Photos by Christopher Smith courtesy of Princess Anne Hunt
Charles City is unreasonably warm for November. Just after daybreak, distinguished guests descend upon the sprawling green lawn of Sherwood Forest Plantation, many with horses in tow. Riders straighten their Melton coats, adjust their steads’ braided manes and gather for the Blessing of the Hounds.
Only after the minister offers his closing remarks do the riders mount their horses and await the huntsman’s signature call. A fox is spotted. The Huntsman’s “Tally-ho!” rings across the fallow fields. The hunt has begun.
The Princess Anne Hunt, established in 1927, is one of the most exclusive, well-kept secrets of Coastal Virginia. The 96-year-old fox hunting club offers memberships by invitation only and follows closely the rules and traditions of the fox hunt’s origin in 18th-century England.
English and Irish gentry first introduced the fox hunt as a practical measure against depredation of their properties. Today, fox hunting in Virginia doubles as a noble sport and act of preservation for the centuries-old tradition.
The Hunt’s territory extends from Williamsburg to Richmond and from Suffolk to King William County. Hunts take place every Wednesday and Saturday from November’s opening meet to the closing meet in March.
Understanding the Hunt begins with its hierarchy. The process is led by three masters—currently Travis Gibson, Dee Dee Mausteller and Edward Mitchell—who oversee the planning and execution of each hunt.
Second in command are the field masters, responsible for maintaining the conduct of riders and horses during the hunt. Field masters also ensure the safety of riders, protection of property and well-being of the hunt’s most integral players, the hounds.
“For me, fox hunting is old hat, but for others it’s unusual,” says Ellie Kreassig, a lifelong equestrian and vetted member of the Princess Anne Hunt who held the position of field master for several years. “We don’t believe in killing. The main idea of fox hunting is watching the hounds work.”
The huntsman and his assistants, known as whippers-in, are exclusively responsible for the breeding and year-round care of the club’s hounds. Current huntsman Martyn Blackmore maintains a kennel of 25 couple, or 50 hounds, near Sherwood Forest Plantation, Princess Anne Hunt’s homebase.
The Princess Anne Hunt made several moves before settling in Charles City County. Prior to World War II, kennels were maintained near the site of today’s Princess Anne Country Club. By the late 1960s, a new clubhouse and kennel were constructed near Hunt Club Farm.
Its home along London Bridge Road was short-lived, however, as rapid urbanization of Virginia Beach forced the Hunt to find new kennels in Surry County, home of the Hunt’s previous huntsman, Elias “Toady” Guy.
In 1989, Paynie and Harrison Tyler, owners of Sherwood Forest Plantation, gifted the Princess Anne Hunt five acres on which to build a kennel and stables. The Princess Anne Hunt has called those five acres home ever since. Sherwood Forest Plantation is not the organization’s sole hunting ground though.
“We have 40 landowners who welcome our horses and hounds to their properties,” says Kreassig. “We’ve been to several historic places like Shirley Plantation and Bacon’s Castle.”
Regardless of a hunt’s location, the rules remain the same. And, as Kreassig explains, proper attire is paramount.
“Riders wear white neck stocks with a horizontal stock pin, yellow vests, black Melton jackets, buff-colored breaches, Prince of Wales spurs and gloves and carry a regulation hunting whip,” she says. “Only on Wednesdays can you wear a Ratcatcher tweed jacket instead of a Melton jacket.”
Horses must be properly groomed, too, and carry a negative Coggins, a blood test that proves a horse is free of any infectious diseases. Kreassig explains that horse regulations have been loosened since she joined the Hunt in 1982.
“When I first started, your horse had to be white, gray, black or chestnut to be permitted to ride,” she says. “I will never forget when one rider showed up with an Apaloosa and was asked to ride in the back as a result. Now any breed of horse can hunt, even part mule,” she jokes.
Hounds are released into the fields and followed by riders on horseback. “A lead hound will pick up a scent, howl and is then honored by other hounds with a pack-wide howl,” explains Kreassig. “We do not bait foxes either. The hounds work to find them. Gray foxes are known to climb trees while red foxes commonly dig holes. The hounds will bay by the foxes’ hiding spot until called back by the huntsman.”
The hounds, she explains, are fitted with radio-controlled collars so they can be tracked by the huntsman. “When I first started hunting, there were no such things as radio-controlled collars. If a hound did not return, our old huntsman, Toady Guy, would take off his jacket and lay it in the field. The next morning, he’d come out and the hound would be laying on his jacket.”
Although Kreassig no longer rides, she enjoys the camaraderie of the Hunt’s potlucks and celebratory Stirrup Cup, a boozy concoction of port sherry or champagne. This year’s closing ceremony will take place on Saturday, March 11 and will also round out Kreassig’s 41st year with Princess Anne Hunt.