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Coping with Coronavirus

As the world navigates through uncertain times, hunt clubs across the country are dealing with the logistical and financial repercussions from the pandemic.

Some hunts had just wrapped up their seasons when crowd restrictions were first announced, but many were forced to end a few weeks early. State-mandated social distancing rules prevented dozens of clubs from continuing with their regularly scheduled spring activities. Hound shows and performance trials were unable to run, but perhaps most detrimental to the clubs were the cancellations of their fundraising events such as hunt balls, point-to-points, and spring horse shows.

Managing the daily needs of the hounds, while also practicing social distancing, created an added burden for many clubs, especially those that rely on honorary staff and volunteers. But in true foxhunting spirit, members are banding together to come up with creative solutions and stay positive.

Working Together

Crofton Held Heidi OConnor Photo 1Long-time Bedford County Hunt member Crofton Held helping walk hounds. Heidi O’Connor photo.

Many clubs have worked out a system to keep things running as smoothly as possible back at their kennels.

“We have honorary staff and volunteer members who come six days a week to walk hounds – two to three people are scheduled at a time. Everyone picks a day, including long-time member Crofton Held, who was 80 years young this spring,” said Med Long, MFH, of Bedford County Hunt in Virginia. “Nobody is in the office or kennel except the huntsman, so social distancing is easy…and the exercise is therapeutic!”

“If someone wants to come walk, they are welcome, but they must wear a mask and practice social distancing. Only a few have come,” added Sandy Dixon, MFH and huntsman for the Texas-based Brazos Valley Hounds.

Some hunts are preferring to keep things simple and lower the risk of contact with fewer people involved. “No one is coming and going from the kennels anymore,” says Jody Michel, whose husband, Tim, is the huntsman at Bull Run Hunt in Virginia. “It’s just Tim and myself and the kids walking out every day and doing the horse and hound work.”

Fundraising Fiasco

Jody Michel and daughter Abby 1Jody Michel, of Bull Run Hunt, and her daughter Abby exercising hounds. Photo courtesy of Jody Michel.

For many hunts, the cancellations of all of their upcoming fundraising events were devastating. Point-to-points, hunter paces, spring and summer horse shows, hunt balls, and puppy auctions are more than just social events—they bring in much-needed revenue to help sustain hunt clubs. Losing those was a huge blow.

“I think it will hurt a lot of clubs,” says Michel. “Many of the big clubs lost huge amounts of money on their point-to-points not running. It’s really unfortunate. We also missed out on our March Madness, a week-long event put on by Bull Run Hunt. That was a lot of lost revenue.”

The cancellations also affected trainers and hunt barns, as well as the clubs’ communities. “March Madness was cancelled, which was a big impact on the local business,” says Heather Heider, who runs a foxhunting barn in northern Virginia. “I had 16 friends and clients planning to go with their horses. The cancellation impacted not only the hunt’s revenue stream, but the local bed-and-breakfasts and the stabling businesses, which was thousands of dollars. And we were only one group coming in! But they were smart to have cancelled and to be sensitive to the needs of our community.”

Spring horse shows, another source of revenue for clubs, were also called off. Keswick Hunt cancelled their 117th Keswick Horse Show scheduled for mid-May. The popular event was a fundraiser for the club, but also donated thousands of dollars to local charities.

Looking Ahead

Many clubs are using online resources and social media to come up with creative solutions for fundraisers. Some clubs, such as Oak Ridge Hunt Club and Palm Beach Hounds, hosted online auctions to help raise funds. Goshen Hounds is doing their puppy naming event on Zoom.

When possible, clubs (such as Bull Run) have rescheduled their hunt balls for later in the year. Others, like Kimberton Hunt which was gearing up to host their 75th annual horse show, have found new dates for their shows.

For many hunts, however, now that their seasons are over, the daily activities at the kennels remain largely unchanged, with the hounds transitioning to their typical spring schedule. “Life at the kennels goes on,” says Andy Bozdan, huntsman for Carmargo Hunt in Ohio. “Hounds need feeding, cleaning out, and walking out every day. Hounds and new entry need training. Now our whole emphasis is on the start of the coming season and hoping we can start on time. If we can’t, then everything will have to move back a month.”

While hunt clubs work to overcome the loss of revenue from the cancelled events, many of the staff and members are doing their best to remain optimistic for the future. “Tim ended his first year as huntsman on a good note, even if it was abrupt,” says Michel. And like most hunt members across the country, “He’s just counting down the days until hound exercise starts in late summer, hopefully.”

Western Day at Glenmore Hunt

WesternHunt Michele Carter PhotoDozens of local riders participated in Glenmore Hunt’s Western invitational day in late December. Michele Carter Photo.

Though Western riders aren’t an unusual sight in hunt fields across the country, in central Virginia, they tend to be the minority for many clubs. Some hunts offer an annual Western invitational day to introduce local riders to hunting and give them a chance to experience the sport first-hand.

Glenmore Hunt in Staunton, Virginia, is one such club that offers a yearly hunt for Western riders. They’ve offered these invitational hunts every year for more than a decade, and at their 2019 event in late December, more than 30 riders participated in this special cap-free day. The hunt posted invites on social media as well as at local tack shops, and of course, news spread quickly through word of mouth in the community. Some riders were prospective new members, but others were just curious to learn more about hunting.

During the hunt, every effort was made to give the Western riders a chance to safely enjoy their day and also learn more about hunting etiquette and traditions. Joe Manning, MFH, made announcements before the hunt began, explaining the different flights and what they were. 

“When the hounds were cast, the group was so large, I just held my third flight back for a few minutes and talked with them about basic etiquette,” says Mary Lee McDavid, a long-time Glenmore Hunt member who led third field. “I told them about being quiet when hounds were working or nearby. I also told them what ‘ware wire,’ ‘staff please,’ or ‘hound please’ meant. I also advised them about getting out of the way and turning their horse’s hindquarters away from passing staff. I answered questions as we went along as well.”

Western Hunt Susannah Seith Via PhotoWestern riders enjoyed a gorgeous December morning learning about foxhunting. Susannah Seith Via Photo.

Many of the riders who’d never hunted before were curious about the process. “One older gentleman, who was the first one to arrive, was very attentive the whole time,” recalls McDavid. “When we finally got on quarry, he was really fascinated with the different horn sounds and how our huntsman gathered the hounds. We were lucky to get anything...it was pushing 65 degrees and hot!”

“Some of the riders had experience working cattle, barrel racing, and trail riding, but none had ever galloped in a group in an open field like we did,” notes McDavid. “The grins on their faces told all!”

Though many riders that day had no previous hunting experience, some actually came from local hunts. “One girl who came was very nice and had just joined Rockbridge Hunt and may join us as seasonal capper,” says McDavid. “She does reining but is transitioning to English riding. She was very helpful in getting one of our member’s horses across two water crossings. The poor horse completely melted down. She got on it and took it across two crossings for our member. She was an amazing rider.”

Western Hunt 2 Michele Carter PhotoA local cowboy brought a young horse out for the day. Michele Carter Photo.

McDavid also enjoyed getting to know two older cowboys, one of which who was riding a young horse who’d never been with such a big group of horses. “That horse was perfect,” says McDavid. “I had no idea [he was so young] and he was in my flight. Those good ol’ boy trainers are worth their weight in gold. A good cowboy-trained hunt horse is often the best kind. These men live so close to our hunt and we are hoping they come out again.”

Though Glenmore would, of course, love to increase their membership through these types of special hunts, they also enjoy building relationships with other local equestrians in the area. “We have many Western riders and trainers that ironically didn't make it that day that often come,” says McDavid. “It's a way for us to connect with them as some are landowners and some are farriers and some even train our problem horses. In the summertime, we often trail ride together, too.”

As a flight leader for the day, McDavid admits that she was a bit nervous as it was the largest field she’s led, and third flight can be tricky as there can be all kinds of riders. “With third flight, there are some riders that don't want to go fast at all because they don't like to and sometimes it's a problem horse that needs to settle. Or sometimes there are new people that like to go fast but are just checking everything out. I had all of the above that day, so it was a lot of pressure to go the right speed and offer good sport and keep people safe and happy. I find it very rewarding when we end the day and all the riders are thankful and leave with big smiles on their faces. Knowing that I had a part in that makes me feel joy!”

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