Over the Fields and Through the Woods

Story and photos by Jennifer Lee

The Blue Ridge Hunt celebrates its 125th anniversary of foxhunting in Clarke County

Anyone who’s ever done it knows the rush: an expanse of rolling countryside before you, a frisky ton of powerful animal underneath you, hounds in full cry leading the charge over tall coops and wide ditches, the smell of earth and horse sweat and adrenaline coursing through you. This is the thrill of the chase.

“Watching the hounds work, work, work, hearing them, seeing the whole system come together, there’s just nothing like it,” says joint Master of the Blue Ridge Hunt Anne McIntosh, echoing the sentiment of most anyone who’s ever spent time in the hunt field. “No one has a worry in the world when you’re out there and everything is going right.”

It was Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax—who lived and died at Greenway Court in White Post—who organized the first group hunt club in America in 1747, according to the Masters of Foxhounds Association. The Blue Ridge Hunt (BRH) was established in 1888, making it the third oldest foxhunt club in the United States, after neighboring Piedmont in Upperville and Deep Run west of Richmond. One hundred twenty-five years later, they are keeping the tradition alive in the face of shrinking land accessibility, changing public sentiment about the sport, through the sheer love of it.

On the surface, a foxhunt meet can appear a bit frivolous—privileged people in their pretty coats and jodhpurs and their fine steeds gathering at grand estates to chase a pack of dogs going after an innocent little fox. But there’s a lot more to it than that. A good hunt club is an orchestra of highly trained and cared for hounds, athletic horses and riders, responsible sportsmanship, land stewardship, and a hardworking staff. The conductor of that orchestra is the huntsman.

The Hounds

Guy Allman, 44, from Devon, England, was hired as Blue Ridge’s huntsman in the spring of 2012 and by all heard accounts has given new breadth and expertise to this pack of riders, horses, and hounds. “He’s just really, really good at what he does,” McIntosh enthused. She found him by calling hunt clubs across England, asking if the huntsman had ever considered coming to America.

The relationship the huntsman has with the hounds is critically important to the health, performance, and enjoyment of the entire foxhunting experience. Before Allman arrived, McIntosh said, the hounds had been quiet while hunting for at least a few seasons, an indication that they were not properly engaged or motivated. “People must have thought we went to Wal-Mart and bought voice buttons and inserted them in all the hounds,” McIntosh laughs, describing the difference between the hounds under Allman’s charge compared to seasons past.

“It’s all down to attitude, isn’t it?” Allman explained in his sharp British accent. “The way I work goes down to the hounds. It’s really about a good work ethic. I keep things very basic and take it from there. From the kennel to their manners in the field, it’s about establishing routines, gaining their trust, building confidence. And not giving up. As soon you give up, the hounds give up.”

The work ethic of a huntsman in England is instilled long before he or she is allowed to wear the scarlet coat or even get in the field. “You start at the bottom, cleaning the kennels, doing whatever is asked of you, and work your way up. It shows whether you’re keen,” Allman said. His first job as huntsman, at the Mid Devon Foxhounds, came when he was 29 years old, after 13 seasons of apprenticeship.

“A good huntsman has to be observant, sharp, and must react quickly. There is an invisible thread—that link between you, the horse, and the hounds—and you all have to want to do the right thing,” he said.

Most of Blue Ridge’s pack of 80 hounds and puppies (or 40 couple, as they are called) are English foxhounds, with about 18 couple going out on a hunt day. A typical hunting career for a hound is six to seven seasons, “so I’ve been trying to teach some old dogs some new tricks,” Allman quips. It is readily apparent that he has the full attention and respect of his pack as they gather tightly and calmly around him, whether he’s on foot or mounted.

“Guy is definitely the alpha dog,” McIntosh said. Brian Ferrell, a new joint Master of Blue Ridge, tells of watching Allman walk down the road with the pack one day. With just subtle positioning of his body and a few hand gestures, he had complete control of when and where the hounds went. “The kennels are spotless and these hounds are taken care of better than 99 percent of people’s pets,” Ferrell added.

The Land

The relationship forged with landowners is also of essential importance and is one of the primary responsibilities of the Masters. “We obviously couldn’t do any of this without them,” McIntosh said. Permission must be granted by every owner of the land the Hunt traverses, with the understanding that the Hunt will take care of panels (such as coops), trails, and be generally good stewards of the land. The BRH also offers “fallen stock” services to farmers who need livestock carcasses disposed of.

Clarke County is still blessed with an abundance of open farmland and woods and contiguous properties in conservation easement that contribute to the success and enjoyment of the Hunt. Where it differs from territory just over the mountain to the east is the high concentration of limestone in the soil, which causes surface water to drain more quickly. Drier earth does not hold a scent—the hounds’ primary tool—nearly as well as moist earth. This can be particularly challenging when weather conditions are variable, warm and wet one day, cold and dry the next.

It takes a day or two for a hound’s nose to adapt to new conditions, McIntosh explained. But that doesn’t discourage Allman. “If it’s a moderate or bad scenting day, you work harder. That’s what I’m there to do. You don’t give up,” he said.

The Horses

Many of the horses in the hunt field are thoroughbreds who’ve been retired from flat racing and are brought in and trained in a new way, as 4- or 5-year-olds, to be “sane” and willing to jump. Allman takes a similar approach training hunt horses as he does with hounds. “They have to work it out for themselves. You should know when to handle them and when to leave them alone,” he said.

Horses in the hunt field come in a variety of breeds, sizes, and temperaments. but a good hunter must possess a few essential qualities: speed, endurance, and sanity. With experience and good manners, a seasoned field hunter can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Allman’s personal preference is “a quick, small thoroughbred that can turn on a six-pence and go. They have to be quick to learn, adaptable, and have plenty of engine.” He likes them between four and six years old, “so I can learn along with them,” he said.

His biggest piece of advice for someone new to foxhunting is to “get the right horse for your ability. You have to know what’s under you, whether you’re working with a sane mind.”

The Hunt

In addition to the huntsman, there is at least one whipper-in, or whip, who acts as the huntsman’s right hand, helping with everything from maintenance at the kennel to looking for the fox in the hunt field. Chris Rutter, also from England, serves this role at BRH. They are also currently seeking a second whipper-in.

Members of the hunt field are divided into two groups based on ability of horse and rider. The first field follows closely behind the hounds and huntsman, often at a fast clip and jumping any obstacles. The second field, or “hilltoppers,” go at a more leisurely pace and do not jump. Each field typically has its own Master, who is responsible for the general well being of horse, rider, and ground being hunted. In addition to Anne McIntosh and Brian Ferrell, Linda Armbrust has served as a joint Master for BRH for the last 13 years.

The hunting season begins in late August with “cubbing,” when the huntsman introduces young hounds to the sport, and concludes in mid-March. Weather permitting, BRH meets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and some holidays at a number of pastoral locations throughout the county. Historic Long Branch is the host of the opening meet in late October or early November and the Stirrup Cup on Thanksgiving Day, when the public is invited to share holiday cheer and see the hunt off. A couple hundred well-wishers were in attendance this past brisk Thanksgiving, warmed by cider, port, ham biscuits, and bucolic scenery.

Few foxes (two so far this year) are killed here in the hunting season, and the hunt staff contends that they are usually the weak and sick, often plagued by mange, worms, or some other illness. Red foxes are predominant in this area, and they can run as fast as 30 miles per hour, uncannily clever in finding hiding places and often “going to ground” (disappearing into a hole or place where the hounds can’t reach it) to avoid capture. The hounds are trained not to chase coyotes, deer, or any other animal.

“The goal is to get them (the hounds) hunting nicely without being sharp,” Allman explains, meaning the chase is far more encouraged than the kill. To reward the hounds for a good effort, in lieu of capturing the fox, Allman says, “I get down and make a good, big fuss over them. It’s in the voice.”

In addition to the hunt meets, BRH hosts several events throughout the year, including the point-to-point spring races at Woodley, the Virginia Foxhound Show, trail rides, and an annual Hunt Ball. Proceeds from these events help offset the significant expenses associated with feed, medicines, care of the Hunt’s hounds and horses, and upkeep of the kennel, stables, and staff housing.

Anyone interested in joining the Hunt is encouraged to call any of the three Masters. There are various levels of membership, and one can come as a non-member by paying a “cap” fee on the day of the hunt. Blue Ridge currently has about 70 riding members and 40 social members.

The sight and sounds of dozens of hounds, horses, and riders charging across the countryside is a deeply rooted tradition in Clarke County whose intrigue and allure can be appreciated as participant or spectator. Tally Ho!

For more information on the Blue Ridge Hunt, visit their website at wwwblueridgehunt.org.

For more information on foxhunting in general, visit the Masters of Foxhounds Association and Foundation website at www.mfha.org.

Clarke County resident and foxhunting expert Norm Fine has written a collection of colorful stories, compiled in the book Foxhunting Adventures: Chasing the Story and writes a blog on the website www.foxhuntinglife.com.