Eleven-year-old Gray Hopton spends most of his time practicing whip cracking and horn blowing—an atypical talent for most boys his age. Yet, he also makes time to appreciate the finer things more exemplary to his age group like finding amphibians and relocating snakes.
“Aside from foxhunting, Gray’s other main interest is herpetology,” explained Gray’s mother, Molly Thompson-Hopton. “He’s always on the lookout for wildlife and is the first person to call when there’s a snake in the barn.”
Whether studying salamanders or learning the voices of his favorite hounds, flora, and fauna seem to speak to Gray. When they do, he listens and learns just as his ancestors did. The Thompson-Hopton family tree has planted deep sturdy roots in his hometown of Aberdeen, North Carolina. His great-great-grandmother Verdie Caddell ran Caddell Stables in Southern Pines and taught countless equestrians to ride and foxhunt. The next three generations all hunted with the Moore County Hounds, too. That includes Molly herself. That’s four generations. Gray, and his younger brother, River, make five.
So perhaps whip cracking and horn blowing at the age of 11 aren’t so atypical after all. Before his family moved back to the Southern Pines area last winter, they settled wherever his father had been stationed as active duty Coast Guard. They found few hunt clubs in those residences, so when they made it back to one of North Carolina’s most dynamic and historic hunt countries, the first order of business was obvious.
“We prioritized getting involved with Moore County Hounds and getting Gray out in the hunt field,” Molly says. She’s also enjoyed saddling up again herself after some time off. Gray embraced his first official season and the whole lifestyle like second nature. His family now lives on a farm with one horse, four ponies, and nine chickens.
“Gray is involved with every aspect of the care of our animals and life on the farm,” Molly says. “It’s important to me that he knows the time and effort involved in having a farm and that it’s a team operation.”
One of those four ponies is a 10-year-old Chincoteague mare named Mocha. “She is fast and loves to jump,” Gray says of his spunky hunt partner. They’re learning the ropes together. “She had never hunted before but she’s loving it and is good with the hounds. She never gets scared when I crack my whip. She goes into the woods with me when we have to get hounds out for the huntsman.”
Gray swings on and off Mocha more and more effortlessly with each hunt. Other riders appreciate his and Mocha’s proximity to the ground and take advantage of his growing acrobatic prowess when their whips, gloves, or tack hit the dirt. “I also hold horses for people if they need to get off,” he adds. “Sometimes I get asked to hold the huntsman’s horse when he gets off.”
Gray’s grand-uncle, Lincoln, is Moore County Hounds’ huntsman. He regularly recruits Gray to help in the kennels and earn hands-on experience with the hounds—an intimate level of involvement of which most young huntsmen dream. And like any good apprentice, the toils of Gray’s labor have soundly shaped the virtue of his character.
“I notice it most in his confidence and how at ease he is talking to adults and kids alike,” Molly says. “One of the things I like about this sport compared to others is that there is such a large variety of people of all different ages. It’s great for children to socialize with all ages and not just their peer group.”
This applies to hounds, too. Connecting with MCH Yancey, Gray’s favorite hound, is perhaps just as important to him as impressing his great-uncle. “Yancey was the first hound I got to know,” Gray says. “One time his GPS collar came off and got stuck in a thick bog. I had to get off Mocha and crawl through the branches to find it. That was fun. I was hoping to see a snake, too.”
While he didn’t see a snake that day, he nonetheless regaled his family with the tale. With decades of tradition and history in their blood, stories from the hunt field fluently fill their daily lives.
“It’s really interesting hearing his observations compared to my own experiences and comparisons between then and now,” Molly says. While she doesn’t remember going as fast when she was Gray’s age, she does remember exciting times aboard her own pony, Beau, the now 33-year-old her youngest son River rides. While Molly finds time to hunt once a week, homeschooling affords Gray three times the experience. “It’s always special to me when I get to hunt with Gray,” she says. “I can’t wait until River is out there, too. He wants to be just like his big brother.”
Gray most recently competed in the Junior North American Field Hunter Championship in The Plains, Virginia, in November. “I had never done anything like that before,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what it would be like but we met lots of new people and it was a good experience for Mocha.” With the guidance of his mother, Gray is also introducing his Welsh-cross Truffles to the fundamentals of hunting and hopes to create another generation’s worth of stories with him too.