Rockbridge Hunt

STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS/THE ROANOKE TIMES

The Rockbridge Hunt’s hounds are led by Huntsman David Conner into the field for the traditional blessing of the hounds during the opening meet of the official season on Nov. 2 at the Tex Tilson Lodge at The Hunt in Rockbridge County.

GLASGOW — A distant, deep woods howling sharpened into the baying and barking of hounds as riders gathered recently in the opening meet of the official fox hunting season, hosted by the Rockbridge Hunt, joined by the Glenmore Hunt.

Several formally dressed riders encircled Rockbridge Hunt’s master of foxhounds Cindy Morton, astride C.J., her Irish draft horse, and the Rev. Philip Parker, who led the group in prayer to bless the hounds.

This medieval tradition seeks protection for the hounds from disease and safety from harm during the hunt.

Joe Manning, 58, is master fox houndsman for the Glenmore Hunt. “Fox hunting is not about the fox; it’s about the chase,” Manning said. “We do not kill. Fox are indigenous to this area so they go into their dens. The objective is not to kill; it’s to chase for another day.”

Of course, that’s latter-day fox hunting. Traditionally, with riders wearing red woolen jackets to minimize the bloodstains, it was a sport that didn’t end well for a fox cornered by the hounds.

Today, the codes of conduct established by the Masters of Foxhounds Association emphasize good horsemanship, camaraderie and appreciation of the outdoors in a seek-and-chase sport involving rider, horse and hound. The hounds are bred for hunting.

Across a large hayfield at the edge of the woods two riders wearing red jackets, known as “scarlets” or “pinques,” and designated as “whipper-ins” had the duty of aiding the huntsman.

The huntsman leads the pack so the hounds don’t run astray or into dangerous territory, like a road. Manning said puppies respect the older hounds. “If the younger hounds start a line, the older hounds won’t honor it,” he said. “They learn. I’ve got to trust you first.”

Some of the hounds are one-quarter Welsh. They are chosen for the event in a draft.

Each hunt club breeds its own hounds and never sells them, instead retiring them as pets. If another club loses hounds and needs more, word spreads and the clubs help each other out.

The Rockbridge Hunt operates in mostly dense terrain largely inaccessible by vehicle and difficult to traverse on foot, so the best vantage point is at the beginning as the hunt master leads the hounds and horses off into the mountains.

Following along in a pickup truck, Joe Conner used the roads to skirt edges of the 725 acres the hunt has permission to enter. Conner has trained all of the dogs. He tracks them with a two-way radio to riders and a GPS system that traces each dog’s collar, ID’d by their names.

“They’re like a classroom of students,” Manning said. “You need to know all of their names.”

The hunt is arranged like a clockface: Whipper-ins are posted at 3 and 9 o’clock on the edges of the property, and the field’s first flight of riders is at 6 o’clock. The huntsman is at noon with the pack of hounds. On this spectacular autumn day of Nov. 2, the hunters were out in three flights. About 60 to 70 people participated.

“I’m seeing most of them between the spaceship and your house,” the voice on the two-way says.

The spaceship? It’s actually an old deer hunting stand that resembles a spaceship, Conner explained.

“I’m in the hayfield,” the voice responded. Conner chuckled under his breath, “There are a lot of hayfields around here.”

The truck cruised along U.S. 11 past an the Asian pear farm and into a new neighborhood that ended at a cul-de-sac adjacent to a field. In the distance atop the ridge two scarlet riders were spotted, Jake Wilson and Kayla McCoy, the whipper-ins. Then within moments they disappeared back into the thick trees.

“They’re over the sacred knoll,” the voice repeated. “Most of the hounds are within a half-mile range, same yardage, all pretty close together.” But Acadia is missing. That hound has gone rogue.

The pickup truck moved down the gravel road past the pens where the hound pups are boarded, up a hill and onto the grassy field not far from a deer stand. Within a very short wait, a parade of horses and hounds crossed the field, the sun almost silhouetting the scene. The fox hunt was over after about two and a half hours, just before sunset.

Did they see a fox?

“No,” said Annie Lichtenstein, member of the Rockbridge Hunt, who lives in Roanoke, and rides an Irish draft thoroughbred crossbreed named Marshall. “We saw a bobcat. It was so beautiful!”

The day ends with a dinner prepared by the Eichelberger family of Glasgow, Rebecca, Eric and their 3-year-old daughter, Abigail. Conner, now cleaned up and dressed for the dinner, reported he located three of the dogs who strayed.

He’s not quite sure what happened. They didn’t tell him.

The riders said it’s a good hunt when you start having fun and can enjoy the countryside. Some horses really tune into the hunt and others are just along for the ride. Said Blair Jones of New Castle, there are two ways of categorizing the hunt, either, “ride the hunt or hunt the ride.”

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