Under blue, cloudless skies and bright sunshine, horseback riders and spectators turned out in full force Saturday to enjoy the annual Opening Meet of the Belle Meade Hunt, the largest opening meet in the world.
About 800 people gathered in a large field where black-jacketed riders lined a long path leading to the dais where Reverend Father E.R Frank waited to begin the event with the traditional Blessing of the Hounds.
Horses carrying red-coated riders jumped a coop into the field followed by an energetic pack of hounds, then Joint Masters of the Hunt Epp Wilson, Charles Lewis and Gary Wilkes walked with the pack to the dais. After Father Frank gave the Blessing, he presented riders with Saint Hubert medals in honor of the patron saint of hunters.
Following the serious ceremony, the tone turned festive as visitors and riders headed to the woods and fields of McDuffie County for a day of outdoor fun.
Hundreds of observers riding Tally Ho wagons had plenty of chances to watch and gain a better understanding of the sport.
While horses jumped obstacles, wound through trees and galloped across open fields, spectators cheered and took every chance to visit with riders during rest periods. Many visitors came well prepared with jumbo bags of mini carrots, which they fed to the horses during breaks.
One visitor from Texas, patting the neck of a well-mannered dappled gray horse, joked, "In Texas we have these, but we call them Shetland Ponies."
Another visitor from Louisville, Ky., said she thoroughly enjoyed the day, and now the only important horse event she has not yet attended is the Kentucky Derby race. "After coming here, I'll have to go to the Derby next."
Although visitors from about 10 states came to the event, most were local, Mr. Wilson said. When the Belle Meade Hunt was established in 1966, the founders issued an invitation for the public to come watch. Opening meet has grown with the support of the community, and each year more Tally Ho riders choose to spend a day in the woods and fields of McDuffie County.
"It draws so many people because it's fun," Mr. Wilson said.
Spectators not only had fun, but also toured several historic sites in the country while enjoying the perfect landscape and scenery that has made Belle Meade a top hunt.
"Part of the mission of Belle Meade is providing a way for people to be more in touch with nature and more understanding of the fields and the forests and the animals it harbors," Mr. Wilson said.