There are perhaps six or seven American hunts that I might compare to the seven mountain peaks that world-class mountain climbers aspire to conquer. These hunts share a reputation for big fences or very fast chases behind coyote, or a hunting style that is demanding and requires a certain level of excellent horsemanship as well as athletic, fit horses. I would put Green Spring Valley Hunt and Elkridge–Harford Hunt of Maryland, Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire Hounds in Pennsylvania, Piedmont Fox Hounds in Virginia with its big stone walls, as well as Lynn Lloyd’s Red Rock Hounds in Nevada in this group. And, without a doubt, I think the Belle Meade Hunt in Georgia now goes to the top of my list.
I had the privilege recently to be one of the first guests for its inaugural Gone Away With the Wind Hunt Week in January 2013 and it was the fastest hunting I have ever done. I was flat out on my Thoroughbred ex-racehorse following Epp Wilson, Huntsman and Master of the Belle Meade, and their Crossbred hounds after Wile E. Coyote! It was some of the most fun I have ever had on horseback, flying through southern pine forests, barely keeping up and hardly ever viewing the quarry we were chasing!
There were seven of us, all experienced riders, and we arrived in Thomson, Georgia, after a 12 hour drive from southern Maryland. Take note: do not trust the GPS directions to get you into the kennels. As dark was descending we did a not-to-be-repeated U-turn with a loaded four-horse trailer on a lonely country lane, as we seemed to be lost and about to head into their 40,000 uninhabited acres of hunt country, but our lovely host, Jean Derrick, was waiting in her lovely hunt home nearby and we all shared hellos and quick introductions. I had met Jean at the North American Field Hunter Championship several years ago. Over the next couple years, we became good friends. This past year, Jean encouraged me to come to their inaugural hunt week at Belle Meade and hunt Georgia-style and I am so glad I did.
The first day we met for a stirrup cup at 2:30 pm as the meet was at 3 pm. We thought this a little late, but we learned the fun continues long into the night as the scent improves in late afternoon. Not only did we come in after dark, but it was pitch black except for some starlight. You followed the rump of the horse in front and were lucky if it was a gray or white one! The men’s white shirts and white saddle pads were the other visible things to follow. We had been warned about having to jump in the dark, but sanity prevailed and of that we were spared.
The Belle Meade Hunt usually starts from their kennels and they have the wonderful privilege of just heading indifferent directions into their Georgia wilderness. Epp Wilson, MFH, gave us a running commentary about the landscape, issuing warnings to stay to the left or right of the timbered pine “alleys”. He told us about the old colonial roads that we were galloping on as we pushed through the fragrant woods. There were old millworks with the ancient steel traces still visible in the dirt and the hand-dug mill-race now simply gouges in the earth. The sense of many lifetimes having passed through these hillsides was strong.
After a while, we heard the hounds start speaking and they were gone like a shot. Whips yelled and we were off! I will affirm that Belle Meade is the fastest. My horse was stretched out and hard pressed to keep up with the Masters. I was actually afraid we would lose sight of the Master and be lost, but my big chestnut never missed a hoofbeat, whipping around corners and over all kinds of roots and logs, keeping the horse ahead barely in sight. The best part of the hack home was being met halfway by the Beer Guy. I am not a beer drinker but it tasted wonderful and we had a good laugh at the unusual practice of hacking home with beer in hand in the dark!
The next day Belle Meade had been invited to hunt with Aiken Hounds in the famous Hitchcock Woods of Aiken, SC. We jumped about 30 of those famous Aiken fences, sometimes four abreast, all the time at a respectable gallop over perfect footing. Drag hunting is very different from a live chase, and we enjoyed the beautiful Hitchcock Woods and understand why so many people from all kinds of horse disciplines spend the winter in Aiken.
Midweek, Fieldmaster Jim Moncrief quietly asked me to vouch for and take care of some new guests with whom he had seen me talking. I stared at him for a moment, certain he was pulling my leg, because he had just asked me to take care of Boyd Martin and his associate from Cheshire Hounds. Boyd is a US Olympian, so it was like asking me to watch Michael Phelps in the pool! I said I would keep an eye on them. Boyd is good looking anyway so it was a treat. Made my day!
I actually wore long underwear at the end of the week, it was so cold! The frost was welcomed, as it kills the fire ants. The day warmed up and we had two incredible days of hunting. The first coyote was picked up almost immediately and ran hard for 45 minutes before hounds had to be stopped. The only mishap all day was our intrepid Fieldmaster who came a cropper when a hole grabbed his horse! A tree then jumped out and smacked him before letting the man roll off to his resting place on a hillside. After ascertaining that Jim was going to live, the field continued on. After several hours we called it a day and went in to tidy up for the Hunt Ball festivities. Happily, Fieldmaster Jim was waving to us as we arrived at the kennels. Belle Meade has a lovely tradition of saluting the staff and Masters at the end of a hunt by lining up in two rows by the kennels and thanking the aforementioned as they ride in together after putting up hounds. It was a lovely way to thank them for the day’s sport.
Belle Meade really caters to every rider by offering four fields. I stayed with first flight by choice (and as long as my horses were able), but we saw second flight right behind us many times and all were there at the end. Third flight and hilltoppers, both non-jumping, had large groups and the same happy grins. I would recommend this Hunt Week to riders of all abilities.
I miss my friends from Belle Meade who showed us how to chase coyotes and have a grand time doing it. Their inaugural Gone Away With The Wind Hunt Week was a great success and I plan to go back next year and encourage more to join. Warm weather, warm friendships and lots of land to hunt endlessly are a not-to-be-missed chance. Happy hunting ‘til next year!