From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

It’s Time to Bless the Hounds

By Julie Reardon

The Blessing of the Hounds has roots stretching to the eighth century, long before the pilgrims came to America. That, as legend has it, is when St. Hubert saw a luminous crucifix between the antlers of a stag he was hunting when he should have been at church. He changed his ways from that day on and entered the priesthood, but continued breeding black and tan hounds. Hubert was canonized after his death and became the patron saint of hunters.

That’s who the local foxhunting clubs in Virginia call on during a sweet little ceremony that celebrates the formal opening of hunting season in late October and November, and is sometimes held on Thanksgiving Day hunts. The early season, called cubbing, starts in September and is the time when young hounds and young foxes learn the ways of the hunt. Here in the U.S., kills are rare. Hunt staff do not carry terriers to flush foxes out of dens; once they go to ground the hounds are praised and called off. Riders’ dress is informal, or ratcatcher. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, the foxes actually seem to have a sense of humor about being hunted and often lead the hounds and the hunt on circuitous routes, doubling back and shimmying through cover that is hard for hounds to penetrate.

Most hunts are open to spectators but during the pandemic, if they hunted at all, many of their activities were restricted or curtailed. A minister, usually from a local Episcopal church, delivers the blessing to the hounds before the start of the meet; and blesses the horses and hunters that follow them. Spectators often number in the 100s in favorable weather, and most of them arrive before 8 a.m. to congregate over breakfast and tailgating spreads.

It’s worth the early start. What comes together on a rural grassy expanse in the hour or so before the blessing could be the inspiration for an 18th-century print: dozens of horses in bay, chestnut and gray, their riders in formal coats, and 50 or more foxhounds bred and trained at the hunt’s kennels nearby, standing eagerly but obediently around their huntsman while the blessing is conferred. Some of the hounds have been bartered and gifted from other hunts, but hunts are forbidden to buy or sell hounds, so most breed their own to produce an animal suitable for the quarry and type of country they hunt.

After the blessing, the pageant springs into action as the huntsman gathers his hounds and moves off in search of scent while the fields follow. The huntsman wears red, or scarlet, as do his staff, called whips or whippers-in, and the field masters. Certain senior hunt members who have earned their “colors” may also wear scarlet. The staff encourage lagging hounds to join the pack, deters them from heading toward busy roads or away from the others and act as the huntsman’s eyes and ears to the rear and side of the pack. These are followed by field masters leading generally two fields: first flight, with the bolder horses and riders and those capable of pinch hitting as staff if needed. This field jump panels and fence lines and tends to run faster than the second field, with the non-jumpers and slower or less experienced riders and horses.

In the Blue Ridge, the Keswick hunt, near Charlottesville, does its annual Blessing of the Hounds on Thanksgiving Day as part of an outdoor service at Grace Episcopal Church in Cismont, established in 1742. This prayer service was first held on November 28th in 1929 and is a beloved hunt tradition. Most local hunts in Fauquier, Culpeper and Rappahannock County simply have a minister come to the meet and offer the blessing.

These days, paying homage to the importance people’s pets have in their lives, many churches are offering blessing of the animal’s ceremonies. Locally, a church near me in Fauquier County has been having a Blessing of the Animals service in a nearby field and attracted cats, dogs, horses, a llama and a few other animals. Check with your church to see if this is done or if you can help start a tradition beloved by all.

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