AIKEN -- Ilehr Brisbin's horse, Grass Valley, is no stranger to fox hunting.
The horse, nicknamed Reefer, is 28 years old and has been fox hunting for 25 years, the Aiken resident said. Mr. Brisbin has a younger horse, but he said Reefer is his traditional hunting horse and is better suited to the tradition of the Blessing of the Hounds.
"If you asked my wife to explain it, she would say men can't get rid of old things," Mr. Brisbin joked from the saddle Thursday before the hounds arrived.
Reefer was looking forward to it. He beat Mr. Brisbin onto the horse trailer on Thanksgiving.
Hundreds of spectators showed up to view and snap photographs of the more than 75 horses and fox hunters at an annual ceremony held in a clearing in Hitchcock Woods. Riders expected to sweat a little in the warm weather, but Wednesday's rain made the fox scent easier for the hounds to track.
The Blessing of the Hounds dates back to the eighth century and St. Hubert of Leige, patron saint of hunters. Once a court official in the Roman Empire, he is believed to have converted to Christianity when a stag appeared in the woods before him on Good Friday with a glowing crucifix between its antlers.
Ever since, hunters traditionally celebrate the Feast of St. Hubert in November with the Blessing of the Hounds.
Once the riders were assembled, the hounds -- don't call them dogs -- were led into the clearing: barking, pawing at the ground and occasionally breaking from the pack to sniff the crowd. Mellie Hickey, vicar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Beech Island, delivered the blessing.
She chose the blessing delivered by Monsignor George Louis Smith, a celebrated Aiken sportsman and a priest who last blessed the hounds about 15 years ago. The blessing is a loose translation of a French blessing used by St. Hubert, she explained.
"Almighty God, we ask your blessing upon all animals, especially in those that we find companionship and joy," she said.
The blessing done, the hounds, horses and riders bounded off into Hitchcock Woods for the hunt.
Todd Bauer can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augusta chronicle.com.