Written by Kaitlin Hill
In Middleburg, fox hunting scenes aren’t hard to find. From the painted portrayals lining the Red Fox Inn, to the six-foot bronze fox sitting outside the Middleburg Community Center, or the rotating exhibits at the National Sporting Library and Museum, and the familiar display at the Christmas Parade, fox hunting is part of the fabric of the community. But more than the recognizable scarlet coats and prowling hounds, formal fox hunting is a carefully coordinated event requiring a huge behind-the-scenes effort led by the team at the Masters of the Foxhounds Association (MFHA) of North America.
Vital to the team is the director of operations, Bille-Jo Pearl, whose passion for all things fox hunt is palpable. She joined the organization in 2007, and 13 years later, she remains dedicated to the group’s mission of preserving the centuries-old tradition, educating the next generation, conserving the land at the heart of Hunt Country, and making all feel welcome.
Though a native of the northeast, Pearl’s introduction to horseback activities would take place in Australia. “My husband was in the Army, I was a defense contractor for many years, and my daughter started riding in Australia when we lived there. She was eight,” she says. “When we moved to the Millwood area, she continued riding. Of course, Millwood, and in this area, the horse world and the fox hunting world are combined.”
Billie-Jo Pearl in the library. Photo by Kaitlin Hill.
From that initial interest, Pearl would build a new career. “I joined Masters of the Foxhounds in 2007 and worked under Dennis Foster, our former executive director,” she says. “He taught me everything I know, and he really instilled in me the passion for what we do.”
Though Pearl and her family would move back overseas during her 13-year tenure with MFHA, she remained a dedicated helper. “We went back overseas for seven years … but I always helped remotely with studbook registrations and behind the scenes,” she says. “I wasn’t full-time until we came back in 2016.”
In 2019, the MFHA office moved from Millwood to Middleburg, just on the edge of the main strip in the Old Allen House. And even more recently, the organization named her director of operations.
For Pearl, the new title hasn’t noticeably changed the work she has mastered over the past 13 years. “Since I’ve worked for MFHA, I’ve always done the same and I’m still doing the same today,” she says.
While unchanged, her work is no small feat. She manages the day-to-day operations of the organization which includes nearly 6,000 members, 145 hunts in North America and Canada, and two foundations.
And at the heart of her work is the MFHA’s focus on preservation of the past, education in the present, and conservation for the future.
“Our mission is to promote, preserve, and protect the sport of mounted hunting with hounds, establish and maintain standards of conduct for fox hunting, and register eligible foxhounds and improve the breed of foxhounds,” she says. “Our role is to assist our members in any way and ensure that everyone is following our standards and guidelines.”
Part of preservation is education in the form of seminars and informational material. “The MFHA Foundation is really an educational foundation,” she says. “The Foundation provides books, CDs, tapes, and videos. We conduct seminars covering all the elements of the sport, including breeding, training, and hunting. [It also] funds and supports research that contributes to hound health and disease prevention.”
In light of COVID-19, Pearl’s seminars have transitioned to a virtual format or smaller scale. “We are holding all of our seminars via Zoom or holding them for hunt staff and for masters of the hounds,” she says. “We do have our normal schedule of educational activities, but not the public gathering. But, we’re happy to do it one-on-one. We just have to be careful to maintain social distancing.”
Masters of Foxhounds Association of North America. Photo by Joanne Maisano.
Though educational aspects of the MFHA’s work have been shifted or scaled down, the hunts have not. According to Pearl, they have even become more popular.
“There’s been a resurgence of interest and participation because it’s an outdoor activity,” she says. “Children are at home and families are looking for an activity they can do together. They are able to participate in fox hunting or visiting a member and seeing what we are all about. It’s really nice to see it, people getting back to nature and the outdoors.”
Getting back to nature is another main focus of Pearl’s work at the MFHA, especially as she looks to the future. “Within the next 10 years, I think we need to maintain our focus and continue working for land conservation and preserving open spaces,” she says. “We need to share our values of enjoying the outdoors and the benefits of being a good steward of our animals and our land. And show families that this is something they can be proud to be a part of because we are preserving the land for the younger generation.”
A final piece of Pearl’s role is the charitable work MFHA does through its Hunt Staff Benefit Foundation, which speaks to the organization’s focus on community.
“The Hunt Staff Benefit Foundation exists to assist professional hunt staff,” she says. “Hunt staff play a very important role in the welfare of mounted fox hunting. Their dedication to our lifestyle … has many intrinsic rewards, but few of them are financial. We give them financial help, maybe a monthly grant or help with medical bills … or other relief in old age, periods of disability, emergency, or any financial inadequacies that occur.”
Lobby. Photo by Joanne Maisano.
But for Pearl, that sense of community, unique to fox hunt participants and Middleburg’s small-town state of mind, is central to MFHA’s success. “I think there is something about the fox hunting community that is just so special,” she says. “We have a sense of community within ourselves. We share the same values, we are a very passionate community, and we have a very tight sense of comradery. And Middleburg is such a diverse town, but it still has the small-town mentality to be a good neighbor. It’s just comfortable and welcoming.”
For her part, Pearl certainly adds to the neighborly feel between fox hunt participants and, more broadly, within the town of Middleburg. She works hard, but always with a smile, and her love of her job and the community she serves is obvious.
“I feel like I have the best job in the world,” she says. “Our sense of community is something special. I hope people know that they can be a part of it too, because it’s such a nice feeling to be welcomed and know that you are part of something bigger. I want everyone to know that we would love to have them come visit, have coffee with us, share their stories. I would love to be able to tell our story and encourage them to participate and be a part of the organization. We want everybody to feel welcome to come any time.” ML
Published in the December 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.