Fox Hunting In The Mid-South
By Tommy Brannon, MFH, Oak Grove Hunt Club
Fox hunting in the Mid-South is one of those horse sports that is both steeped in tradition and 21st century modern. It is the precursor of hunter/jumper horse shows and steeplechasing, and has ties to dressage and eventing. It also has similarities to bird dog field trails.
Many competent riders with great horses in these sports have never actually been on a live foxhunt, but there is plenty of opportunity with several fox hunting clubs located in the mid-south. There are 157 hunts in the USA and Canada affiliated with The Masters of Fox Hounds Association (MFHA), as well as many unaffiliated packs. In the Mid-South there are seven in Tennessee, two in Mississippi, three in Alabama, four in Kentucky, four in Georgia, and one in Arkansas. Several of these hunts have hunting territory in adjoining states as well. Most hunts welcome guests and make allowances for first timers in regard to riding discipline (western, field trialing, etc.) and traditional attire. One does not have to jump to fox hunt, but you do need to be a competent rider on a fit horse.
The term fox hunting is really a misnomer in the 21st century mid-south. It should more properly be called “coyote chasing.” The proliferation of coyotes has reduced both the red and gray fox population, although both are making a comeback. The coyote is not native to the southeast U.S. and was not even here before the middle of the 20th century. They can now be found throughout North America, not only living in the countryside, but also cities and suburbs.
Coyotes are opportunistic pack hunters, filling the same ecological niche as foxes: eating small animals and birds, but also carrion, some farm animals and pets – and they prey on the foxes. On any given day fox hounds could run red or gray foxes, coyote, bob cat and, in some territories, wild pigs, all depending on what the hounds find. Kills are rare and with many hunt clubs, nonexistent. The quarry is wild in its own home territory; firearms are not used; and there is never a released captive fox to be chased. A drag hunt is one in which a human drags the scent of the fox on the ground over hill and dale. After the scent is laid, the hounds seek out and follow that scent. To a foxhound, it’s all about scent!
The hounds are raised, trained and hunted by the Huntsman, who is sometimes also the Master of the hunt. Fox hounds come in several breeds and, like other dogs, each breed has its own characteristics. The MFHA maintains the studbook for registered hounds, but unlike the American Kennel Club (AKC), hounds are not registered until they are entered into the pack to hunt. Most hunt clubs maintain at least 25 hounds, but some have as many as 65 or 70. Hounds are counted in couples, so 12 ½ couple is 25 hounds. The most common foxhound breeds in the mid-south are: English, American, Penn-Marydel, and crossbred, sometimes known as Hardaway Hounds. Fox hounds are usually shy with sweet dispositions and when they retire, they make great pets.
Tradition is the best way to describe the fox hunter’s style. Formal fox hunting is a formal affair with tall boots, breeches, stock tie, vest, and frock coat. Staff and Masters usually wear red (scarlet) or green coats, depending on the hunt club and all other members wear black Melton coats. As the foxhunting season starts in the fall and continues through the winter, formal coats are heavy wool for warmth. All riders these days wear helmets for safety. Ratcacher, which is informal attire, substitutes the red and black coats for tweeds and sometimes a necktie for the stock. Clothing allowances will sometimes be made by the masters for warm, rainy, or very cold days, and as previously stated, particularly for first timers of other horse disciplines. Horses must be well groomed and tack is clean and well-maintained.
Another tradition in fox hunting is the Opening Meet and Blessing of the Hounds, which is the first hunt of the formal season. This harkens back to the middle ages when almost everything had to be blessed by the church. A priest or minister, often wearing vestments, prays and blesses the hounds, horses, people, and quarry and asks for a safe hunt. The riders are given St. Hubert’s medals to wear around their necks. St. Hubert was a 7th century Bishop and is the patron Saint of hunters. Opening Meet is also a big party with lots of food and drink after the hunt, and, as with other hunters and fishermen, everyone gets to brag about the day’s sport. Fox hunters are very enthusiastic about their sport and love to share with others how much fun it is.
Fox hunting is a family sport with children as young as six participating. Horseback riding for some hunters is the main reason for participating. Some hunt to ride, while others ride to hunt.
To prevent riders from interfering with the hounds and the huntsman, everyone rides together in the “Field,” led by the Field Master. This is similar to “the Gallery” in bird dog field trialing. Depending on the hunt club and the territory, there may be more than one Field, usually divided into jumping and non-jumping Fields. Some territories do not have jumps at all, and quite often there is an optional gate. Jumps consist of coups built over the barbed wire, or post and rail jumps. Riders take the jumps one at a time. The terrain is natural and can be hilly or flat, rocky, muddy, grassland or woods. Where you go is all dependent on the quarry and hounds! The pace could be a walk, a trot, canter, or flat out gallop.
There are also times when you stop, look, and listen for the hounds.
You just can’t have more fun on horseback than fox hunting!
The following is a list of the hunts in the mid-south. For contact information, visit the Masters of Fox Hounds Association at: www.MFHA.org
Alabama: Full Cry Hounds, Hard Away-Whitworth Hounds, Moorland Hunt
Arkansas: Misty River Hounds
Kentucky: Carmargo Hunt, Iroquois Hunt, Long Run Hounds, Woodford Hounds
Georgia: Bear Creek Hounds, Belle Meade Hunt, Midland Fox Hounds, Shakerag Hounds
Mississippi: Chula Homa Hunt
Tennessee: Cedar Knob Hounds, Cumberland Mountain Hounds, Hillsboro Hounds, Longreen Foxhounds, Mells Foxhounds, Oak Grove Hunt Club, and Tennessee Valley Hunt
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