At first glance, one might think a local hunting club outing results in a photo of spoils: hunters posed with their rifles alongside an array of the animals they've killed. However, that’s a photo you’ll never see from the Tennessee Valley Hunt, a registered group with Master of Foxhounds Association and collection of equestrians who show up for tradition, camaraderie, and the thrill of the chase.
From September to March, TVH members are led on various hunts by Master of Foxhound and professional huntsman Ryan Johnsey and his pack of Penn-Marydels, a specific breed of foxhound known for their nose and voice. (“Penn-Marydel” is the mash-up of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, pulled from the eastern shore where this foxhound was bred.)
Despite the terminology, fox hunting is primarily an equestrian sport where the horses and riders follow the dogs as they track a scent. When the chase is on, off they go. Ryan keeps command of the dogs with his horn, but the hounds always have the right-of-way. After all, they are the stars of the show.
“They seek out the fox or coyote, and the hounds pick up the scent themselves. We’re bloodthirsty in our pursuit, but we’re not hanging dead bodies out. It’s the natural work of the hounds,” says Ryan. “For me, I can live the rest of my life watching the hounds be real and true.”
The typical result of a hunt is chasing a fox back to its den or running a coyote to the limits of the property and letting it go. There is the infrequent catch of a coyote, but that’s usually at the request of a farmer who’s asked the hunt club to come on his land and catch the coyote who’s killing his livestock.
“I’ll look for farmers with large tracts of land and reach out to them to establish hunting permission. We need about 1,000 acres,” says Ryan. “The farmers we service appreciate what we do. There’s no farmer around here who doesn’t have a coyote problem.”
Tennessee Valley Hunt is a 501(c)(7) organization - a social nonprofit - so it’s not without other thrills. Though the group is built upon the long-standing tradition of fox hunting and its appreciation for the dogs, TVH doesn’t skimp on social hour or its endeavor to conserve the remaining open spaces in East Tennessee. In between dinners at Blackberry Farm, trail rides in the summertime, and joint meets with other regional hunt clubs, Ryan is communicating with local farmers and scoping out available open spaces for hunts.
However, on a daily basis, Ryan is taking care of the dogs (and six horses) at his property in New Market. Ryan grew up in northern Virginia, about 50 miles west of Washington DC, surrounded by open farmland. Much of that land has now been suburbanized, but at the time, Ryan got into fox hunting alongside his aunt, uncle, and father, and eventually landed an apprenticeship as a Whipper-In.
“Like the person who whips votes for Congress, a whipper-in is the eyes and ears of the huntsman, looking for fox or coyote, keeping tabs on the hounds, and helping the hunt,” he says. “I was a professional whipper for seven years for two huntsmen and eventually wanted to expand my professional growth, so I came down here eight years ago. Over time, since I’ve been in Tennessee, I took a leadership position as the master of the club and still maintain professional huntsman.”
With that comes the tending of the dogs, everything from daily exercise to overseeing breeding and training. There are currently 60 or so hounds in the kennel of varying ages and stages of readiness. In keeping with the standards of the Master of Foxhounds Association, the governing body of the sport, Ryan takes the breeding and care of his dogs seriously. He names them, watches their personalities flourish, learns their habits, and knows when it’s time for a hound to move from hunter to couch surfer.
“We have one or two litters a year, which gives me 10 to 15 new foxhounds. We don’t breed for profit, so we’re only breeding hounds to serve our pack,” he says. “We keep the generations balanced. There’s an eight-year average in hunt years, so if a hound is slowing down and we have rough country and a rigorous hunt, I’ll move my hounds around to a less rigorous land because he still has value. Sometimes I keep a hound in retirement or a subscriber will take them as a house dog.”
Subscribers, or members of TVH, have several options when joining the group, as the different membership levels parallel their interests. Some are keen to ride and watch the hounds perform from the front row, while other equestrians prefer the social aspect of the club and are fine to watch the hunt from further back. There’s even a third level of participation — the hilltoppers — which is for folks who are there for the view.
“Your riding ability doesn’t prevent you from participating, but you should already be an equestrian if you want to get into foxhunting,” says Ryan. “Hunting is a big culture in East Tennessee, and if you can tap into that market and make people who aren’t horse people feel welcome, you make friends and find more open space. Open space is the biggest concern for keeping the sport alive. We’re constantly working on landowner relationships. It’s important to embrace the whole hunting community.”