I could hear them coming before I could see them. A group of about 20 hounds yelped wildly as they raced through the tree line. Only after the sound of a horn did they recompose themselves and get back into a group as they ran beside huntsman Jamie Green across the Middleton Place plantation lawn.
Green, followed by an entourage of riders, sat stoicly as visitors snapped pictures of him surrounded by the hounds. The stage had been set, the riders were present and a fox hunt would follow shortly.
But wait, unlike other hunts I have followed, there would be no kill. Actually there would be no fox.
The Middleton Place Hounds, the fox hunting club at the plantation, partake in drag hunts which basically means the hounds follow the scent of a fox instead of the real thing. Thus I can make the disclaimer that no fox was harmed in the making of this blog.
The tradition, started in England and brought to America in the 1600s, was meant to protect livestock by killing the fox. Now, hunts consist of the traditional chase but rarely end with a kill.
Being new to the sport I asked riders why they participate in the hunt. Martha La Roche of Ravenel had been fox hunting for 43 years and said she loves the sound of the hounds and the quickness of the ride as the riders scramble through the woods after the hounds. She said her horse, Mack, squeals 'I'm ready' when the horns sound.
The actual hunt takes place on the plantation property across Ashley River Road and the riders only meet on the front lawn of the plantation. The hounds and horses cover a large tract of land and a small group follow in vehicles to observe the hunt. Since the hunt is pre-determined by the drag of the scent, it is easier to follow the chase.
At the plantation, I got to observe the hounds. At first, I thought they were dogs, you know, of the canine variety but was quickly admonished. These are hounds, I was told -- and every time thereafter when I made the mistake again.
They rolled around on the ground or chased after each other under the watchful eye of the huntsman and his assistants, the whippers-in. Surprisingly, the hounds stayed put until I came to take some pictures. At that point I was attacked by slobber as if the fox scent had been drug over my camera bag.
A distant yell of Tally-Ho, and we were off and running. Actually the hounds and horses were running,
their riders were riding and I was following in a truck with a heater because
it was cold out there. The hounds ran through the woods and the riders followed
on the most direct path. It was fun to watch as the horses traversed with ease the jumps and obstacles along the path.
I actually owned a horse at a young age and the only time I remember both sets of hooves leaving the ground was when Coco, my horse, was trying to throw me from my saddle. Obviously, I enjoy the confines of a Ford truck and the heater as I am still scarred by my experiences with my horse.
The hunt guided the riders along trails throughout the plantation property. At this point I might add the hunt is more about the fun and pageantry of the event than the actual hunt. Everyone dressed up in appropriate clothing from the riding boots to the hunting caps. Every outfit was significant because the clothing was symbolic of the rank of the rider.
The huntsman wore one outfit while the assistants wore another. The color of the jacket, the number of buttons on the jacket to the style of hat; it was all significant to the status of the rider.
My status consisted of one sweater, not warm enough, and a pair of hiking boots. My hat would have been of the knit variety but I left it in my car by accident.
Quite a bit of skill was needed on the part of the hunters to navigate the terrain. I remember watching the equestrian portion of the Olympics and thinking, please make that jump. Although the jumps were not as high, I still bit my lip hoping everyone would clear each jump.
By far the coolest part of the hunt was the dogs, I mean hounds. They ran
and yelped and chased that fox. At some point I felt sorry for them because
the chase was futile, there was no fox.
Still, the hounds were determined to find that fox or scent. After freezing all afternoon, I was determined to find warmth. Everyone has their goal.
Soon the scent ran out and the hounds were corralled back to the kennel. The riders headed back to their trailers.
The great thing about a hunt is no one leaves unhappy. For example, if you pay for a lease and kill no deer, that is a bummer. If you go fishing and catch nothing, that could be disheartening. With a fox hunt, the chase is all the riders want to fulfill their hunt.
The event was very entertaining but I still have flashbacks of my horse Coco knocking me to the ground so I don't think I will be suiting up any time soon. For those who love horses or hounds, wrap up for warmth and watch or join in a hunt. The season lasts through April.
Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at firstname.lastname@example.org.