Photos courtesy of Jean Carnet of Carnet Studio and Eric Bowles of Bowles Images. Photo above by Jean Carnet.
The tradition of fox hunting has existed for well over 400 years, with the earliest recorded fox hunt dating back to sixteenth-century England. Despite its deep roots in history– or perhaps because of them– fox hunting is a sport that remains relevant and popular among equestrian enthusiasts today. Here in Georgia, there may be no greater evidence of the sport’s longevity than the Shakerag Hounds. Senior members Master Huntsman Daryl Buffenstein and Honorary Secretary Tara Stricko Myers spoke to Horse Hound and Hunt about what has kept this tradition going strong in the Peach State.
Shakerag Hounds, established in 1943, is Georgia’s oldest recognized fox hunting organization. Originally based in Atlanta, increasing urbanization and population growth prompted them to move more northward over the years, first to Suwannee, then to their present location in Hull, Georgia. After all, the sport of fox hunting thrives upon vast areas of countryside.
“The horse industry as a whole suffers from the huge challenge of how to keep green space open as urban sprawl threatens to cover everything in concrete,” Huntsman Daryl Buffenstein explained. “As fox hunters we are on the forefront of that.”
Like many fox hunting organizations, Shakerag Hounds is passionate about land conservation. Those who enjoy this sport usually have a great love for the outdoors. In fact, one of the major reasons individuals join a fox hunt is to savor the countryside and experience the thrill of the chase without constraint, as Secretary Tara Stricko Myers explained.
“It gives those who might otherwise have only ridden in a round pen the chance to ride in an open space,” she said. “It’s a completely different experience.”
Buffenstein agreed. “If you like trail riding, you’ll love fox hunting.”
That ecological mindset extends beyond appreciating the panorama, as Huntsman Daryl Buffenstein calls it, and even includes the way the hunt feels about its quarry – which is especially enlightening with so much animal rights controversy surrounding sport hunting in the United States and abroad.
“It’s import to emphasize that this is not a blood-thirsty sport,” Stricko Myers stated. “Most fox hunters are very environmentally minded. After we have lunch following a hunt, the huntsman who cares for the hounds even saves the scraps to feed foxes near the kennels.”
“We often chase coyote, sometimes fox, or in much more limited circumstances bobcat or even wild hog, but it’s primarily about the hunt itself. A lot of people start by hunting to ride, and eventually they are riding to hunt,” Buffenstein explained with a chuckle. “It’s not about catching anything. It’s about seeing how the hounds work with each other.”
“We are very proud of our hounds,” he continued. “We breed our own hounds for our specific conditions. If you were to speak to a hunt out west, for example, the conditions and the hounds that are bred for them would be different. One of our huntsmen and his wife manage the kennels, and they do a fantastic job breeding and training the hounds. They really pack together,” he adds. “You could throw a blanket over them. Once during a hunt, a herd of deer ran past, and they didn’t even turn their heads.”
Of course, the hounds aren’t the notables worth mentioning of the Shakerag hunts. This is, after all, an equestrian sport, and the fox hunters’ other four-legged companions, their horses, seem to enjoy it as much as their riders. The horses seem to know, when they are being bathed and readied the day before, who is going to get to go on a hunt and who is not– and those left behind are rarely happy about it.
“My mare in particular does not like being left home, even though she can’t hunt first field or even second anymore,” Tara Stricko Myers said affectionately.
“We love our horses,” She added. “They’re part of our family, and that’s what the Shakerag hunt is: a family.”
She also went on to explain that a certain temperament is required for a good hunting horse and then related some of her experiences with Shakerag Hounds.
“I can remember one hunt, when we were riding along this little road, and we came upon a big Bobcat excavator off to the side,” Stricko Myers recalled. “My horse didn’t even bat an eye. She just kept following the hounds. Some horses don’t have the right disposition for the hunt, and they would have panicked. There have been so many times I’ve just patted her on the neck and said: ‘Thank you. Thank you for being a good pony.’”
When asked why at a time when other hunts are struggling to maintain membership, Shakerag Hounds is thriving, Huntsman Daryl Buffenstein attributed their success down to one primary factor: adaptability.
“We’ve come to understand that fox hunters come in all shapes,” he said. “At one time this was a strictly affluent group, but as times changed, we adapted. Of course, we still have a strong connection to those roots– a hunt needs to. That is part of the tradition, and, of course, you have to have land to hunt on– but we have also tried to make the sport of fox hunting accessible to people from different walks of life.”
Their ability and willingness to adapt over a decades-long existence has not only opened doors for people of all or no privilege to participate in the sport, but also to riders with varying equestrian skill levels.
“At any given hunt, we have at least three Fields of Flight, or groups of hunters,” Buffenstein explained. “The First Flight gallops and jumps, the Second Flight does everything the First does except jumping, and the Third Flight sticks to a canter or even a walk. That is not only good for new horses that might be unused to the hunt, and horses that are no longer able to keep up, but also for older riders who might otherwise not be able to keep fox hunting. We have hunters as old as 80 that still ride with us,” he added. “Some of our members have been with Shakerag 40 or 45 years, and there are more who have been with us for 20 or 30.”
The multiple Fields of Flight also allow for younger and less skilled riders to experience the tradition and the thrill of fox hunting. This is especially true during Shakerag Hounds Junior/Novice Hunts, when the Fields of Flight are expanded to provide a comfortable pace for riders based on their confidence and skill. This is another way in which Shakerag Hounds is thoroughly inclusive and inviting, and one of the main ways in which the hunt continues to attract new members.
“The one thing that most helps us maintain our membership more than anything else, even with people inevitably moving out of state and things of that kind, is our existing members inviting friends. There comes a point when someone is just bitten by the bug; you can just see it in their eyes. Maybe it doesn’t happen during their first hunt with us, but soon they have that one special experience, and they are hooked,” Buffenstein explained.
Tara Stricko Myers agreed. “I can vouch for that. That is exactly how I got started. I have always been a horse person, but I began with dressage when I was young. Years later I was doing some eventing, and my trainer happened to also hunt with Shakerag Hounds. She convinced me to give it a try. ‘You’re a fox hunter at heart,’ she said.”
It seems her trainer was right. It only took one hunt for Tara to be bitten by “the bug” and she has been hunting with Shakerag Hounds ever since.
“I can still remember, dismounting after my first hunt, my first thought was: ‘wow, I survived,’” she laughed. “But my second thought, right after that, was: ‘I can’t wait to do it again!’”
That welcoming attitude extends not only to new guests and established members, but even to those not at all interested in mounting a steed. In fact, while the thrill of the hunt may be the mainstay of the organization, the Shakerag Hounds offers many other social activities to appeal to all. From hunt dinners and the annual Hunt Ball to their Hunter Pace and popular Poker Run, the organization always has something entertaining planned.
“We have two levels of membership,” Daryl said. “The first is what we call a Social Membership, which is for those who don’t ride or ride less, and the second is a full membership for those who also want to participate in rides and hunts.”
It seems that the biggest requirement to become part of the Shakerag Hounds is the willingness to enjoy life and the companionship of others around you. It is the people, perhaps more than anything else, that make this group and the tradition of fox hunting in general so special.
“This is a very friendly group of people,” Tara Stricko Myers said. “We really are a family. I can remember, when I first joined a hunt as a guest, everyone was so welcoming. They made me feel right at home.”
Daryl Buffenstein agreed. “I’ve been a member of so many different professional groups and social groups over the years,” he said. “But I’ve never met a group as enthusiastic as fox hunters.”
The Shakerag Hounds are planning the Opening Hunt for their 75th season this October and are looking forward to another year of grand tradition. If you’re interested in learning more about the Shakerag Hounds or would like to participate in one of their organized hunts, visit www.shakeraghounds.com for more information.