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Huntsman Lincoln Sadler leads the pack to the Blessing of the Hounds at Buchan Field in Southern Pines Thanksgiving morning. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

One of the Sandhills’ most beloved community traditions is returning this Thanksgiving.

The Blessing of the Hounds has roots stretching to the eighth century, long before the pilgrims came to America. That, as legend has it, is when St. Hubert saw a luminous crucifix between the antlers of a stag he was hunting when he should have been at church.

He changed his ways from that day on and entered the priesthood, but continued breeding black and tan hounds. Hubert was canonized after his death and became the patron saint of hunters.

That’s who Moore County Hounds will call on during the annual spectacle that formally kicks off fox hunting season.

The Blessing of the Hounds has been open to the public since James and Jack Boyd founded the hunt in 1914. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced an exception. The hunt masters decided to close the event to spectators and move the blessing to a remote location in the interior of the Walthour-Moss Foundation.

The public blessing will return to Buchan Field, less than two miles from downtown Southern Pines, at 10 a.m. on Thursday. Spectators can number more than 1,000 in favorable weather, and most of them arrive before 8 a.m. to congregate over breakfast and tailgating spreads.

It’s worth the early start. What comes together on Buchan Field’s grassy expanse in the hour or so before the blessing could be the inspiration for an 18th-century print: 150 horses in bay, chestnut and gray, their riders in formal coats, and 60 of the Pennmarydel foxhounds bred and trained at the hunt’s kennels in Southern Pines. Some have been bartered and gifted from other hunts, but hunts are forbidden to buy or sell hounds.

After the blessing, the pageant springs into action as they all ride off on a brief, pre-planned hunt. Spectators are encouraged to remain until the hunt returns to Buchan Field, usually within an hour.

The Moore County Hounds are the oldest hunt in North Carolina and one of the oldest in the United States. After its founding, it was registered with the Master of Foxhounds Association in 1921.

The Blessing of the Hounds is as old as the hunt itself. It started at Weymouth, the Boyd family’s winter estate, and has moved around since.

W. Ozell “Pappy” and Virginia Moss doubled the 2,000 acres of foxhunting lands the Boyds established and conserved them as the Walthour-Moss Foundation. The foundation is still thriving today with the support of the ever-growing equestrian community. The hounds have lived in kennels at the Moss’ Mile-A-Way Farm since 1942.

Over the last century, the hunt has spent Thanksgiving morning at Lyell’s Meadow — formerly known as Kaylor Field — and Hobby Field on Youngs Road before moving the blessing to Buchan Field in 2015.

The field is named for the first Scottish family who farmed there in the late 18th century. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the hunt lands surrounding Mile Away Farm.

Parking for the Blessing of the Hounds is in Lyell’s Meadow at 225 Mile Away Lane, off of North May Street. Admission is free, but some private front-row tailgating spots have been sold to support land conservation and will be roped off on Thursday morning.

Fundraising supports Preserve the Sandhills, the nonprofit that bought the 12-acre parcel off of Mile Away Lane last year. While much of the original 84-acre Buchan Field tract has now been converted to small horse farms, that parcel will remain open space.

Spectators are asked to leave their personal pets at home so as not to distract the foxhounds.

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