In so many ways, the Aiken Hounds' Blessing of the Hounds and Opening Meet at Memorial Gate in Hitchcock Woods on Thanksgiving morning is indelibly Aiken.

The event is symbolic of the start of the holiday season and has been woven deeply into the fabric of a community that is steeped in history and tradition.

This year's event took on added significance as it was the 99th Aiken Hounds' Blessing of the Hounds and Opening Meet.

It was also an opportunity to recognize those members of the hunt who received their colors. The Aiken Hounds junior whipper-in Brooke Miller was among those receiving the distinction. Sara Barber, Beth Epling, Martha Guy, Christy Krauter, Karen Phillips, Bo Taylor, Karl McMillen and Randy Wolcott also were recognized.

The Rev. Father Grant Wiseman of St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church officiated and administered the Blessing of the Hounds. A total of 8˝ couple, or 17 Penn-Marydel Foxhounds, participated in the opening meet hunt.

A ceremony with a distinct historical flavor gave spectators an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful majesty of horses, see horsemen in traditional hunting attire and take part in a nearly century-old tradition.

This is the third year Maggie Johnston has come to Aiken to hunt from Middleburg, Va. Johnston initially came to Aiken for hunt week, and has participated in the Aiken Horse Show in the Woods.

“I thought it would be a memorable occasion to hunt on the 99th anniversary of the Aiken Hounds opening meet,” said Johnston, who hunted her 8-year-old Cleveland Bay, Idle Hour Savannah. “She's been hunting for the past three seasons.”

Johnston rode sidesaddle on Thursday, providing the audience with a chance to see an image evocative of another era.

“When she showed in the woods this past April, she was reserve champion in the sidesaddle division, and reserve champion in the pleasure division,” said Johnston. “We rode both aside.”

A bad hip served as the impetus for Johnston to start riding sidesaddle. Cleveland Bays are a critically endangered species, and Johnston thought it would be fitting to hunt the mare because of her heritage.

Yak, Cathy Chambers' KWPN Dutch Warmblood, had pink braids to match the rider's stock tie, earrings and lipstick color. The rider/horse combination went first flight.

“He does the little hunter shows and the jumpers,” said Chambers. “The crowds are really fun. I used to live in New Jersey. It's like going to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.”

Karen Phillips and her 17 hands, 6-year-old Hanoverian-Percheron cross Maximus went in the Hilltoppers.

“This is his second year hunting,” said Phillips. “He's very young and green.”