Oliver Brown wears many hats in the horse world as Rappahannock Hunt’s senior master of foxhounds, horse and pony breeder, trainer and judge. He is enthusiastic about everything, especially his lifelong passion for the chase.
“I started hunting at five. It was 1956 and totally different in those days,” recalled Brown. “You didn’t have the traffic and highway speeds we have today. Back then, everywhere you hunted, someone in that landowning family rode with the hunt or was involved with it in some way. Today, we have several landowners who are family members and hunt, but fewer than there used to be.
“The majority of our landowners moved here because they wanted to live in the country,” Brown continued. “Many have horses, but not all of them know anything about hunting when they get here. We’re very fortunate that they have been receptive. Some are excited to see the hunt. The pageantry helps, because it is quite beautiful. We get to know our landowners and contact them when we work on the schedule of where we’re hunting each month. Every fall, we have a landowners’ party to thank them. A few of them have joined as social members.”
Good relationships with landowners are essential, because hounds can’t go out unless the hunt has permission to ride across their land. Often, hounds serve as ambassadors of good will.
“Part of the huntsman’s job is to create better understanding of what we do,” said Brown, who was huntsman for 20 years until 1999, when his son Michael started carrying the horn. “Sometimes our landowners pick up a hound that gets separated from the pack and call us. When we get there, they often say things like, ‘She’s lovely, when are you coming back?’ We do everything we can to encourage the public to experience hounds and the sport. We were very well received when we went on parade for Christmas in Little Washington.”
Brown grew up hunting, showing and participating in 4-H with siblings Charlie, Mike and Patricia on the family farm in Reva. They started young, learning from their parents, Catherine and Elzy, who became quite well known for starting horses, many of them wild. Oliver helped to break ponies until he outgrew them. He showed hunters and a few jumpers and received a priceless equestrian education from the many horses that came to the farm to be sold, he said.
Brown even enjoyed a brief career as a steeplechase jockey, partnering with Tendella to win their debut over timber at the Orange County Point-to-Point in 1970. In their fourth and final start the following March, they finished second in the Rokeby Bowl, the prestigious feature race at Piedmont Fox Hounds.
From 1976 to 1998, he trained steeplechase horses, owning many individually and with his wife, Joan, or son Mike. From 2002-06, he trained his offspring and one of the hunt’s juniors to be competitive in “junior field master chases” at local point-to-points.
Brown has a lifelong passion for showing, breeding and training hunters. He is one of the top handlers in North America and has won many titles at the national level and at some of the most prestigious shows in the nation. Ponies he has bred have won the Virginia Pony Breeders Futurity. He is a licensed official with the U.S. Equestrian Federation: “r” judge in Hunter Breeding, “r” judge in Hunter and Hunter Seat Equitation.
“I’m starting to reflect a little, and I like to think I’ve slowed down,” said Brown. “Back in the 2000s, I had that helluva run for the national title — I had the top yearling in the country four years in a row. In 2008, I won the Sallie B. Wheeler Young Horse Championship with Foxy’s Magic Gift at the Warrenton Horse Show. He was Best Young Horse and won the overall national championship.”
In 2003, Brown won the Norman K. Dunn Trophy, awarded to the leading handler of all breeds nationally. He handled four winners of breeding classes at Devon, eight winners at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show, four at the Lexington National, and seven at Warrenton. Also that year, he won the Belcort Perpetual Trophy as leading handler at the Sallie B. Wheeler National Hunter Breeding Championship.
“I really love my ponies. I love my horses, but ponies are so much fun, because you can involve the kids with them,” said Brown. “Every year is a new year. I don’t think I’ll go for another national title, but as long as I can jog a bit, I will continue showing.”
When Brown started hunting hounds in the late 1970s, he rode only to hunt. At first, he didn’t want to do it but got talked into it.
“I loved hunting the hounds — without a doubt it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done,” said Brown. “I’ve had major surgeries on my back, left knee and my hand. The back injuries resulted from three groundhog holes when I hunted hounds. I was a bit reckless, but I enjoyed every damn minute of it. My son loves being huntsman. We’ll have hunted hounds for a total of 35 years at the end of this season [spring 2015]. You have to do it for love, not money. I miss hunting hounds the most, but being master is a way of giving back my appreciation. I get a kick out of our juniors and encouraging them.”
Another way Brown passes along his impressive amount of knowledge about horses is as a longtime 4-H volunteer, including conducting the monthly meetings of the Hunter Horse Club at the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in Culpeper. His father, Elzy Brown, started the Culpeper County horse program in the early 1960s.
Children really do live what they learn.