The horse and hound world lost one of its most passionate and dedicated enthusiasts last July when Shelley O’Higgins passed away at the age of 62 after an eventful life devoted to horses and hounds.
Shelley served as a professional huntsman for two decades and, in the early 1980s, added jump jockey for several racing seasons to her curriculum vitae. In 50 starts, Shelley earned all nine career wins with two great timber horses, Woodstock Nation and Amberson Place—the five firsts in 1980 harvested the Leading Lady Timber Rider title on the Virginia Point-to-Point circuit. One of the first huntsmen to teach juniors how to handle and show foxhounds and beagles, she was happiest when sharing her love for hounds and hunting with enthusiasts of all ages.
Competitive by nature and blessed with an indomitable will to win, Shelley faced life with a stubborn determination to throw heart and soul into achieving each goal she set. This played a vital role in August 2017 when she was diagnosed with a rare, very aggressive cancer that’s usually not diagnosed until autopsy. Shelley battled gamely, of course. Later, when doctors gave her two weeks to live, she declared herself gobsmacked. Showing her trademark tenacity, she had defied the odds for almost one year.
Shelley had a way with animals of all species. She was like the pied piper, encouraging new enthusiasts of every age, welcoming everyone who expressed any interest whatsoever, be they kids, parents and various adults. She was a wonderful mentor and teacher, inspiring young and old to chase their dreams.
It all began when Shelley’s family settled in northern Virginia after their father retired from the U.S. Navy. Her mother Jean O’Higgins grew up crazy about horses and encouraged her progeny — Shawna, Shelley, Steele, and Shannon — in their pursuit of equestrian glory. The parents bought land in Great Falls, Va. where they built paddocks and a barn. Before Shelley and her siblings knew it, they had ponies, naughty and quirky, whose shenanigans bareback and under saddle teach kids to ride anything, eventually graduating to horses. It was a classic education in old-fashioned horsemanship, especially for Shelley, who knew from early childhood she would devote her life to working with animals, specifically horses, and dogs. She was a fearless and beautiful rider, extremely articulate and intelligent. She loved what she did with a passion.
One of the most defining events of Shelley’s life resulted from her job as a young teen at a nearby petting zoo when she was entrusted to raise days-old lion cubs until they were six months old, hunting mice in the pasture and capering among the O’Higgins’ horses. Her knowledge about local fauna and flora as well as exotics turned walking hounds or beagles into fascinating nature talks.
When Shelley, 17, finished school, she backpacked through England, Wales and Ireland where she landed a job at a major hireling business that leased field hunters to visitors wanting to ride with County Limerick and the Stonewall Harriers. This resulted in another major event: meeting Warren Harrover, Master and Huntsman of Bull Run in Virginia, who happened to be on a sporting jaunt with Randy Rouse, MFH of Fairfax Hunt where Shelley hunted growing up.
After her return to Virginia, Shelley cited tenacity for getting the job as kennel huntsman with Bull Run. The hunt had moved its kennels to Haymarket, which in the 1970s was still country with open farmland, and Warren needed a kennel huntsman. Cleaning kennels are one job nobody ever fights to do. For Shelley, then 19, that job meant learning to whip-in to Warren. He became her mentor, teaching his eager but clueless protégée everything he could about hounds and hunting. To learn to whip in takes years, and learn she did.
One of Shelley’s favorite anecdotes was recounting how she didn’t know anything – she couldn’t identify each hound, recognize individual voices, or understand the hounds’ work in the field by their attitude — they could have been larking or hunting the wrong quarry. Her efforts quite often provoked Warren to blasphemy, especially in the early months when she thought her name was “Goddammit, honey!”
Warren’s unexpected demise in 1984 proved to be a devastating loss for Shelley, who worshipped him as a father figure and favorite “ars venatica” professor. Shelley hunted the pack of American Foxhounds bred by Warren for two years, serving 12 years altogether at Bull Run. Internal changes prompted her to move to Fox River Valley (Illinois) where she hunted hounds for five years, followed by two years as huntsman at Chagrin Valley (Ohio). When she returned to Virginia, she was considering veterinary school, having earned her B.S. in Biology while with Bull Run.
That’s when Eve Fout, Master of Beagles, asked Shelley to help exercise and bring along the young entry (puppies) at Middleburg-Orange County Beagles where children to learn to chase fox on horseback. Before long Shelley was huntsman of the “little hounds” and loving every minute with the MOC kids and adults. Walking hounds out to exercise on the Fout Farm often included Shelley’s fascinating nature talks. Best of all were glorious days of fast galloping ponies and horses to follow the MOC Beagles in full cry on the scent of a fox.
Eve passed in the middle of the 2007-08 season and, after an internal reorganization, Shelly retired from hunting and continued to be involved as much as possible by judging at the various shows for beagles. bassets and foxhounds as well as serving in whatever capacity was needed, including the ”morning after” crew at the Virginia Foxhound Show at Morven Park in Leesburg.
Many seasons ago, Shelley said, “Hunting’s always in my life.” She’s definitely in good company with passed huntsmen, masters and enthusiasts, enjoying a heavenly choir of hounds singing their Hallelujah chorus. She’s gone away, but like a good fox, not forgotten.
On April 6, everyone who knew Shelley is warmly welcomed to the celebration of her life on Huntsman’s Hill at the Old Dominion Point-to-point — near and dear to her heart, thanks to two wins over timber on the testing Ben Venue course. Please bring your hunting horns to blow “Gone Away” in Shelley’s honor.