their mounts. However, regardless of how much the equipment or ride has changed, “the devotion to the sport has not—if you’re addicted, you’re addicted.” Devon adds that the attire is one aspect of the sport that hasn’t changed much, not just because of tradition, but because of functionality. “We have these traditions because they were started for a reason. The scarlet coats are worn because you can see them from a distance, and we wear melton because it is very tightly woven and is waterproof. The stock tie serves as a bandage or sling. Everything has a reason, everything has a purpose. We understand that some things have changed, but we do look back to tradition and we want to serve those traditions.” She also adds that much of the presentation and dress of horse and rider is done out of respect for the landowners.
The tradition of foxhunting in Virginia has also served as an avenue for preserving other traditions as well, such as sidesaddle. Both Devon and Sally are huge advocates for foxhunting and sidesaddle and see the two going hand in hand. Devon, who hunts sidesaddle, notes that women have been hunting sidesaddle since the 1840’s and not only is it important to keep this style around, it is fun. She also adds that “a lot of horses go better because there is less interference with their shoulder movement when riding aside.” Devon finds that riding aside is easier and more comfortable. She also notes that for others, riding aside actually makes them braver, as they are more secure, and thus willing to try more when out riding. Hunting aside is growing rapidly in Virginia, through the efforts of both Sally and Devon. The resurgence in sidesaddle has been facilitated by the internet, which has made the sport more accessible, as well as the efforts of women around the country to pique interest in the sport by incorporating it in horse shows and race series. Devon notes that sidesaddle opens up opportunities for a lot of people, including those who have injuries or who are older, but want to continue riding, as she recalls a story of the “Galloping Grandmothers,” a group of women in Essex, NJ, who continued foxhunting aside in their 80’s.
The tradition of foxhunting has stayed alive and well in Virginia and will hopefully continue to for generations to come. For this to happen however, maintaining hunt territory is key. “We are lucky in Virginia that we have beautiful terrain, and plenty of facilities. But the whole secret is landowners, as we are always in danger of losing land” says Sally Lamb. Much of the Hunt Clubs’ time is spent on maintaining landowner relations as well as efforts around the stewardship of the land. Boo Montgomery adds, “the care of the land is imperative. We have to know and be familiar with the countryside. We also spend a lot of time maintaining habitat and being responsible stewards of the land.” Devon Zebrovious agrees that the connection with nature and importance of conservation is a big part of foxhunting, and that it is “not just land conservation, but water conservation, and keeping creeks clear for the habitat of all the animals around it.”
In addition to environmental conservation, Sally also notes that foxhunting has a positive economic impact for the state, and that Virginia is lucky to have foxhunting, which draws people to the rural parts of the state so that they can hunt. Foxhunting plays a bigger role than just sport, as it improves the economic condition of the state and adds to the horse industry’s role in bringing opportunities and jobs to the state. Sally believes this is something that must be shared with others outside the sport, from community members to land owners to legislators. “For me, foxhunting is obviously my life, but it’s not just about me. I want this industry to grow with wisdom and be a sport that people respect. Because if people appreciate what I appreciate, the longer the sport will live.”
Sally as well as Boo and Devon comment on the need to involve more riders from other disciplines, and especially youth in order to keep the sport alive. “No matter what the sport, youth is the future,” and Sally makes sure that if a young rider shows an interest in hunting, that they have a horse to ride, as if they “develop a desire for it, they will come back and support the sport.” One such youth is Jordann Sipe, who was awarded her colors this past Thanksgiving at Keswick Hunt Club’s Blessing of the Hounds. Jordann Sipe is one of Sally’s riders who started actively hunting when she was 13, when she began hilltopping, before making her way up to first flight. She recalls the moment that she fell in love with foxhunting—“two years ago, at the Keswick Hunt Club Junior meet, I had the opportunity to ride with (Huntsman) Tony Gammell, and I fell in love with being up there and seeing him work with the hounds.” This led to even more time spent in the foxhunting world, when she took an internship with Tony and his wife Whitney. She began helping with daily chores such as cleaning kennels, walking hounds out, and exercising the pack in the off season, but all this led to her being Junior Whipper-In. Her experiences with foxhunting led her to other opportunities such as showing and winning at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and “not only helped me in the horse world, but helped me gain life confidence as well.” This is another aspect that Sally loves about involving youth in the sport—“it’s important to teach and train not only better horsemen and women, but better people.”
Area hunt clubs are pushing to keep Juniors involved. Devon comments that through the work of Nancy Dillon of the Piedmont Fox Hounds, “on any given Saturday there may be around 20 kids out.” Further, hunts around the state, including Bull Run Hunt host Junior Meets, and Keswick Hunt Club has even started a group called the “Keswick Cubs,” a group of 15-20 kids that take part in monthly activities on foot or on horse and on certain Sundays, will have Junior hunts. One key part of the Keswick Cubs is that you do not have to a member in order to have your kids a part of the group. For Jordann, it is important that young riders appreciate the sport that has so much history and that they “participate in something so unique to where we come from and value the unique interaction between the hounds, horses, and countryside.”
For those looking to get involved in foxhunting or who just want to give it a try, the first step is to check out the MFHA website to find a local hunt at: http://www.mfha.com/. It is then protocol to contact the field secretary of the hunt or one of the Masters of Foxhounds, information that can be found on each hunt club’s website.
For more information on sidesaddle or foxhunting prospects, Devon Zebrovious can be reached through her website http://www.cherryblossomfarm.net/ and Sally Lamb can be reached at http://www.oaklandheightsfarm.com/.
For more information on the hunts mentioned in the article, please visit the following websites: