written by Susan Frampton / photos by Nick Bridges
On a Good Friday in the early Middle Ages, thundering hooves pounded through the forest. Riding in pursuit of a magnificent stag, Hubert of Liege might have felt the air surrounding him seemed supernaturally charged, heightening the senses of the reclusive nobleman and huntsman. Hubert was in mourning, having taken to the woods following the death of his wife during childbirth. While others attended church, he sought the refuge he knew best, galloping over fallen logs and across winding streams after his quarry until suddenly drawing up and short, stopped in his tracks by an unbelievable sight.
According to the legend of the conversion of the man who would be canonized as St. Hubert, in his path stood the mighty stag, a blazing crucifix suspended between his antlers. In Hubert's ears, the voice of God rang out, commanding him to go forth, lead a holy life, and to hold animals in higher regard. The beautification in the forest that day earned him the designation of patron saint of hunters.
Fast forward through the centuries to Thanksgiving morning in Aiken's Hitchcock Woods, where there is excitement afoot. The rhythmic sounds of hooves draw ever closer, as do voices hushed as though entering a sanctuary. One by one, riders pass through the brick entrance of the Memorial Gate, their distinctive forest-green jackets lush against the fall foliage. On this day, their starched stocks. polished boots, and black helmets are church-clothes, for they mark a holy occasion for both attendees and participants.
The gathered crowd awaits the traditional Blessing of the Aiken Hounds, the benediction of St. Hubert that has been offered for more than a century over this oldest continuous group of hunting hounds in the country. The words delivered by a local cleric will beseech the Lord for protection of the land, the animals, and the people who participate in the sport. Though there are many versions of St. Hubert's Blessing, they universally reflect the precepts of the patron saint's philosophy.
In 1914, following World War I, Louise Eustis Hitchcock founded the Aiken Hounds, a club originally named the Aiken Drag. From its inception, the club eschewed live fox hunting for a version of the hunt in which fox scent is applied, or dragged along trails through the forest for the hounds and riders to follow. The organization, explains Larry Byers, the club's joint Master of Fox Hounds, is dedicated to "the indefinable relationship between man, horse, hound, and countryside."
Heavenly father, may each person that has gathered here share in a spirit of sportsmanship, respect, and mutual care for all creatures great and small.
We pray that you bless the horses and the riders who have gathered here and protect them from all danger to life and limb.
Bless the fox who gives us sport. May he be swift and sly as You have created him, so that he may escape to run yet another day.
To understand the sanctity of the occasion, one must understand the history of Aiken, the culture, and the legacy of Louise Hitchcock. The story began in the late 1800's when Aiken drew American's elite to its mild winters and the restorative health properties of the rolling countryside. Among them was Louise Eustis, whose aunt brought her to the area in hopes of improving the young woman's physical health. Louise later wed wealthy sportsman Thomas Hitchcock, and the avid horseman discovered Aiken to be the perfect environment for his outdoor interests. The couple soon came to represent the equestrian culture and lifestyle of the community. Wealthy Northerners, many of whom were heirs to great fortunes, flocked to the sporting resort, creating a winter colony of glittering socialites.
But they were far more than beautifully dressed elites frolicking in the woods. The philosophy held by sportsmen for hundreds of years, was reflected in their care to preserve the land and provide for the well-being of both land and animal. Then, as now, the Aiken Hounds are proponents of maintaining the health of the bucolic countryside, a heritage that is often overlooked by those who do not understand the symbiotic relationship celebrated by the sport.
After Louise Hitchcock's death, her family would later gift 1,191 acres of woodland to the entity now known as The Hitchcock Woods Foundation. Today, that land is part of more than 2,000 acres established to protect and maintain the woods in perpetuity for recreational use and enjoyment by the people of Aiken, and it honors the legacy and traditions of its namesakes, Louise and Thomas Hitchcock.
The Blessing of the Hounds, which launches each year's formal hunt season of the Aiken Hounds, in the embodiment of the culture of mutual respect and collaboration for which the organization feels understandable pride.
The event kicks off each year on the lawn of the Aiken County Historical Museum, where all are invited to enjoy "Bloodies and Bagels," prior to the ceremony. The community, friends, and family of the hunt, young and old come together in the spirit of the day as they then walk the approximate half-mile to Hitchcock Woods, where they will meet up with horses, riders, hounds, and the clergy who will administer the blessing.
Freshly bathed by the children of the organization's Pony Club, the hounds seem to know that they are the stars of the show, baying, yipping, and wagging their pleasure to the crowd, and sometimes sticking their noses over the brick wall to accept a pat on the head as homage from the onlookers.
The pace and course are not conducive to following on foot, and motorized vehicles and bicycles are prohibited on the property, but the crowd sends its own hopes and prayers for a successful hunt with the riders as they move out. The first flight is led by the Field Master, who will set a brisk pace. These riders will jump. The second flight will follow at the same pace, but will forego jumps. Lastly, the third flight of "Hill Toppers," traditionally children and/or novices, will move at a slower tempo.
"All generations can participate," says Peace. "There are so many people here for the holidays, and often entire families will ride - grandparents, parents, and grandchildren. It's a wonderful tradition for a family to be able to share."
Gracious God, You have brought us together today to share the fellowship of this sport we love.
Bless the hounds that bring us much joy. They are beloved creatures of Your creation and You have entrusted them to us for our use and pleasure. May their run be swift and may their scent be keen.
May each person finish this hunt with good health, an appreciation for Your creation, and gratitude to You for the bounty and sport they have enjoyed.