Annual Blessing Kicks Off 96th Hunt Season
For pomp and ceremony — here in the Sandhills, anyway — it doesn’t get much better than the annual Blessing of the Hounds.
The weather was gloomy, the mood anything but on Thanksgiving morning as 1,000-plus spectators gathered at Hobby Field for the Blessing, which marks the opening of the formal foxhunting season. The ceremony originated from the belief that a prayer from St. Hubert — the patron saint of the hunt — would shield the hounds from disease and keep riders, horses and hounds safe during the hunt season.
The Blessing, led by the Rev. Meaghan M. Kelly of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, was preceded by the traditional tailgate party along Youngs Road. Some revelers set up camp as early as 7 a.m., affording them just enough time to fine-tune their Bloody Marys before the 10 a.m. whistle blew.
The hunt that traditionally follows the Blessing is the only “artificial hunt” of the season, explained Senior Master Dick Webb. The hounds follow a scented “drag,” which is pulled behind a horse at the front of the pack. The remainder of the season, which runs through March and consists of three outings per week, the Moore County Hounds hunt coyote or fox … though they rarely catch their prey.
Riders bowed their heads as the Rev. Kelly began the Blessing (“Bless, O Lord, we beseech you, Rider, Horse, and Hound…”), and the crowd fell silent. A few hounds slinked away from the pack and began sniffing spectators’ hands and pockets, looking for evidence from the tailgate party.
Finally, Huntsman Jody Murtaugh — who missed leading last year’s procession down Youngs Road because of a serious riding injury — blew the horn that signaled takeoff, and the hounds and horses followed First Whip Kerrie Hayes into the Walthour-Moss Foundation for around an hour of hunting.
The rider attracting the most attention Thursday didn’t even take part in the hunt. Alexis Coates, 4, was at a distinctly unfair advantage in that she and her 11-hand pony, Ponytail, had a virtually insurmountable lead in the cuteness division going into the day’s activities. Alexis’ mother, upper level event rider Alison Coates, bought 13-year-old Ponytail — a Shetland cross — from Alice Glass, whose granddaughter had hunted the pony.
“I saw her out here two and a half years ago and I said to myself, “I have to have that pony!” Coates recalled, laughing.
Adorableness aside, most of the hunt riders got their start on ponies like Ponytail: calm, unflappable creatures that are fazed by nothing and willing to forgive an inexperienced rider’s mistakes.
“Alexis is just walking and trotting now,” said Coates, a teacher at The O’Neal School whose husband, Adrian, is a local farrier. “She likes ‘jumping,’ but her form of jumping involves walking over rails.”
Coates rode her intermediate event horse, Irish Cavalier, four days before giving birth to Alexis. “The doctor had to slow down the delivery because she was actually coming too fast,” Coates said. “I said, “Well, sure, I was posting and trotting just four days ago!”
Alexis started riding with her mother in a double saddle. Her first solo ride came on a 32-inch miniature horse. “She doesn’t actually steer yet,” Coates said. “We’ve got a ring, so we’re going to work on that.”
While it’s unlikely that Alexis and Ponytail will one day gallop off with the hounds, Coates hopes to one day share the experience with her daughter.
“Ponytail can probably hilltop, but she gets pretty tired trying to keep up,” Coates said. “This is kind of a dry run to see how she (the pony) would handle it. Hopefully next year we’ll all come out — I’ll ride my event horse, Adrian will be on his horse, and my mom (Cynthia Williams) will be on her horse.”
Ponytail will still be young — by pony standards — by the time Alexis outgrows her. When that day comes, Coates says she will try to pass the pony along to another horse- crazy child.
“That was the deal when I bought her,” Coates said. “Alice asked me just to sell her for what I paid for her, so she could go on and help another kid learn to ride.”
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