Originally meant as a divine and ancient antidote for protection against rabies, the scourge of the times, the Blessing of the Hounds was first introduced to the United States on October 1, 1927 by Mrs. Walter C. White, who retrieved the concept from France. Mrs. White was a great-aunt of the late Robert York White, a third generation M.F.H. (Master of Foxhounds) of the Chagrin Valley Hunt, which in 2006 celebrated its 98th consecutive season. The old and sacred tradition of the Blessing of the Hounds is only one of many legacies and contributions the White family has graced the sport of foxhunting with.
Other hunts from around the country have since adopted the custom and aside from a spiritual vaccination against rabies, the Blessing also commemorates the formal opening of hunting season. Cubbing season is a prelude, where young hounds and foxes are taught the rudiments of the sport. Cubbing season usually dissolves in late September or mid-October, giving way to formal season where riders and horses are turned out in their tuxedo best and the noses of hounds get serious.
Traditionally, a short prayer is said to plead the intercession of St. Hubert of Liege, the seventh century patron saint whose spiritual jurisdiction reigns over both hunters, hounds and the chase. Medals inscribed with etchings of the holy man are blessed, distributed and either tied to the bridles of the horses or tucked tightly next to a pocket flask hoping to evoke a safe season. St. Hubert, who died in 727 A.D., devoted his life’s work to evangelism after a vision appeared to him while out hunting on Good Friday. The vision was of a crucifix hovering between the horns of a stag. God knows what he was on, but word traveled fast and St. Hubert was nonetheless soon relegated to the status of a seventh century rock star.
St. Hubert’s body was brought to the Benedictine Abbey of Audian, on the frontiers of Luxembourg in 1825. For centuries St. Hubert’s Day was celebrated on the opening day of formal hunting in France during which a mass was performed evoking his blessing. All the hunting dogs were brought to the church, and the priests of the rural chapels would anoint the hounds with sacred oil and feed them blessed bread, a type of canine holy communion, after performing low mass.
In the eighteen hundreds, if a villager or hunter became infected with rabies, the intercession of St. Hubert was requested. An operation was performed, during which the forehead of a rabid victim was cut and a thread from St. Hubert’s robe was inserted under the skin, supposedly to effect a cure. The surgery was referred to as ‘la taille.’ The patient was required to sleep alone under white sheets, drink out of a single glass, they were not allowed to drink from a spring or stream and they were required to eat only cold pork and bacon from a boar pig, scaled fish and hard-boiled eggs.
Male patients were not permitted to clip their beards for nine days lest the cure not be effective nor were they permitted to comb their hair for 40 days either. This must have thrust them into a fashionable time warp way ahead of their peers as the ensuing dread-locks no doubt would rivale reggae master Bob Marley’s coiffure. On the tenth day, the bandage was removed and those who were bitten by mad dogs and who had religiously followed the precepts and requirements, were supposedly cured.
If they succumbed to the illness, it was thought that they either had violated the covenant by failing to follow instructions, thereby suffering the consequences and wrath of God, or they simply waited too long to request St. Hubert’s intercession and were forced to join him in the afterworld as retribution for their error. This was such a popular procedure that between 1806 and 1835 it’s recorded that over 4,800 persons were subjected to ‘la taille.’
The Blessing of the Hounds continued among the hunts of France on an annual basis although ‘la taille’ gradually lost its intrigue and the surgeries were eventually abandoned. Chances of contracting the disease were thought to be lessened through participation in the Blessing. Today foxhunters take out double insurance policies to avoid the issue: one from God in the form of the Blessing and the other from veterinarians in the form of vaccines. Either way, it assures all bases are covered.
In the modern age, foxhunters maintain that the Blessing and distributed St. Hubert medals work particularly well to not only illicit courage due to divine guardianship, but also to ward off falls caused by consuming traditional early morning liquid spirits, swallowed to allegedly prevent rider chill. Hounds, somewhat oblivious to the seriousness of the rite, usually scratch their ears, roll in the dewed grass or unceremoniously relive themselves as they look attentively toward their huntsman.
John Van de Motter, Joint MFH of the Grand River Hunt recounts one occasion during his two decade experiences as Field Master when the medals responded with certain validity, instilling young riders with valiant courage and protection from a Higher Source. “Hounds were on full cry and the field was galloping up to a fence,” Van de Motter recounted. “A couple of the kids were worried about jumping it. It was opening day and they insisted on riding with the first flight so I didn’t have a choice by leaving them behind. They were just little kids and our hunt policy includes the ‘no child left behind’ program.”
“I reminded them that they got their medals at the Blessing earlier that morning and told them with those medals, they could do anything, that they had Saint Hubert riding on their shoulders. I told them to make the sign of the cross, close their eyes and go. They looked at each other dumbfounded as if to say ‘Whoa! We didn’t even think of that!’ and bam, they galloped those ponies right over that big fence without hesitation and kept up with the field for the rest of the hunt, jumping everything, fearlessly and without question,” Van de Motter laughed.
The spiritual fanfare isn’t just for the open mouthed, tongue panting hounds but extends to embrace horses, riders, foxes and coyotes although injury on any account is not the motive regardless of what end of the chase someone is on, predator or prey. Foxhunters in the United States are primarily interested in the preservation of wildlife, land conservation and ecological concerns. Among the stateside civilized, blood sports are considered highly unfashionable, spiritually, if not politically, incorrect. The majority of foxhunters are outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists and animal lovers.
The first Blessing of the Hunt elicited criticism and became the butt of jokes in and around Cleveland, The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) became incensed with the imagined brutality of fox execution by crazed hounds. Newspapers of the day mocked the idea of blessing hounds but the ceremony eventually found strength and grew to embrace many hunts across the country. Today many foxhunters share not only the international emblem of the foxhunting sport taped to the windshields of their vehicles, but also insignias of many diverse animal oriented charitable groups including the ASPCA, the Humane Society, the Gorilla Foundation and other similar philanthropic organizations.
“It isn’t unusual for me to wake up in the morning staring into the face of a hound laying on the pillow next to me, rather than my wife,” laughed MFH John Van de Motter, who has hunted for over four decades and whose Grand River Hunt celebrated its 20th year of inception in 2006. “I know my wife is in there somewhere, but it never surprises me to come back to consciousness staring at a black and tan in our bed with us, panting and drooling all over the pillow. Our hounds are such an integral part of our families that when one needs special attention or has an injury or medical issue, they often wind up in our house rather than the kennel, and more often than not, they wind up in our beds, too. They’re no idiots. But they’re just like our kids, too. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”
Heidi Van de Motter, Huntsman and Joint M.F.H. of the Grand River Hunt agreed with her husband. The Van de Motters frequently offer their hounds discarded bones collected by supportive landowners and it’s not unusual to find huge kettles of hot soup boiling in their cauldrons, all to enrich the health and welfare of their kennel charges. Shaking their russet heads in concentrated torture, the hounds are often seen devouring deer, cow and pig bones donated by supporters and local farmers.
Although fox is still plentiful, the invasion of coyotes into the hunt territory has generated some impressive runs and forced hunt staff to readjust their strategies over the years in order to adapt to this fleet footed character. It affords a whole different bag of tricks to decipher and is always perceived as a welcome guest in hunt country for those wild-eyed foxhunters who live for the speed of the chase. He’s also an intense predator and several years ago when coyotes began populating hunt country, there was some concern about the impact on fox population although at this time, it has seemed to stabilize.
Whatever species the huntsman pursues, he or she has to be somewhat of a mystic, an intuitive, primal-roots type of tracker who has the ability to mentally shapeshift into the characteristics of other animals. “A good huntsman needs to be able to think like a hound,” explained Grand River Huntsman Heidi Van de Motter. “You also need to have the knowledge of the ways of the quarry whether it’s a fox or a coyote. You need to connect with your hounds. Your hounds won’t love and respect you if you don’t love and respect them. You have to be able to think like a fox and think like a coyote. It’s a very creative process.”
Whiskey Road Hunt Professional Huntsman Joseph Hardiman, a native of County Galway, Ireland, and currently working out of Aiken, South Carolina, agreed, “A huntsman is somebody who has a lot of animal instinct and has a love for animals. They have a love of hounds, horses, the outdoors and nature. It all goes together. You can’t love your hounds and hate your horses. It just doesn’t go hand-in-hand. In a way, being a huntsman is a different variation of a farmer. You have to know the land, the fields, the woods, the trails, the soil.”
“In the past 25 or so years, foxhunting has changed,” continued Hardiman. “In today’s world, we no longer hunt to kill. It’s no longer like that. The woods are full of pipes and holes so if a fox has been pushed, he should be able to hop into a hole even if that hole belongs to somebody else.”
Hardiman capsuled two well-respected authorities into a neat package when explaining what it takes to create a quality huntsman. “The most famous American huntsman of all times is Melvin Poe,” Hardiman began. “When asked what makes a good huntsman, Poe said, ‘You either got it or you don’t got it. If you don’t got it, you’ll never get it’. His point was that either you have the natural talent to be a good huntsman or you don’t. It’s not something you’ll learn. It’s something you can improve on and develop techniques for but it’s something inherent. It’s an instinct almost.”
“Captain Ronnie Wallace from England said that a good huntsman can take a good pack of hounds and hunt them well; a great huntsman can take any pack of hounds and hunt them well; but a bad huntsman can take a good pack of hounds and in two hours destroy them,” Hardiman concluded.
Although live hunting is preferred, drags are occasionally laid with fox scent diluted and combined with glycerin. A gallon of concentrated scent usually lasts four or five years. In drag hunting, a burlap bag soaked in the concoction is tied to the back of a horse and dragged over the ground to mimic the flight of the prey.
The hounds’ sense of smell is highly acute with an estimated 150 to 220 million scent-receptor cells in their olfactory nerves compared to humans who have only five million. Hounds have actually been able to pick up scents even through water at depths of up to 60 feet. In late August of 2006, a search and rescue dog alerted authorities to the location of a drowning victim deep under the waters of Geauga Lake in Bainbridge, Ohio.
In the final analysis, it’s the landowners and farmers who all equestrian disciplines need to recognize. Foxhunting is in the process of reinventing itself and adapting to an ever changing world.
“We are privileged to experience this beautiful country through the generosity of our gracious landowners,” Grand River Hunt Huntsman Heidi Van de Motter said. “The hunt staff works tremendously hard to maintain country on private lands and it is a privilege that we deeply appreciate. Once we have lost this gift, it will be gone forever. Without the landowners there would be no land to follow hounds over or to ride out horses and there would be no sport.”
“Foxhunting is a gift that riders of all disciplines can participate in regardless of whether they jump or not,” continued Van de Motter. “It allows horses to get back to their natural environment away from the pristine, sterile environment of the show ring. It’s important that people understand how accommodating foxhunters are. People should not feel intimidated by the old English foxhunting prints of horses lying upside down in ditches. Our field masters are safety oriented and it is not necessary to jump. People join for many reasons. There are the purists who love watching hounds work a line. There are those who just like to train their horses and use the field as an opportunity. There are some who simply live to ride. Still, others enjoy the tradition of participating in a centuries-old sport. There are those who enjoy socializing. Whatever the motive, foxhunting remains a wonderful experience for everyone, and a doorway to unify the equestrian community, a doorway that embraces all disciplines.”
“Our motive is to preserve the fox, to understand their way of thinking and habitat,” added Van de Motter. “Foxes do not generally stray very far from their dens. The fox usually doesn’t feel threatened because of so many protection possibilities of holes and logs. Because he has this confident-like safety zone, he tends to lead you on a long zigzag circling trail throughout your hunt country.”
“A coyote, however, is too large to fit into varmint holes so he just jumps out and hits the expressway. He’ll run in as much as a five-mile stretch taking the hounds right out of designated hunt country, which makes it difficult to keep up. It also makes for a much faster, exhilarating hunt. You need a fast thoroughbred to keep up. You get winded,” Van de Motter concluded.
A chase can be exhausting, with rubber legged, weakened riders hanging on for dear life at the end of a perilous gallop. Branches and vines grab and tug at their coats, and it’s not unusual for a hunter to emerge from a day’s hunt after traversing steep ravines, deep stream crossings, dangerously ducking beneath low lying tree branches and galloping through thick, overgrown thorn bushes, to be marked with the spoils of the chase: splattered with mud, bloodied cat claws remnants streaking down their faces from the fingers of unyielding branches. A testament to a good day, they are worn as proud badges, an adrenalin rush that merits their enthusiasm.
Many hunts offer a welcome Second Flight, which is much slower and with less risk to horses and riders, often avoiding difficult terrain and locating ways around fences. Beginning foxhunters, green horses, the very young, very old, or just someone who would prefer a gentler ride, or value their lives, elect to hunt with the Second Flight, also referred to as Hilltoppers.
A chisel that sculpts our primal roots, the foxhunt of today is no longer a blood sport but is instead a commune with nature expressed through The Chase. Steeped in tradition and amid all the pageantry surrounding this venerated and ancient sport, the hunt offers an opportunity to remove ourselves from an often antiseptic, sterilized environment and immerse our souls back to the wildness of nature that is our birthright.