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Tradition Keeps the Balance at Oak Grove Opening Meet


By Tom Brannon, MFH

One of the most iconic songs in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, titled “Tradition,” describes in the introductory monologue how important traditions are and how they help us keep our balance: “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” Horse riders, and especially fox hunter, know all too well how important it is to keep our balance – both literally when riding and metaphorically in our lives.

Fox hunting is a sport steeped in tradition: in the clothing, the tack, the horses, the hounds, the archaic terms, and even how the sport is organized and conducted. These traditions are part of the glue that holds the sport together, even in this very unusual year of 2020. At its Opening Meet on November 14, 2020, Oak Grove Hunt Club, founded in 1946, endeavored to keep traditions of fox hunting alive while doing what was necessary keep everyone safe in the midst of a pandemic.  

Social distancing is fairly easy when riding outdoors in the open, even while in a group. Just keep one horse length apart. One tradition in fox hunting is tying a red ribbon in the tail of a potential kicker. Every rider knows to stay a proper distance from that horse and, even though the other horses don’t understand the red ribbon, they quickly pick up on that horse’s body language of pinned back ears and a sideways stare. Keeping a proper distance while waiting for one’s turn over a jump, or through a gate, is normal fox hunting protocol, as well as staying behind the Field Master. These natural distancing procedures make fox hunting a reasonably safe sport in regards to COVID-19 safety measures. The Masters of Oak Grove also required all riders to keep a mask easily accessible in case of a need to dismount. In past years Oak Grove provided tally ho wagons, from which spectators could observe the hunt. But it was decided that it would be impossible for people to keep apart while sitting together on a flatbed trailer consuming libations. Except the regular “road whip,” everyone in the hunt field was on horseback this year.  

The tradition of Opening Meet is the annual Blessing of the Hounds, where a person of the cloth prays for God to protect all of His creation: hounds, horses, riders, the land owners, so that no harm may come to them. This 72nd annual Blessing for the Oak Grove hounds was officiated by Rev. Dr. Paul Criss, pastor of New Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, TN.  The blessing is becoming a tradition for Dr. Criss, as well. It is his fourth year officiating the Oak Grove blessing. This is also the seventh year that Opening Meet has been hosted by Dr. Shannon and Amanda McGee, MFH at their Lodge Farm near Holly Springs, MS. In addition to being Jt. Master of Oak Grove, Amanda is also the Huntsman, and the Oak Grove hounds’ kennels are at Lodge Farm.    

 The tradition of St. Hubert’s Medals being worn by the riders on the hunt was a part of this Opening Meet, although social distancing protocol called for them to be handed to the riders rather than being placed around the rider’s neck by the officiant. St. Hubert (658-727AD) is the patron saint of hunters and fishermen.

One delicious tradition unique to Oak Grove’s Opening Meet is the secret recipe Stirrup Cup provided by Foxy Walker, a long time Oak Grove member. Foxy will not reveal the recipe, even to her family, but she has mixed it for Oak Grove’s Opening Meet for over 46 years. Who knows? Foxy’s delicious concoction just might turn out to be a cure for corona virus. To keep things safe, the Oak Grove members who served the stirrup cup were masked and gloved, and disposable paper cups were substituted for fancier glassware.

After the blessing, Amanda roaded the hounds to the first cast in a wooded area between her house and the kennels. There were several guest riders at this year’s opening meet and they were able to ride across the beautiful Lodge Farm territory and watch the hounds work. Several were curious about what was happening, asking questions and getting an explanation from Field Master Tommy Brannon, MFH. The hounds worked through the woods, back and forth across the lake several times trying to keep on a coyote line. The scenting was spotty and the coyote ran out of the territory.

Traditionally a sumptuous meal is served after the hunt, with guests and members sitting together at tables. But to keep things safe, the Masters at Oak Grove decided to provide a box lunch from Clancy’s Restaurant in Red Banks, MS, which is close to the hunt country. Clancy’s makes everything from scratch, even smoking their own ham and turkey. No one was disappointed! Everyone sat apart in lawn chairs in an open field on the warm sunny day, discussing hounds, fox hunting, and horses.

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