WHEN Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason broke her ankle out hunting in November, she was lucky in one respect: she had an experienced huntsman to whom she could pass the horn. And that person, Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller, was someone who works with the hounds daily alongside her.
That mattered, because as we’ve seen, Lilla has put a lot of time and training into the hounds (Jerry has had an important role in that training too). Having someone who knows the hounds and the huntsman’s style is vital to ensure the hounds’ steadiness until Lilla returns.
“Unfortunately, I got hurt right after the opening day of the hunt season,” Lilla said. “I’ve spent months since the last hunt season–from April to October–training the hounds and getting the pack exactly where I want them: responsive, together, controlled by voice. I’ve done that in the training style that Jerry has devised over the years, which is a kind, humane, quiet style. The reason it’s such a relief to have Jerry hunting the hounds for me now is that I know he knows he is a substitute. He hunts the hounds in that quiet way, but he’s also going to be very careful not to take the hounds over as his own, because I’ll be back.
“The worst thing would be if someone were to come in and hunt them in a different way from the way I do and try to take the pack over. That would usurp all the work we’ve done, and when I came back, it would be much more difficult for me to finish the season in the manner which it began.”
For Jerry, the prospect of taking over the Iroquois pack was more complicated than just accepting the horn and blowing it. A pack of hounds doesn’t automatically respect a horn; they respect the person who has worked to forge a bond with them through training. In order to maintain the continuity of what is effectively Lilla’s team, Jerry is careful to leave as little of his own imprint on them as he can.
“As much as I like them and would like to have these hounds be mine, that’s like taking somebody’s racecar and driving it as a substitute in the next three or four races,” Jerry explained. ”The first thing you need to do is not to wreck it. That’s the worst thing you could do. You don’t want to tear the transmission up and don’t tear the motor up, either. Just take it around carefully, because you’re not really the driver of that car. You’ll take it out because people want to come out and see the race, but the idea is to race it fairly and competitively, but don’t do any damage to it.
“The thing about a pack of hounds, and the reason you like your huntsman and Masters to have longevity, is because you breed the hounds not only for your country, but also for the way the huntsman hunts hounds,” he continued. “You can read about this in all the literature, but you can ruin a pack of hounds in a week or two weeks. If someone else other than Lilla came in and tried to impose their own personality on those hounds through the way they discipline them or reinforce them, and especially if they try to push them around or bully them, these hounds react to that. Some hounds won’t come back because they’ve gotten upset, and they’ll just be unruly. And the longer they stay away, the more they learn bad habits.”
This hunt season, we’ve seen two strong examples of how important a hound considers the bond with its huntsman to be. When Strawberry first arrived this fall from England, her confusion at finding a completely new huntsman was clear. Since her birth, Strawberry had only ever known one huntsman–the Cottesmore’s Neil Coleman–and she was perplexed to find herself without her usual leader when she debuted under Lilla in November. Her first response was to head straight back to the hound trailer.
Similarly, when Jerry hunted the hounds for the first time after Lilla’s injury, he had to endure the pack’s initial skepticism about him, even though he knew them from training.
When he first blew the horn, the pack remained at the trailer, waiting for Lilla. Sure, that guy who walked with them in the summer had the horn now, but he wasn’t their huntsman. Their huntsman was Lilla. And they would just wait for her to show up, thanks. It took Jerry some minutes to get the pack away from the trailer.
Hunting history is riddled with similar accounts of hounds who, once “joined up” with their regular huntsman, will only have eyes for him (or her). Consider the case of whipper-in Jean MacLean in her first attempt to walk out the Clear Creek Beagles when huntsman Buck Wiseman was out of town:
When Buck was away and needed her to walk the hounds out, she discovered that the young hounds she’d helped raise from puppyhood merrily packed up with her when she opened the kennel gate for morning exercise. But the older hounds that had been there before she arrived were so skeptical that they would sit just outside the kennel and refuse to come along with her. They were, she realized, waiting for Buck. To them, she wasn’t the real deal, and no amount of biscuit-tossing could convince them to follow her.
Once the hounds finally moved off, Jerry still had his work cut out for him. One crucial element he had in his favor is his knowledge of the individual hounds and the philosophy under which they are trained.
“A hound doesn’t just react to a couple of toots on a horn,” he said. “You have to know every individual hound. If you were going to play the piano and I took every third key away, that’s going to make it harder for you to play. You have to know which hound is acting up, which hound you have to pick up, which one you have to set down.”
Hunting hounds without imposing his own hunting style on them has required restraint from Jerry.
“He’s hunted them slowly and very deliberately, waited for any hounds that are missing so that the pack doesn’t get too spread out,” said Lilla, who has been following the hunt in a car regularly while she’s recovering. “It might be more fun for riders if he went out and hunted them the way he would if he were always the huntsman, but he’s doing it this way so that the hounds will be better off when I come back.
“This helps me. If he had done things differently, it would have completely confused the hounds, because they’d have gotten used to a totally different style than mine, and I’d have to start over with them,” she added. “The ultimate honor you can do another human being is to do something for them that you know is not going to make you look your best. He knew he wasn’t going to look like a hotshot huntsman. He did it for the hound program.”
Mind you, it’s taken some restraint from Lilla, too. While Jerry is hunting the hounds, she minimizes her contact with the hounds and rarely even speaks, in case the familiar sound of their regular huntsman’s voice distracts them.
“The worst thing I could do while he’s hunting is come out and be too loud, because pretty soon they’re going to get around me and stop doing what he’s asking them to do,” she explained. “They have to be obedient to the person who has the horn.”
“She has the golden thread with her hounds,” Jerry acknowledges. “They know her personality, they know what she’s doing and when she’s upset. You can see it in them. When Lilla gets upset with a few of them, the others react to it, too. They just tighten up together and go on. But if someone new comes in and gets uptight with them, those hounds will just disappear. They’ll decide they want to stay away from that person.
“And if a new person comes in and tries to be their best friend and keep them right next to his horse, that can be just as bad, because instead of working, the hounds will just trot along next to his horse like they were on a trail ride. So there’s a fine line between discipline and reinforcement. I try to put them in, let them work the covert, then be on the other end to pick them up and go on to the next covert, without imposing on them.
“I have to maintain things. I have to make sure that everyone responds and that I don’t get three or four hounds that decide they’ll refuse to listen and go hunting on their own, that decide since Lilla’s not out they don’t have to listen to anybody.”
It’s a slower style of hunting, but it preserves the pack and their training in the near term while Lilla recovers.
For a glimpse of Lilla’s relationship with the hounds, see how they gaze at her in this video taken from the huntsman’s point of view on hound walk this summer:
There’s a code of honor among huntsmen that holds the relationship between huntsman and hounds, that golden thread, as sacred. Jerry ‘s restraint in hunting “her” hounds is honoring that tradition, Lilla said. She has reciprocated, too, by wearing a black hunt coat–rather than her red huntsman’s coat–when she returned to the hunt field for an hour (with her leg in a cast!) at her first hunt since the injury.
“What Jerry has done for me is the most honorable thing a retired huntsman can do for one who is active,” Lilla said. “He’s not out there for the sake of his own ego. He’s not trying to look like the best huntsman in the world, and he knows he’s not going to look like the best huntsman in the world doing it this way. But he knows they’re not his hounds now; I trained them. And that’s the way he looks at it: ‘I’m just the substitute.’
“One huntsman would never insert himself or do anything to possibly damage or interfere with another huntsman’s relationship with his own hounds,” she concluded. “Your relationship with your hounds is like a marriage, and you wouldn’t step in between a huntsman and his hounds any more than you would step between husband and wife.”
So how is Lilla’s recovery coming? Very well, she says. She’s started riding again, and she had that happy hour out with hounds just before Christmas.
“Since I got off crutches, it seems like every day there’s been immense improvement,” she said. “I’ve been riding, but I still have this inconvenient boot on my leg. I need to go see a welder and get a big stirrup made. I’m riding in a dressage saddle and in a controlled environment, and, with the weather we’ve had, nobody’s riding outside anyway. So I’m very encouraged.”
Copyright 2010 Glenye Cain Oakford, http://www.houndwelfare.wordpress.com