It was a flurry of brown, black and white in the field off Gordonsville Road in Keswick while the hounds waited to be called. The hunters in bright and bold red — called pink in the fox hunting world — and black jackets waited too, more patiently, brushing their boots to a shine and socializing atop their horses. By a quarter to 10, a crowd of guests could be spotted in the churchyard over at Grace Episcopal. It’s what everyone had been waiting for, the once-a-year, rain-or-shine service, the Blessing of the Hounds.
Thanksgiving Day marked Grace Episcopal Church’s 95th such service, an ancient fox hunting tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Grace Episcopal is one of the first churches in the country to hold its own, on Nov. 28, 1929.
There were more than 1,200 in attendance Thursday to see 15 select foxhounds, escorted by 50 riders and their mounts, blessed before the next hunt.
The occasion was marked by prayers for protection for the hounds as well as hymns, conversation, apple cider and hot chocolate.
“It’s a nice occasion,” Colquitt Shackelford of Stony Point, a former volunteer who was in attendance Thursday, told The Daily Progress. “It draws a lot of people to the church. It’s a nice outdoor affair. It’s as much of a social thing as a religious thing.”
While guests on Thursday stood in a roped-off area, the hounds were free to roam the churchyard, sniffing anything and everything. The riders routinely called out to a hound or two whose curiosity was getting the better of them and had strayed too far from the pack.
“The hounds are really well behaved, and the horses are beautiful,” Alison Walden with Grace Episcopal Church said.
The foxhounds would soon be tapping into their innate curiosity. Blessed and pampered by clergy and congregation, the hounds would head off into the country Thursday in hot pursuit of a wily fox. It was slated to be a short hunt, but even a short hunt can span an incredible distance; the hunt club’s territory covers Albemarle County into neighboring Orange and Louisa.
As the blessing came to a close and the riders prepared to head out, members of the hunt club made their way through the crowd, collecting donations in a riding helmet. Donations on Thursday were headed to the Montanova Stables Foundation and Hope’s Legacy Equine Rescue programs. Montanova is a nonprofit group that provides after-school equestrian classes, and Hope’s Legacy is a nonprofit horse, pony, donkey and mule rescue home.
The Keswick Hunt Club is a roughly 127-year-old organization with more than 200 members. Its hunt season runs from from September through March.
Those who are not members of the Keswick Hunt Club but would like to participate in a fox hunt can buy single day passes to ride. Equestrian and cross-country experience is recommended and, depending on the hunt, some qualifications are required. For spectators, a car is available to follow the hounds through a hunt.
The fox hunting tradition itself dates back to the 16th century in England. In Britain, the goal of fox hunts has historically been to kill, providing a solution to the fox overpopulation in the country.
In America, the adopted sport rarely involves killing. A successful hunt results in the fox being surrounded but not killed by the hounds. Foxes will often jump into a burrow or other hole, where they will be fetched and then released, alive, for another chase on another day.
While a hunt might take horse, hunter and hound through a rough landscape of streams, fields, hills and more, the Keswick Hunt Club has trackers embedded in all of its hounds, so no one ever gets lost.
There is record of both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Founding Fathers and Virginians, participating in fox hunts together and apart. Washington kept a pack of hounds at Mount Vernon.