with Horse and Hound

Better Living Through Titanium Road Trip, Part Three

Belle Meade Hunt Kennels Fixture February 14-17

In February 2024 I decided to take a road trip to hunt my way across the US and back after finally being cleared to ride again after a massive back surgery. These were my fourth and fifth hunts for the month.

Thomson, Georgia Elevation 500 feet on the Piedmont

hounds jumping over a coop during a hunt
Hounds over a Belle Meade coop / photo credit Allison Howell

Two more days of driving got me to Georgia. I watched as the country changed from flat, wide-open country to rolling hills covered in woods and grass. The magnolias, live oaks, and saw palmettos dotted the deep south. The mistletoe looking like confetti high in the canopy of the hardwoods triggered memories of shooting down the holiday plant with shotguns (the only way to properly pick mistletoe). The closer I drove to Georgia the more loblolly pines lined the interstate, towering over the fence lines that peaked through the dormant kudzu vines. I spied a Blue Bell ice cream truck and smiled.

The famous Belle Meade Hunt Week was already underway when I arrived. I had made it to the hunt breakfast that night. Belle Meade usually hunts in the late afternoon, so their hunt breakfasts are held after dark in their clubhouse, Boots Hall.

Pipeline with tall trees on either side, hunt horse and rider standing in the middle and a crane flying overhead
The Pipeline at Belle Meade Hunt / photo credit Allison Howell

This was the start of five days of hunting. Three of the days were joint meets with Old Dominion Hounds (Virginia), and one day was a joint meet with Lowcountry Hunt (South Carolina). The week’s hunting was fast and hard each day, even if it took the packs a while to find scent. Belle Meade has over 30,000 continuous acres, so each meet left from their kennels.

Belle Meade has two jumping flights – one for coyote speed (First) and the other for fox speed (Second). Their Third Flight gallops but doesn’t jump, and Fourth Flight rarely gets out of a trot. Belle Meade is used to dealing with large crowds in their hunt field, and this week was no exception. Each day had between 60-80 riders in the Fields. As the hounds were hacked across the road to the large cattle pasture in front of the kennels, the Field Masters would stop their group to go over safety and protocols.

I rode on Wednesday on a borrowed horse from Judith Wilson, Epp Wilson’s wife. Judith and I are old friends, as she was the Honorary Secretary from the hunt where I was Master for several years, the Tennessee Valley Hunt. I have accused Epp of stealing Judith from me and have sworn to never forgive him for the theft. Mainly because I want to lord it over him until the end of time so I always have an excuse to come to Belle Meade.

two women walking horses on a road
Gretchen Pelham and Judith Wilson hacking in

I rode in Third Flight with Judith, their fastest non-jumping field. This day I galloped for the first time in four years, and I was grinning the whole time. I slid down creek banks, careened around hairpin turns in the clay mud, and ducked branches. My back continued not to hurt at all.

Wednesday with Old Dominion hunting a joint pack, we got on a brace of coyotes that afternoon and had what Belle Meade calls a Rough Rider Day – a chase that lasts over 45 minutes without a check.

Thursday was a morning meet with Lowcountry. Just like the previous days, the joint pack took a while to find but got on a great chase until they had to be stopped before the highway.

Thursday night was a large dinner party at Robert Allen Wilson and his wife Virginia’s home. The house is the family home of Epp Wilson (Robert Allen is his nephew) and of Glen and Janet Wilson, owners of Pine Top Eventing, established in 1770 and where the 1996 Olympics were held for Three Day Eventing. The origins of Belle Meade Hunt were formed over 60 years ago around the same dinner table that was still in the house.

Friday’s hunt was also a morning meet with just Belle Meade hounds, and the plan was to hunt around Tally Ho Lake while using the Fields to prevent the game from going to the community airport. I once heard a local describe the time long ago when the pack was viewed racing down the runway, hot after a coyote, as a plane was on approach to land. The local said, “Those pilot guys were none too happy with us that day”. I bet.

But the coyote turned out to be Belle Meade’s famous Zig Zag Coyote, and he had other plans for the day. Immediately upon entering the cattle pasture, the hounds hit and ran hard in the opposite direction from the lake and airport behind the kennels. Mr. Zig Zag lived up to his name, and his identity was confirmed when he was viewed by Robert Allen who knew his faded-out coat. Robert Allen was thankful for the consideration Mr. Zig Zag gave the Fields, as they didn’t have to go far or travel fast to keep up with the hound music, as the coyote kept close to the Fields by turning back on himself in small loops.

Juniors

Large group of junior hunt riders in front of Belle Meade sign
Juniors at Belle Meade / photo credit Allison Howell

Belle Meade has always had a strong Junior participation. The hunt club was founded on a family tradition – the club had no individual dues, only family subscriptions, during their first few seasons. I have always maintained that it’s not Juniors that are the future of hunt clubs but families that hunt. Each Junior needs the support of their hunting parents to bridge the gap from dependent Junior to Young Adult to Full Individual membership. A family that hunts can keep a hunt horse going for the visiting college student as well as take care of the dues for as many years as necessary for their child to afford their own adult dues and horse. Almost every Junior without that support that I have known stops hunting when they come of age.

After one of the dinner parties, a group of us wanted to highlight the Juniors who were hunting on the last day of the hunt week. The kids ranged from ages 10 to 19. The hunt clubs they were members of were: Belle Meade Hunt (Georgia), Big Sky Hounds (Montana), Keswick Hunt Club (Virginia), Lowcountry Hunt (South Carolina), Massbach Hounds (Illinois), Mill Creek Hunt (Illinois), Old Dominion Hounds (Virginia), Sierra Nevada Hounds (Nevada), and Thorton Hill Hounds (Virginia). More than eight of them worked as staff, both as professional and honorary. Some had been hunting since they were toddlers. And of the fifteen Juniors that I polled, all but one had multiple family members that were current subscribing members of a foxhunt.

Junior staff members in hunt attire holding horses
Cody Poe (Old Dominion Hounds), Kathryn Sanford (Lowcountry Hunt), Emma Pierce (Sierra Nevada Hounds and Big Sky Hounds), Emalaine Cooper (Belle Meade Hunt), Max Kaplan (Belle Meade Hunt, Mill Creek Hunt, and Massbach Hounds), and Lee Dozier (Belle Meade Hunt / photo credit Allison Howell.

Belle Meade Hunt Ball

Woman in fancy dress with hounds printed on skirt of dress
Belle Meade Hunt kennelman Stephanie Presley with her customized dress at the hunt ball / photo credit Gretchen Pelham

The hunt ball on Saturday night was held at the Augusta Country Club, home of the Masters golf tournament. I danced until the band quit.

Now I’m off to South Carolina for a few days with the Wateree Hounds.