HN’s foxiest blogger Gretchen Pelham is back with another breathtaking photo essay from a recent outing with Tennessee Valley Hunt.
Top: Ryan Johnsey, blowing to the pack working way down below. All photos by Gretchen Pelham.
We had our first real check on the paved road while Ryan talked to his whips. Whipper-In John saw a brace of coyotes (a “brace” means that there’s two of them) go one way, and then a few minutes later another brace of coyotes went another. Soon after that, he saw a fifth coyote run in a completely new direction. I think the pack had been on one of the braces, which then split the pack when they parted ways. Coyotes were ping-ponging all over the place. Talk about feeling like being inside a live video game.
The last Saturday of November ended a week of unseasonably cold weather for East Tennessee. Despite the crazy weather for the South, the Tennessee Valley Hunt had an excellent hunt on coyotes that rounded the Big Valley Fixture about four times, I think. I’m not really sure, as my memory of how we kept circling is like an Escher painting. I was leading First Flight, but the circles keep overlapping each other in my mind. I can’t remember exactly how we got to the end!
Once I arrived at the meet, I tried to put my riding boots on. My boot zippers broke as I tried desperately to cover my calves fattened up by turkey, sweet potato casserole, long johns and thick wool socks. So I had to wear my barn boots, which are rubber riding boots that go half-way up my calf.
These would be sort of okay, despite their short height, if not for the fact that they are every neon color in the rainbow as seen through a kaleidoscope. I call them my Jerry Garcia boots, because that’s what the inside of his head would look like.
Just as I mounted and threaded my way through the trailers to the front where we would gather for the start of the hunt, I saw a loose horse with a tall gentleman in scarlet walking after him. Turns out that Jim Schmidhammer, ex-MFH, fell off in the mud just as he mounted and his horse stumbled. His wife, Mary Sue, was walking along the edge of the planted field on her horse to catch the wandering one. They caught Jim’s horse just as I galloped around the edge of the field to them. I had to give Jim a leg up onto his tall horse.
Now, to paint this picture I am not a tall person. I usually lie and say that I am 5 foot and a half inch, but really I am only 5 foot. Jim is over 6 feet, but fortunately for me his is skinny. I attempted to give him a leg up. I said, “On three: One. Two. THREE!” Well, it was a classic “do we go ON three or after?” I went on three. Jim went after three. There was a moment that I was sure he was either going to land on top of me or take a header on the other side of the horse. But after an awkwardly long time, he sat up in the saddle. And that’s when I realized that the whole hunt, with landowners, had a great view of my efforts. Oh, yay.
The Big Valley fixture is what one would call “Big” country in the foot hills of the Appalachian Mountains. It consists of two ridges that are separated by a small lake and a farm road. Each ridge is a mostly bare, cattle pasture that undulates with twists and turns. Rather like the top of Loch Nessie, and it’s a blast to gallop along the top. The ridges are bordered on one side by flat, corn fields, another side by the 100 Acre Woods, and the rest by rolling cattle pastures.
Ryan Johnsey, our professional huntsman, went through the barn yard gate with our pack of 13 ½ couple Penn-Marydel foxhounds to draw along Lick Creek. Within the first five minutes the hounds hit fast uphill, going past the top of the Scary Trail. We raced along past the small pond and up the steep hill to the new and improved “Gnarly Jump”. It used to be cedar branches over low wire; it’s now two telephone poles stacked to about 3 foot. It has an uphill approach from the cattle pasture, landing in the woods with a downward grade. My pony took it fine, and I looked back to just quick enough to get a glimpse of Russell Haynes on a borrowed horse sail over it. Russell is a steeplechase jockey, and he was riding in his racing saddle. Good thing the dude knows how to ride a horse, as his girth broke over the jump!
I heard a commotion behind me as Russell landed and realized that his saddle was not attached to anything. He managed to ride back up to the jump, jump it, leave his saddle and breastplate on the jump, and then he hacked bareback to the trailers. After he fetched a new girth, he again hacked bareback on this horse he had never ridden before to the jump to tack back up. He caught up with us after an hour or so. Ah, to be so young. Just the effort of bareback riding would have had me going in, crying from the painful muscles. I think we should rename the jump “Russell’s Girth.”
As Russell was turning around to go back up to the jump, I was attempting to follow Ryan down the hill inside the 100 Acre Woods. I’ve been told that there is a trail there. Damned if I could find it. I was lost in the exact same place on Opening Meet because I couldn’t find the trail that went up to the jump.
Now I couldn’t find any semblance of a trail going down, and I think Ryan just bush wacked his way out. I suspect that some people have been pulling my leg about this trail’s existence. After a few members of my field, who had been lost with me at Opening Meet, mentioned that this felt familiar, I finally stumbled upon a trail. We raced along the trails, guessing which way Ryan had gone, when we came to the wire gate that leads out of the woods into the cattle field behind the lake. We heard hounds and Ryan blowing to our right, and they were heading right for us. We got the gate open, and galloped through the field and around the barn that has a wire fence all around it to keep the cattle away from it.
From there we followed the gravel farm road to another gate that lead into a field of nothing but briars and thorn trees. One second Ryan was there, another second Ryan was gone, galloping off through the briars to hit Carters Valley Road.
We galloped on the paved road for almost a mile before we caught up with Ryan, who had checked to listen for hounds. My pony was doing great on the blacktop since he was shod with both borium and borium tipped studs. However, he decided to do his kangaroo impression when he saw a small patch of new pavement in the middle of the road. Melissa said he levitated over – I just felt him lock all four legs, BOUNCE over the patch, and land with all four legs locked. He has shown off his Down Under DNA before – and each time I’ve fallen off. This time I was smart enough to have fingers from both hands under my breastplate and neck strap. Even with double reins and holding a hunt whip and lash, I still try to hang on whenever we gallop. This time I stayed on, but I don’t think it could have hurt any worse if I had hit the pavement from a gallop. Ouch.
The main pack then turned back towards Big Valley. We galloped back down the road, through the briars to the wired-out barn, and continued down the farm road following Ryan out the barn yard gate. We picked up Russell here. We ran down the farm road and turned right at the cross roads, then passed the parked trailers to go into the donkey field thru the double gates. The pack had turned into the donkey field before losing the coyote in the cattle. Ryan was on top of the ridge, above where the trailers were parked, calling in the pack. The first circuit had taken about an hour and 15 minutes.
After a check, Ryan cast the hounds in the cover just below the dead tree at the top of Llama Hill. Here, my memory is foggy because we circled Big Valley three more times in as much fashion as the first circuit did, and the circuits keep merging and switching in my memory.
I know at one point we were below the ridges and ran along the corn fields to cross Lick Creek into the other corn field. The creek was deep, and I was glad that I wasn’t on my 12 hand pony, or I might have been swimming! Returning to the farm road from the corn field I almost ran over several four-wheelers as I galloped around a turn, but I managed to duck out of their way and jump up on to the road further down. We passed the trailers and went back through the double gates and up to the top of Llama Hill — again.
We went over the coop set in the waller (it has a deceptive drop to it on the “wallered-out” side). We checked on a hill just in front of the wired-out barn and were rewarded with a yellow coyote view. Russell hollered a nice Rebel Yell! The yellow coyote came around the wired-out barn into the 100 Acre Woods with one couple of hounds hot on his brush. Then the main pack came around the wired-out barn on the other side in a roaring full cry. But they went into the 100 Acre Woods a little further up, closer to the wire gate we had come through earlier. They must have been on a different coyote that we didn’t see.
We went in through the wire gate (once I found the blasted thing). We rode to the other side of the 100 Acre Woods to turn before the kudzu and went up the new trail. After passing the strange stadium chairs set out to watch nothing but trees grow, we went over the new barway jump. It is 3 foot high and built of 3 skinny rails. We jumped from dark woods with the sun shining through the rails into the sunny field on an uphill approach. Upon landing you would get a very steep downhill landing if you didn’t stay to the left. We were right back where we started the morning, near where Russell lost his girth.
I had lost Ryan in the woods (this seems to be a theme with me). We could tell the pack was below us on the other side of the ridge, about where the bottom of the Scary Trail is located. We debated, but decided that closing the gate at the top of the Scary Trail, which was just ahead of us, would take way too much time. So we gambled that the pack would turn again towards us and the corn fields.
We galloped along the top of the ridge, up down and around like a roller coaster, and then checked. I saw a big grey coyote cruising along the edge of the cover at the bottom of our ridge. There was one hound, Darling, pressing him close. The rest of the pack was roaring about 75 yards behind. We watched as the grey coyote crossed over our ridge on Llama Hill and go down the other side in the cover by the dead tree.
We galloped along the top of the ridge towards the line where the coyote had crossed over, keeping even with the roaring pack down below. I had goose bumps and was grinning from ear to ear! There is nothing like the experience of thundering hooves, wind in your teeth, being so high up with a view of several miles around you, and the ROAR of a pack of foxhounds in full cry running even with you down below.
The hounds checked below us as the line moved from the shadows of the cover to the sunny hillside. Ryan came galloping up to us from the Scary Trail, where he lost his hunt whip somewhere on the steep hillside.
We recast in that same cover as before down off the top of the Llama Hill, and they hit quickly below the dead tree. The pack went roaring into full cry again as they followed the creek back towards the wired out barn. There the pack checked. We sat there for maybe 15 minutes when Hilltoppers joined us.
That’s when Ryan called the pack in for the day. It had been about three hours of hard, fast hunting. When I gave my report to my other Joint Masters, I just said, “We ran everywhere. Repeatedly. It was epic!”
Gretchen Pelham, MFH
Tennessee Valley Hunt
Gretchen is one of the five Joint Masters of the Tennessee Valley Hunt. She is a photographer and always hunts with her large 20D Canon camera and zoom lens shoved down the front of the her hunt coat (including this day she fell). Sometimes she even remembers to put the digital card in the camera. She is known as the Naked Foxhunter from a series of articles she has written for The Chronicle of the Horse. Her other hunt pony Ziggy writes a blog for the foxhunting magazine Covertside. Occasionally Gretchen manages to finish a hunt without falling off, but that is not as often as she would like.
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