Thrill of the Chase
THE ANCIENT SPORT AND TRADITION OF RIDING TO HOUNDS IS ALIVE AND THRIVING IN THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA, WHERE ALL ARE WELCOME TO JOIN THE LONGREEN FOXHOUNDS AT OPENING MEET.
WRITTEN BY HARRIET McFADDEN | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
The first Saturday in November dawns crisp and clear. On the lawn, riders in their hunt colors assemble. They down a stirrup cup, while the hounds are ushered into the gathering for the Blessing of the Hounds. After a moment of reverent silence, the huntsman blows her horn and leads the hounds off to a covert, where they cast about. One picks up a scent, gives a deep, bugling cry, and the rest of the pack joins in as they take off on the trail, with the field in pursuit. Opening Meet has begun.
Fox hunting is one of the oldest sports in America. It began in what is now Maryland, when Robert De La Brooke brought his pack of hounds over from England in 1650. With abundant game and land to hunt on, fox hunting spread through the Southeast with the people who settled this country. In Mississippi, the sport, with all its centuries-old traditions intact, is still actively enjoyed by staff and members of the Longreen Foxhounds.
The Longreen Foxhounds, established in 1957 in Germantown, Tennessee, by Bart Mueller, are descended from a pack owned by President George Washington. They are Penn-Marydel hounds, named for the Pennsylvania-Maryland-Delaware country they hark from, and known for their long ears and resonant, bugling voices — so enthralling they embolden horsemen to follow the sound anywhere it leads. Traits like the ability to find and follow scent are also hallmarks of the breed.
Today, Longreen chases foxes and coyotes in the Delta and the hill country near Como from November through March. The first hunt of the season, Nov. 2 this year, is called Opening Meet. At this event, pomp and tradition are on display, and riders and nonriders alike can experience the sport in all its glory.
Greg Patton is a Longreen member from Oxford. This will be his fourth season riding to hounds. “(At first) it all appeared to be a bit too ‘Downton Abbey’ for my liking,” he said. “But I reconsidered, acquired the outfit, and experienced my first ‘Tallyho!’ on the verdant rolling plains just west of Como. The thrill of the hunt is primordial, but what I have particularly come to enjoy is the comradery of other riders. There is a shared sense of stewardship, for not just preserving a hunting tradition and the natural habitat required to sustain it, but to also engender friendships which persist long after the hounds are retired to their kennels and the horses turned out to pasture.”
Susan Walker is the master and huntsman of the Longreen Foxhounds. Walker began riding with the hunt at age 13, and soon joined the staff as a whipper-in, assisting Mueller with the
hounds. She has spent more than 50 years developing her skills.
“My parents both hunted with Mr. Mueller, so I was born into it,” Walker said.
It’s Walker’s job to keep and train the 30 or so hounds in the kennel. She also manages breeding, and takes them to hound shows, where they are repeat champions.
“I breed for conformation and performance in the field,” Walker said. “I try hard to maintain the old genetics of great hounds of the past, so I line breed (breeding cousins).”
The litters are identified by the alphabet. Currently Longreen is on the “U” litter, born in June, so all nine puppies have names beginning with U.
“I stress socialization, so the puppies start meeting lots of people by 12 weeks of age,” Walker said. “To begin their training I start walking them daily at about 5 weeks. I love to see the puppies gain confidence stumbling over logs, splashing in streams and following me with their noses to the ground. By the time they are 4 months old, they begin to distinguish smells. That’s when I need help from other people to encourage their interest in the scent of coyote and fox and discourage other scents like deer.”
At the start of Opening Meet, riders and spectators assemble, and a bourbon-laced “stirrup cup” is offered. The hunt staff escort the hounds to the center of the gathering. Then a priest wearing formal vestments blesses the animals, the people and the great outdoors, just as it’s been done since the 1700s. Notes from musicians’ horns enliven the day.
All nonriders, especially children, are welcome on the “tallyho” hay wagons, to watch the hunt. The fee, which includes lunch, is known as a “cap fee” because traditionally, the hunt secretary doffs his hunt cap and passes it among the guests to collect the contribution. All of the proceeds from Opening Meet go toward the upkeep of the hounds.
After the blessing ceremony, Walker leads the way, surrounded by the pack, to the first covert thick enough to hold a fox or coyote. Those who follow the hunt are known as “the field.” These riders are led by a field master, whose job is to keep the riders close enough to see the action, while maintaining room for the hounds to work the area for scent. Spectators on the tallyho wagons are positioned nearby. A short note on the master’s horn is the signal for the pack to leave her side and begin hunting.
Walker and her staff, the whippers-in, wear scarlet coats so they can be seen against the bare winter landscape. All other riders wear black coats to blend in together. Each hunt club has its own color of felt, sewn over the original collar. Your “colors” show you are both friendly and competent to ride.
“To have your colors awarded to you by the master is a wonderful thing, and often your proud moment occurs at Opening Meet,” said Julie Chadwick, another Oxford member.
North Mississippi is home to both the grey and red fox. When coyotes began migrating into the area in the 1980s, they competed for food with the fox population and began pushing the fox out.
“Since the 1970s, our sport has been coyote,” Walker said. “We hardly ever see a red fox.”
Penn-Marydel hounds, while superb hunters, lack the drive to finish their quarry. Hunting with Longreen is all about the fun of the chase.
“We do not try to kill the game,” Walker said. “My hounds are not competitive enough to really want to catch (the coyote). The occasional coyote we catch up with is mangy, or sick, or goes to bait — decides he doesn’t want to run. The coyote has full advantage over the hounds by knowing his territory. He can discern how close hounds are by their cry, and then will begin to tease them by letting them close in then spurting off again. I need a good horse to keep my focus on the hounds, but my joy comes from watching the hounds search for the right game, work out the scent and follow it until they lose it or I call them off.”
At Opening Meet, and throughout the hunting season, for riders and spectators both, it’s not only the joy of the sport, and the great outdoors, but also the sense of community that prevails.
“There’s no place I’d rather be than looking out over the countryside at the huntsman, hounds and horses,” Chadwick said. “I’ve grown to love the community as much as the sport. Longreen’s a family, dear folks I wouldn’t know anyplace else.”
To attend Opening Meet or learn more about the hunt, email Susan Walker at email@example.com.