Hunting holiday pays homage

Friday, December 26, 2008

Today at 11 a.m., weather permitting, the Hillsboro Hounds will be meeting at the Bowers' Full Cry Farm, near Cornersville, to spend the afternoon hunting coyotes with a pack of crossbred hounds. The Hillsboro's regular hunting days are Wednesday and Saturday, but they generally pay homage to a long-standing English tradition and schedule a hunt for the day after Christmas.

On the 26th of December, when many Americans are due back at work, the British Isles and their former colonies, like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, are celebrating a holiday that they call "Boxing Day." The 26th of December is St. Stephen's Day on the Christian calendar.

The origins of the name are lost in antiquity, but many authorities agree that it has to do with the presentation of goods or money by the wealthy to their social inferiors such as tradesmen, tenants, or servants. This is illustrated in the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas" when the king looks out "on the feast of Stephen," and ends up taking firewood, meat and wine to a peasant.

Hillsboro Hunt members, from left, Emily McAlister, Bernadette Bowers, Stephanie Vester, Jean "J.J." Johnson, Art Vester, Sonja Esslinger, and Anne Doolittle. On the right is Joint Master Hill McAlister.

For city people in England, Boxing Day is the day to start shopping the post-Christmas sales.

For country people, it means one thing - the hunt. Almost every pack of hounds in the United Kingdom - almost 200 of them - meets on Boxing Day, and usually there are more people out on foot and on horseback than on any other hunting day of the year.

For some families in England it is a cherished holiday tradition to go and see the hounds and the horses and riders assemble in the center of a village and start off on the day's hunting,

There have been fox hounds and fox hunting in America since George Washington's day, and there are currently about 155 hunts registered with, or recognized by, the Masters of Fox Hounds Association.

Many Marshall County residents don't know that the Hillsboro hounds are hunting two days a week from September to April in southern Marshall County and adjacent northern Giles County. The lightly populated countryside, with its mixture of fields and woods, makes ideal hunt country. To improve access and increase the chances of keeping in sight of hounds, the hunt has opened up trails, put in gates that can be opened without dismounting, and replaced sections of wire fencing with board jumps - called "coops" for their supposed resemblance to old-time chicken coops.

The Hillsboro Hounds, founded in 1932 by Mason Hoagland and John Sloan Sr.,have been hunting what they call their "Cornersville Country" since 1962 when the members started buying property there. In earlier years they hunted near Leipers Fork, Brentwood, Franklin, Fayetteville, and Wartrace. The hound kennels were moved to Blue Creek Road, south of Cornersville, in 1991.

The hounds are trained and handled in the hunt field by professional huntsman John Gray, assisted by his wife, Karen, as first whipper-in; Leilani Hrisko, second whip; and Cornersville native Chris Smith as kennelman. Gray is also assisted while hunting by four members of the hunt who are "honorary whips;" in other words, they work as hard as Karen and Leilani but don't get paid for it.

The four joint masters - Henry Hooker, Bruce P'Pool Jr., Hill McAlister and Orrin Ingram - make executive decisions for the hunt and provide a lot of the finance, while the members all pay an annual subscription.

The mounted followers, "the field," are divided into groups, each led by a Field Master, according to their riding ability and the quality of their horse. "First Flight" gallops and jumps and stays as close to the hounds as possible. "Second Flight" keeps up but doesn't jump; and "Third Flight' sticks to watching the hounds and the other riders from a safe vantage point, often the top of a hill.

Some people "hunt to ride" as the saying goes, meaning that they choose to hunt because of the thrill they get riding a good horse across country. Others "ride to hunt" because being on horseback gives them the best chance to see hounds finding the scent of their quarry and following it. Often it is the later group who is closer to hounds at the end of a run because their intuition, honed by years in the field, has given them a good idea of where the coyote is heading, and they know the easiest way across country to get there. The ones who hunt to ride are apt to arrive some minutes later, eyes shining and horses steaming as they describe the long, thrilling gallop they had and the number of challenging obstacles they crossed.

There's room in the hunt field for all styles of followers, and everyone gets a different kind of enjoyment from their day out with hounds.

The Hillsboro Hunt has a long tradition of hospitality after hunting. After the Wednesday morning hunts it is generally a tailgate-style sharing of food and drink at the place where the horse trailers are parked, but on Saturdays, the occasion is more formal, with food and drink served in one of the member's homes.