Annual fox-hunting ritual: Blessing of the Hounds, and a whole lot more

I attended a hunting ritual last week that is literally “as old as the hills.”

It was the annual Blessing of the Hounds at Rocky Fork Headley Hunt Club near Columbus. An Episcopal priest conducted the frosty-morning ceremony that marks the start of the club’s formal fox hunting season.

She blessed the club’s gaggle of fox hounds and well-groomed horses and distributed medals to about two-dozen riders in hopes that all will avoid serious injury while afield this fall and winter.

I attended as the guest of my childhood friend, Kate Rigg, who is a lifelong horsewoman with a special interest in fox hunting.

She has told me that riding a horse through woodlots and fields, jumping obstacles in pursuit of fox and coyote, can be hazardous to both man and animal. Broken fingers and limbs are not unusual among those who engage the sport.

They need prayer before heading to the trails.

This custom of blessing dates from Medieval England and is associated with St. Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, archers, forest workers, and hunting dogs.

Yes, hunting has a patron saint and his special day is Nov. 3.

Legend has it that St. Hubert wasn’t so saintly in his youth. He dodged church to hunt and chase other pleasures. But one Good Friday morning, he was pursuing a buck when the animal turned and, as the story goes, a crucifix appeared within its rack. Hubert took it as a sign from God and swore to change his ways. He gave away his money and worldly goods to the poor, eventually entering the priesthood. Before he died, he was a bishop.

In addition to the plea for a safe hunting season, the blessing ceremony gives all in attendance a chance to experience spirituality and “find delight in simple and wholesome pleasures.”

And in case you wonder why the blessing does not extend to the club’s prey, there’s a reason. The fox and coyote they pursue rarely need religious intervention. My friend Kate tells me she rarely even sees a fox in the field and remembers killing only one aged animal years ago.

For these hunters, the fun is in the chase and the joy of spending a beautiful fall day outdoors on horseback.

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