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Tennessee Valley Hunt embraces centuries-old customs, thrills associated with fox-hunting
By Chris Villines 11/30/2011


Dressed in the attire of a traditional English fox hunt, the field of Tennessee Valley Hunt (TVH) Club members and their horses, along with the club’s pack of scent-sniffing Penn-Marydel hounds, prepare to “move off,” or begin the hunt, on Oct. 15. This opening meet of the East Tennessee-based group’s 23rd season was held at Blackberry Ridge Farm near Greeneville. The farm is owned by Dr. Tracy Dobbs and wife Debbie, who are both TVH members.
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The folks gathered for a sporting event Oct. 15 at Blackberry Ridge Farm in Greene County were in for a day full of running, zigzagging, and jumping by conditioned athletes.

But this was no backyard football game or friendly soccer match. Exuding an air of elegance unlike most typical Tennessee sports, this event involved uniforms of wool riding coats, velvet helmets, beige breeches, and polished knee-high boots. The “players” were seated atop dignified-looking horses with braided manes and brushed tails. This was the Tennessee Valley Hunt (TVH) Club’s 23rd annual Opening Meet of fox-hunting season with 50 participants and just as many spectators eager to take part in their own version of a centuries-old English tradition.

“We are hunting a piece of property that we’ve never hunted before,” said Master of Foxhounds Grosvenor Merle-Smith to the assembled field, which included owners of the 300-acre farm, Dr. Tracy Dobbs and wife Debbie, who have been TVH members for the past three years. “It should be an adventure … a great adventure.”

The TVH, founded 23 years ago by Carla Hawkinson and Maribel Koella, holds twice-weekly hunts from September through March with the first month devoted to “cub hunts” for young hounds and inexperienced riders and horses. The club provides a local connection to a long, distinguished tradition of fox-hunting that was started in England by farmers who wanted to rid their land of the pesky predators. Englishman Robert Brooke brought fox-hunting to the U.S. in 1650, and, more famously, Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both kept packs of fox hounds for hunting.

But no one has to be famous to participate in the TVH events, stressed Dr. Dobbs.

“Anyone can come out and hunt with us,” said the oncologist and Greene Farmers Cooperative member who has a stable of 35 Irish draft horses. “Within our hunt, we have a wide spectrum of people, from young to old, from professional to nonprofessional. The biggest expense of fox-hunting is owning the horse.”

The TVH hunts are held on private property whose landowners have given the club permission to stage its events. At the Oct. 15 hunt, many of the spectators who either followed the participants by ATV or on the so-called “tally-ho” wagons live on land adjacent to the Dobbses’ farm and allowed the activities to pass through their properties. The relationships forged with these landowners, said Hawkinson, are crucial to the club’s mission.

“Most of our landowners are farmers, so we take into consideration everything about the farm when we are hunting,” she said. “We want to be good stewards of the land. We’re always looking to expand our hunt country and benefit the landowners. During the offseason, we’ll even help build fence, put up gates, and do whatever else suits the owners to make the land more conducive to hunting.”

One of the interested observers was dairyman and Greene Farmers Cooperative director John Collins, a friend and neighbor of the Dobbses. Collins was part of the four-wheeler contingent getting an up-close look at this new community event.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Collins. “Everyone was so nice, we had good weather, and we went through country that I’ve been familiar with since I was a little boy.”

In keeping with English tradition, the hunt was accompanied by quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. Perhaps the most dramatic sight was the entrance of TVH’s “huntsman,” Andrew Bozdan of England, with the club-owned pack of 30 Penn-Marydel hounds. This breed, well known for having a superior sense of smell, is so named because it originated in the area where the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware meet. Bozdan works full time for the TVH and is responsible for the care and training of the pack at the current kennel location in Strawberry Plains (a move to a new club kennel in Greeneville will be made next year).

After the ceremonial “Blessing of the Hounds” by the Rev. Greg Cartwright of Morristown First Presbyterian Church, the sound of the huntsman’s horn signaled the start of the hunt, and the hounds were “cast” to pick up the scent of the prey, or quarry.

The American version of fox-hunting focuses more on the chase than the kill, explained Hawkinson. As soon as a fox is spotted, a rider shouts “tally-ho!” and the chase begins. Pursued by the hounds and followed by horses and riders, the fox will eventually take shelter — or “go to ground” — at which point the huntsman will blow his horn to signal that the pack has met its objective.

With no predetermined length of time for the hunt, another chase may begin if the hounds are up to it.

Hawkinson stressed that all foxes — and coyotes as well — that the TVH members hunt are always found in the wild, never released.

“Many people think that the only way you could be hunting is by releasing a captured fox,” she explained. “That is absolutely unethical to put an animal into an environment that it doesn’t know and chase it with a pack of hounds. We only chase foxes and coyotes in their native habitat. They know their territory better than we do, are typically faster, and oftentimes more clever than our hounds.”

Hawkinson also said that the image of a fox hunt involving a terrified animal fleeing for its life is a misconception.

“I have seen foxes stop during a hunt and start hunting prey themselves,” she said. “I’ve seen them pounce on mice while the hounds are chasing them.”

Each hunt is led by the “masters,” who wear distinctive red coats, and a huntsman and two assistants, called “whippers-in,” who help keep the pack together and prevent the hounds from straying out of the hunting ground. With those exceptions, most of the hunters are just along for the ride, with their only job to call out “tally-ho!” if they see a fox. The “fields” of hunters are divided into two groups: the aggressive, accomplished riders who can jump obstacles, and the “hill toppers,” who stick with trotting and cantering.

For these hunters, participating in a fox hunt gives them a chance to develop a strong relationship between horse and rider, according to TVH member Judith Craw.

“When you’re riding a horse that works well for you, it’s like dancing with someone you know well,” she said. “You understand each other’s subtle movements and almost read each other’s minds. A good horse will save you.”

But perhaps the best testimonial for the lure of this tradition-rich sport comes from words not spoken, but written, by Hawkinson in “May Hounds Run Ever,” a poem she crafted in 2003:

To endless years of hounds’ sweet cry

To thundering hooves, and foxes sly.

We raise a glass to the life we love

For grass below and sky above.

To friendships forged on ridge and valley

When going is deep, yet hounds still rally.

To outreached hands, when we meet the earth,

To reckless laughter, wind, and turf.

To the horn that calls us all back home

To aching muscles, weary bone.

God bless this hunt and every friend

May hounds run ever o’er this land.

Hawkinson says that the Tennessee Valley Hunt Club is always looking for new members and land on which to hunt. Hunts are held twice weekly from now through March.  For more information, contact her at 865-385-7240 or visit online at

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