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Michelle and Ellie Dillon Keen Photo 1Michelle Craig enjoying a day of hunting with her daughter, Ellie. Dillon Keen Photography.

If you ask Ellie Craig, 7, what her favorite memory from the hunt field is, she’ll tell you: “My first hunt with my mom. We went on Christmas Eve and I didn’t want to stop!”

Her mother, Michelle, remembers that day well. “It was brutally cold,” she recalls. “So, after ninety minutes, we were close to the trailers and I said we had to go in. We were both freezing but she cried. She didn’t want to go in.”

For Ellie’s brother Carter, 9, it’s always been about the hounds. “My favorite part is watching and listening to the hounds,” he says. “I like to hear their voices.” For him, there’s nothing like the moment when the trailer gate drops and the hounds run out, straight to him, and shower him with kisses.

Hounds Dillon Keen Photography 1Carter and Ellie spending a quiet moment with one of their favorite hounds. Carter has his sights set on becoming a huntsman when he grows up! Dillon Keen Photography.

“When he was little, on our way back from hunting, he’d sing a hound song he made up about how awesome the hounds are,” Michelle remembers. “He’s always enjoyed watching the hounds and being with them as much as he enjoys the actual hunting.”

Ellie and Carter have hunted since they were 4 years old. Michelle and her husband Dustin started them with hunt trail rides in the summers. Michelle and Dustin started foxhunting in 2007 when they moved to Upperille, Virginia. Both grew up riding Western and English. Dustin grew up in Wyoming, working on ranches and later competing in eventing. Michelle came up on the East Coast in the hunter ring, moved to Colorado for college, found eventing and with it, found Dustin.

Now they hunt mostly with Snickersville Hounds in Middleburg, Virginia, and with Piedmont Foxhounds in Upperville, where both Michelle and Dustin hold their colors. One of Michelle’s favorite memories is the first time the four of them hunted altogether.

“That was so special for so many reasons,” she says. “It was really great to be out there, the four of us together for the first time.”

Foxhunting offers the type of quality time together the family often misses during a typical busy day at Westwind Farms. Michelle and her husband have owned the operation in Upperville since they moved there. They specialize in young horses and horses with training issues. The hours are long and, though it is a family endeavor, Michelle says she finds they connect best in the hunt field.

“We don’t take days off. Someone is always at the barn,” she says. “So, to spend those few hours once a week together is wonderful. I also think as a parent it’s wonderful to see how much the kids love the sport, the land, the hounds, the foxes, and to see the whole thing through their eyes is really special.”

Carter and Dustin 1Carter and his father, Dustin, enjoying time together after a hunt. Dillon Keen Photography.

She calls Ellie the daredevil. She’s the go-getter and rides a Welsh pony named Ben. Though Carter rode him first, Michelle paid him $5 to train him up for Ellie when she was ready to hunt. Apparently, he did a good job. “Ben, while small, feisty, and sometimes ornery, has been perfect for Ellie in the hunt field,” says Michelle. “This summer she learned to ride sidesaddle and hopes to hunt aside.”

“Ben is my best friend,” Ellie says. “He’s a little sassy and sweet, and I just love him.”

Ellie and Ben Dillon Keen Photo 1Ellie, decked out in her sidesaddle habit, with her pony, Ben. Dillon Keen Photography.

Carter, on the other hand, is more risk averse. But his POA, Bobbie Socks, has taught many kids to hunt through the years including him. “I call him Saint Bob because he just never puts a foot wrong and is such a good soul,” Michelle says.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get him to go because he likes to eat grass so much,” Carter says. “Sometimes on rainy days I’ll take him in the barn office and we’ll watch movies together. Ice Age is his favorite.”

Michelle remembers Carter’s first children’s day with Piedmont. The three of them had just emerged from the woods with the field. Michelle leapt over a small jump onto the road with Carter following her and Dustin behind him. “I’m thinking, ‘Bob will just step over it,’” she remembers. “But three strides out, he makes a bid for it and cranks his knees way up and jumps it like a six-board coop!” Carter stuck in the tack and has the picture to prove it. “He was so proud he wanted to jump that jump again all day.”

Carter and Bobby Socks Jumping 1Bobby Socks and Carter over a jump. Dillon Keen Photography.

And in ways like those, foxhunting has helped Carter and Ellie grow and balance individually. “Hunting has taken Carter out of his comfort zone,” Michelle says. “He says it’s made him realize he can do so much more than he thought he could. That translates to school and other aspects of his life that have been challenging for him.”

For Ellie, “I believe hunting has helped give her the discipline she needs to hunt,” she says. “Plus, it’s also carried over into school and life in general.”

Especially now, during COVID-19, Ellie and Carter look forward to hunting as much as their parents do. It’s something they’re proud to work toward. It brings stability during a confusing and difficult time for everyone. But they also understand that, “having a pony and foxhunting is a very special privilege,” Michelle says. “They know they have to work hard, be kind, and help when asked.”

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