Virginia’s Piedmont region, stretching along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is as much a state of mind as it is a place in a state. It runs from the Washington, D.C., exurbs southwest toward the vibrant college town of Charlottesville and beyond. It encompasses charming and noteworthy communities such as Leesburg, Middleburg, Upperville, Warrenton, “Little” Washington, Culpeper and Orange, all steeped in history and all offering the incentive to live what local folks call “the good life.”
An important element of that “good life” is the region’s natural beauty: its majestic mountains, its undulating green hills and its winding rivers and streams. The people of the Piedmont care deeply about their natural surroundings and strive to protect and preserve them. But they also like to enjoy them. And one striking way many of them do that is by participating in an ancient sport that thrives in the Piedmont: foxhunting.
“The Piedmont really is the heart of foxhunting in the United States,” says Gus Edwards, a Master of Foxhounds with the Rappahannock Hunt. The hunt’s territory encompasses land in Rappahannock, Culpeper and Madison counties. “People have been hunting around here for nearly 300 years. When George Washington was young, he hunted out here for days on end while he was supposed to be surveying Lord Fairfax’s land grant. We’re still hunting today and it hasn’t changed much.”
The Commonwealth of Virginia is home to 25 recognized foxhunting clubs, more than twice the number in any other state, and the majority of those hunts is wholly contained within the Piedmont region.
Edwards is quick to point out a foxhunter’s fine distinction. “For us, ‘hunting’ means the pursuit of quarry on horseback with hounds. If you’re going after birds, duck, or deer, that’s ‘shooting,’ not hunting.”
“Foxhunting’s a sport steeped in tradition,” Edwards says, “but it’s definitely not static. All the hunts adhere to certain established and accepted guidelines, but within that, each hunt has its own customs and practices, which is something that makes the sport so interesting and fun.” It’s also a sport, he notes, in which men and women participate as full equals. “As long as you can ride well enough to keep up with hounds, you’re in.”
Edwards began foxhunting as a boy, prompted by his sportsman father, but gave up riding in his teens. He returned to the sport at the age of 40. “I got re-inspired by standing around at horse shows watching my kids compete,” he says. “I was itching to get back on a horse and relive my youth.”
So, how does it all work?
Each hunt club maintains a kennel of well cared-for hounds—and in foxhunting they’re always called “hounds,” never “dogs.” The hounds are bred and trained under a program set up by the hunt’s Master of Foxhounds and the Huntsman.
Foxhunting is a cooler-weather sport and in Virginia, the season normally runs from about Labor Day until around Easter. Its objective is not to kill the fox, but to run it to ground. “It’s all about the thrill of the chase,” Edwards says. “It’s also about fellowship, fun and the feeling of freedom you get riding through some of the most beautiful country on earth. Plus, we get to wear these really cool outfits!”
On a typical hunting day, everyone gathers at the appointed place (“the fixture”) at the appointed hour. The Huntsman has brought a pack of hounds. The Master and Huntsman have planned in advance and, at the Master’s signal, the Huntsman and hounds move out ahead of the other riders, who are called “the field.” The huntsman will “cast” hounds at a spot where there’s likely to be a fox den, called a “covert.”
If a fox has been around recently, hounds will make an exultant noise and take off after the scent. With that, the field is off, following the hounds at a respectful distance, so as not to interfere, but close enough to observe their work. “That’s the pleasure and exhilaration of it,” says Edwards.
“I imagine that watching a well-trained, cohesive, and willing pack of hounds ‘work the line’ of a fox must be like witnessing a miracle,” he says. “They find it, they lose it, and find it again. Make no mistake, the fox is as wily and elusive as its reputation suggests. It can play hounds like a cheap violin.”
They will chase it for what can seem like 100 miles, with the field in hot pursuit, only to have it disappear into another hiding spot. The Huntsman arrives and “lifts” hounds from the spot and moves them off to find another fox to chase.
“Yes, it sounds crazy,” Edwards admits, “but there’s something indescribable about the excitement and delight of riding through nature’s realm, sometimes at a stately pace and often at breakneck speed, to see hounds and foxes perform the ageless dance of hunter versus hunted.”