At ODH, interest high for younger hunt set

ODH’s April 5 Point-to-Point

The upcoming Point-to-Point on April 5 at Ben Venue Farm is ODH’s second biggest source of income. There will be eight races that day with greyhound dog races and sled races with dogs pulling sleds on wheels as an added attraction in between horse races.

This will be the 34th running of the Point-to-Point at Ben Venue. There will be 10 races with purses totaling $10,000. Reserved parking spots are available on a first come, first serve basis by contacting Linda Reynolds at 540-347-8570 or via email at merryweatherfarm@gmail.com.

Members of the Old Dominion Hounds were back in the saddle last Saturday (March 22) for a Junior Meet, a fox hunt held several times a year by the 90-year-old organization to keep interest in the sport alive in the next generation.

As other area fox-hunting organizations have reported an uptick in interest among young riders in the sport, so has ODH, longtime sponsors of the first point-to-point races of the season in Rappahannock County, set for Ben Venue Farm next Saturday, April 5.

“It’s starting to go that way,” said ODH huntsman Ross Salter. “It depends on other things they have to do,” including other sports they may be involved in, he said. But “they do come out more” to the hunts when they can.

Douglas Wise-Stuart, one of the masters of the Old Dominion Hounds, said she has noticed an increase in youth participation both with ODH and other clubs and noted that the Junior North American Field Hunter championship has also fostered youth interest over the past 11 years of its existence. It is a regional organization that includes Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, but also attracts riders from New York and New Jersey. It involves competitive riding. Wise-Stuart is a co-founder of the organization.

Ross Salter, huntsman for the Old Dominion Hounds, rides the ODH youth group home during a meet earlier this winter.Michelle O’Hanlon Arnold
Ross Salter, huntsman for the Old Dominion Hounds, rides the ODH youth group home during a meet earlier this winter.

“A number of juniors have gone through the program and aged out,” she said, meaning they stayed in the program until the reached the age of 18. The Masters of Foxhound Association has also been involved in promoting interest in fox hunting among youth, she said, helping them learn the skills and hosting hunts.

The ODH also has a pony club for riders under the age of 18 to foster the interest of youngsters in riding, competition and the care of horses and ponies.

Last Saturday, about 50 riders with trailers and horses in tow began pulling into a field off Leeds Manor Road in Orlean shortly after 8 a.m. The early-morning weather was crisp but grew warmer as the day wore on. No precipitation or stiff wind; a good day for fox hunting.

Perhaps the youngest rider was 5 “and-a-half” year old Sophie, who was riding with her mother, Susannah Barnes, of Washington.

“She’s been riding since she was 2. This is her second hunt,” Barnes said. Mom led Sophie’s horse with a lead. They were far back in the field of riders, but gaining experience in a group ride is part of what a Junior Meet is all about.

“I’ve been riding since I was a kid,” Barnes said. “I took a break from it, but when I moved back to Rappahannock County after college I rode with my mom. She’s an avid fox hunter.”

Barnes said she thought the Junior Meet is “a great way to show kids the potential of what they can do on a horse. You don’t get to experience that kind of thing unless you come across it,” she said. The skill of some of the older kids inspires older riders.

“Hunting is exhilarating and even the horses enjoy it. When the hounds start ‘speaking’ the horses know” a fox is near, she said. “Sometimes you don’t know where you are going to go and can get lost.” But that’s part of the experience.

Barnes said Sophie watched her brothers ride and saw her mother go off to ride and decided that’s what she wanted to do. Plus, there’s always a grassy field to roll around in, which is what Sophie was doing as her mother unbridled their horses after the ride.

Thomas Gunnell, 11, was riding with his dad, Nelson, of Middleburg.

“The territory was very nice — hilly and open,” said Thomas. His dad said Thomas was in Charleston, S.C., with his mom when he got word on Friday that he was invited to ride in the Junior Meet on Saturday. He hurried back just for the chance to ride with the group.

Dad and son play polo at Banbury Cross Farm in Middleburg. Nelson Gunnell said he “grew up fox hunting” and has hunted with the Middleburg Hunt and with the Rappahannock Hunt at Thornton Hill.

In a recent ODH youth meet, Junior Huntsman Connor Poe waits for hounds to clear before taking the jump.Michelle O’Hanlon Arnold
In a recent ODH youth meet, Junior Huntsman Connor Poe waits for hounds to clear before taking the jump.

Thomas has been riding since he was 3-years-old. Now 11, he enjoys a fast ride astride Ripple, his 8-year-old gelding. “When the hounds are in full cry, that’s when he goes,” said his dad. “He goes from following his dad to passing him.”

Nelson Gunnell guessed they rode six to seven miles in all Saturday. They were planning to go to another meet the next day. 

The Poe family of Orlean was out in force with Connor, 14, Casey, 12, and Colby, 9, riding with their mom. Connor said he has been riding since he was 7 or 8 years old and likes everything about it. “I like the hounds and being outside and riding with the hounds.”

Connor was serving as junior whip this day: It was his job to learn the territory and keep the hounds within a certain boundary to make sure they didn’t split off or run away.

Star Belson of Hume is a rider, but this day she was following the fox hunt in a car. She’s been fox hunting for more than 30 years.

“In a run you want the [dog] pack to stay together on the same line,” she said. She has an appreciation for the resourcefulness of the fox. “He lives here and knows where his home is.” He can escape by “going to ground” in his own burrow or another animal’s. The fox can also confusing the pursuing hounds by using the presence of deer or cattle to mask its flight.

Once a fox has been spotted, the blow of a horn alerts the riders and the chase begins. The pursuit of an elusive fox who knows the territory and where to hide is why these sportsmen and sportswomen hunt. Killing the fox isn’t the goal.

The riders had 39 hounds with them on Saturday. Ross Salter is the ODH huntsman whose job it is to provide the daily care of the hounds and ride with the hunters.

“We got back around 12:30. I stopped the hounds. We were riding pretty much all day. At one point, we spent an hour and 30 minutes chasing one fox and another came out behind. The hounds were within 100 yards. They lost the scent of the fox and I cast them around to see if they could pick it up. They were tired and wanted a drink and we decided to call it a day,” said Salter.

He said there were 15 youth riders under the age of 18 among the group of 50 riders. “We’ve got to keep the youth interested. The huntsman is a dying breed. We’ve got to keep the juniors interested. If you don’t do that they get bored with it. They just lose interest,” Salter said.

The riders typically ride in three groups with the more accomplished riders in front with the other two groups riding separately behind.

“The terrain was tricky. There were a lot of woods in the area. It makes it tougher to get across. It’s like the country back in Wales. That’s why I like it. It was a good day. There were a lot of smiling faces. The hounds ran well for two or three hours,” Salter said.

The huntsman said that a good hound can be an effective hunter for about eight years. “If he likes to hunt he’ll run his heart out for you every time,” Salter said.

Susannah McNear leads daughter Sophie Barnes, Sophie Bell rides behind at this weekend’s ODH Youth meet.Michelle O’Hanlon Arnold
Susannah McNear leads daughter Sophie Barnes, Sophie Bell rides behind at this weekend’s ODH Youth meet.

The ODH has three masters of the hounds –- Gus Forbush, Scott Dove and Douglas Wise-Stuart. “If things go bad, we have to explain why,” Forbush said with a chuckle in explaining what the masters do. Wise-Stuart’s family land, Henchman’s Lea, was the gathering place on Saturday. It’s also the location of the kennel where the hounds are boarded.

The ODH has a management board of 13 landowners. The masters serve a year before retiring, but can be reappointed by the board. Forbush and Wise-Stuart have served as masters for 20 years; Dove is in his third. A whipper, who helps control the hounds on a hunt, is also hired. Young riders served as unpaid junior whippers on Saturday’s hunt.

ODH was established in 1924. The Rappahannock River divides its territory with half in Fauquier and half in Rappahannock County. Forbush is convinced “we have the best fox-hunting land in Virginia.”

ODH members are subscribers who pay “cap” fees to ride on hunts — $150 on the weekend and $100 during the week. Three junior events are held each year. Juniors, under the age of 18, ride for free but must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The club holds rides about 80 times a year.

A healthy fox population is in the club’s interest, so it helps controls mange in the local fox population by putting a drug in meat that is set out near dens.

“We were blessed with a number of foxes” for Saturday’s hunt, Forbush said. “At Soldier’s Rest we got one, but it ran behind a cemetery and we chased it to Jerry’s Corner three to four miles away at routes 688 and 647. We ran one fox into the woods and two came out the other side.”

Forbush said, the hounds “got away from us. We had to go a roundabout way to get there. But that’s the thrill of the chase.”

He said the young riders “fared better than a lot of us old fogeys.” Forbush was riding behind 12-year-old Brighton Craig, who was serving as junior master of the youth hunt.  “I had trouble keeping up with her.”

“The Old Dominion Hounds is very big on getting the youth out there,” Forbush said.

Forbush said the ODH doesn’t allow riders to carry electronic devices like radios or even telephones that can be used to alert fellow riders to to the location of a fox sighting. “If I see a rider pull out a cellphone, he better have a good explanation. It just isn’t fair,” Forbush said.

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About James Ivancic 67 Articles
James Ivancic is a reporter for the Fauquier Times in Warrenton, Va. Contact him at jivancic@fauquier.com.