The ceremonial fox hunt in Thomson, Ga., which celebrated its 48th anniversary on Saturday, November 2, 2013, earns our top honors: 21 Plus Salute!
By Hope S. Philbrick
For 48 years, Belle Meade has ceremoniously opened fox hunting season in Georgia lake country with the world’s largest opening meet.
To the uninitiated observer, when horses gallop over the hilltops carrying riders in traditional formal wear, it appears to be an English invasion: The red coats are coming!
But even the foxes and coyotes are safe on this day. It’s all for show.
A can’t-miss event for foxhunting enthusiasts, the opening meet is a day filled with pomp, circumstance and miles of opportunity to ride across the rolling fields, through pecan orchards and under the skies of McDuffie County.
Tally-ho wagons line up to caravan alongside the horses and hounds, turning the event into a grand introduction to the sport for anyone who’s interested in learning more but prefers sipping bourbon and eating barbecue to riding a horse or holding a gun.
It’s a mobile tailgating party. A hay ride for grownups. A day filled with horses, hounds, fresh air, camaraderie, and even flavor since tally-ho wagon riders bring coolers and baskets filled with food and beverage treats to enjoy and share.
The afternoon begins with a Blessing of the Hounds ceremony at 1 p.m. Whatever your beliefs, whether vegan, carnivore or some type of omnivore in between, it’s an easy-to-swallow message: “Hear our humble prayer for all animals, especially those in whose companionship we find joy and health…. Bless rider and horse, and hounds that run, in their running and shield them from danger to life and limb…also those whose land we hunt…and the foxes who partake in the chase, that they may run straight and true and may find their destiny.” (The service is longer than I’ve quoted, but short and sweet.)
The huntsman’s horn bellows and the hounds run off chasing the scent. (For the opening meet, a fox scent was laid by dragging a scented bag along a predetermined course.)
Hounds run and loop through the countryside followed by mounted horses. Tally-ho wagons pulled by trucks and tractors weave and bump through the fields along the planned route carrying the hundreds of non-mounted spectators. As the day progresses, horses, hounds and humans journey together, drift apart, then meet up again. Planned stops offer opportunities to take photos, stretch legs and mingle. The grand finale near sunset is a planned stop dubbed “Champagne Hill,” where sparkling beverages are poured while spectators, horses, hounds and hunters toast the day and the season ahead.
The day’s soundtrack is comprised of laughter, clapping hooves, baying hounds, horns, running creeks, popping corks, wind and rustling leaves.
Belle Meade attracts riders from near and far. “You have one of the prettiest counties I’ve ever ridden in!” exclaimed Juliet Perdue while riding her horse up alongside the Thomson-McDuffie County Tourism tally-ho wagon. Perdue, who started riding at age eight in Germany, is originally from London and has been fox hunting for two years. The area where she usually rides is heavily wooded and she said that both she and her horse enjoyed McDuffie County’s wide open terrain.
For spectators, the opening meet is an introduction to the glitzy side of the fox hunting tradition, a mobile tailgating party and an opportunity to relish the great outdoors.
Odds of Encountering Children: Tally-ho wagons are strictly 21+. Hunt riders are primarily adults, though there is a junior league (touted as the future of foxhunting). These youngsters are well-trained riders, well behaved and closely supervised by adults. You’ll hear dogs howling more than kids.
@21plusTravel Tip: The tally-ho wagons are rarely on paved roads so, ladies, wear your most supportive bra.
Consumption of adult beverages is permitted in tally-ho wagons.
One tally-ho wagon is loaded up with porta potties which are readily available for use at all planned stops. So, enjoy your beverages: Cheers!
In Georgia, the 2013 fox hunting season runs December 1 through February 28, statewide; there is no limit. In Georgia, there are two species of fox: the gray fox (urocyon cinereoargenteus) and the red fox (vulpes vulpes). Because coyotes are a non-native species in Georgia, they may be hunted year-round.
The Belle Meade Hunt Opening Meet is the largest in the world.
The Blessing of the Hounds is free and open to the public. Tally-ho wagon ride tickets are $50 per person; all participants must be age 21 or older. Complete the online form to receive advance notification of the 2014 event and an invitation to purchase advance tickets once they are made available; some tickets are also for sale on-site the day of the event.
Belle Meade Hunt Club
-Photos © HSP Media LLC
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